Conventional Bourgeois

Unless it simply means townsman, as it often does in French, the term bourgeois as used by Flaubert means “philistine,” people preoccupied with the material side of life and believing only in conventional values. He never uses the word bourgeois with any politico-economic Marxist connotation. Flaubert’s bourgeois is a state of mind, not a state of pocket. In a famous scene of our book when a hardworking old woman, getting a medal for having slaved for her farmer-boss, is confronted with a committee of relaxed bourgeois beaming at her—mind you, in that scene both parties are philistines, the beaming politicians and the superstitious old peasant woman—both sides are bourgeois in Flaubert’s sense. I shall clear up the term completely if I say that, for instance, today in communist Russia, Soviet literature, Soviet art, Soviet music, Soviet aspirations are fundamentally and smugly bourgeois. It is the lace curtain behind the iron one. A Soviet official, small or big, is the perfect type of bourgeois mind, of a philistine. Let me add for double clarity that Marx would have called Flaubert a bourgeois in the politico-economic sense and Flaubert would have called Marx a bourgeois in the spiritual sense; and both would have been right, since Flaubert was a well-to-do gentleman in physical life and Marx was a philistine in his attitude towards the arts.

- Vladimir Nabokov (lecture on Madame Bovary at Wellesley College 1948)