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Archive for the ‘Gustave Flaubert’ Category

Originally published in three parts in April, 2014

Title: Madame Bovary
Author: Gustave Flaubert
Published in 1856

Summary from Goodreads: Emma Bovary is beautiful and bored, trapped in her marriage to a mediocre doctor and stifled by the banality of provincial life. An ardent devourer of sentimental novels, she longs for passion and seeks escape in fantasies of high romance, in voracious spending and, eventually, in adultery. But even her affairs bring her disappointment, and when real life continues to fail to live up to her romantic expectations, the consequences are devastating. Flaubert’s erotically charged and psychologically acute portrayal of Emma Bovary caused a moral outcry on its publication in 1857. It was deemed so lifelike that many women claimed they were the model for his heroine; but Flaubert insisted: ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi.’

This is a very long post, because it is consolidated from three posts that I did while reading the book for a blog event.

Part I:

Flaubert is taking his time with the unfolding of the story. The initial chapters focus on Charles Bovary. We are introduced to him as he enters a new schoolroom, and learn that he is a stolid, uninspired student. He becomes a provincial doctor, and marries an older, wealthy widow in a marriage that is arranged by his mother.

When Emma Bovary enters into the story, Charles is smitten. She is the pretty, engaging and well-dressed daughter of a patient. Once M. Bovary’s wife dies, he begins to court Emma, and eventually marries her.

Flaubert is considered a “realistic” writer, and his descriptions of French provincial life are carefully constructed and include details that contribute to their realism. Some of my favorite quotes from this section relate to the customs of the French peasantry:

At night when they left, the horses, stuffed up to the nostrils with oats, could hardly be got into the shafts; they kicked, reared, the harness broke, their masters laughed or swore; and all night in the light of the moon along country roads there were runaway carts at full gallop plunging into the ditches, jumping over yard after yard of stones, clambering up the hills, with women leaning out from the tilt to catch hold of the reins.

It is clear from the beginning that the marriage between Charles and Emma is not likely to be wildly successful. Emma is a romantic, and she wants a life of luxury and beauty. Her life is one of – not hardship, certainly, but of frugality and economy. Because Charles is unable to satisfy her material wants, not to mention her emotional wants, she becomes more and more detached from him.

She wanted to get some personal profit out of things, and she rejected as useless all that did not contribute to the immediate desires of her heart, being of a temperament more sentimental than artistic, looking for emotions, not landscapes.

Once the Bovary’s are invited to a ball, Emma’s disillusionment is complete. She has tasted the life that she wants, and it is beyond her reach. Her husband cannot provide it to her:

Iced champagne was served. Emma shivered all over as she felt it cold in her mouth. She had never seen pomegranates nor tasted pineapples. The powdered sugar even seemed to her whiter and finer than elsewhere.

She becomes ill, dull and listless in her dissatisfaction. Book I ends with Charles and Emma departing Tostes, their home, so that Charles can take up a new position somewhere else. Emma is pregnant.

It is easy to feel sympathy for Charles. He is not a deep thinker, and he is infatuated with his wife. He thinks he is doing the right thing by Emma because his imagination simply cannot stretch to desires beyond what he provides: security, steady income, moderate affluence, an escape from a farm, and consistent meals. He is in over his head, and he can’t even begin to realize all that is going on in the interior life of his wife.

Emma, on the other hand, is not a sympathetic character. Shallow, frivolous, and silly, there is a meanness to her. But, at the same time, it is so easy to see how limited her options were. She is a pretty woman in a world that calculates her worth based on her prettiness and breeding. She is good enough to marry Charles Bovary, but her sights are set much higher. And she simply doesn’t have the breeding or the beauty to attract the suitor that she wants. How frustrating would that be? No ability for her to achieve anything in her own right, she must just wait around for the right man to take notice of her. She has control over almost nothing. So, although she is not sympathetic, I find myself understanding, and even empathizing with her.

Part II

In Book Two of Madame Bovary, Flaubert is the architect of Emma’s ultimate downfall. She meets the characters who alter her life in ways that she cannot foresee – Homais, Lheureux, and Leon Dupuis. At the beginning of Book Two she is hopeful that her life will improve, and will be more satisfying. She develops an unfortunate habit of buying things that she wants, but cannot afford. Emma is a strongly sensual character, attracted to beautiful things.

Then Monsieur Lheureux delicately exhibited three Algerian scarves, several packets of English needles, a pair of straw slippers, and finally, four eggcups in cocoanut wood, carved in open work by convicts. Then, with both hands on the table, his neck stretched out, his figure bent forward, open-mouthed, he watched Emma’s look, who was walking up and down undecided amid these goods. From time to time, as if to remove some dust, he filliped with his nail the silk of the scarves spread out at full length, and they rustled with a little noise, making in the green twilight the gold spangles of their tissue scintillate like little stars.

She also meets and falls in love with Leon, although their relationship remains platonic at this point in the book. If Emma Bovary had a soulmate, it was Leon Dupuis.

She is shallow, but in some ways she is grasping desperately for depth.

“She wanted to learn Italian; she bought dictionaries, a grammar, and a supply of white paper. She tried serious reading, history, and philosophy. Sometimes in the night Charles woke up with a start, thinking he was being called to a patient. “I’m coming,” he stammered; and it was the noise of a match Emma had struck to relight the lamp. But her reading fared like her piece of embroidery, all of which, only just begun, filled her cupboard; she took it up, left it, passed on to other books.”

She wants more, always more, than the stolid and uninspired life with her stolid and uninspired husband. She is looking for beauty, for passion, for joy, and for love. Emma is a great emptiness, seeking to be filled. Ultimately, she finds this passion in an illicit relationship with the womanizing, rakish Rodolphe. It is painful to watch him play her like a fish on a line – Flaubert even uses the analogy to describe her: “Poor little woman! She is gaping after love like a carp after water on a kitchen table. With three words of gallantry she’d adore one, I’m sure of it. She’d be tender, charming. Yes; but how to get rid of her afterwards?”

Emma is one extreme or the other in this section of the book. Some readers have speculated that Flaubert may have envisioned her as what we would, in modern parlance, call bi-polar. She goes from an excess of passion for Rodolphe:

She repeated, “I have a lover! a lover!” delighting at the idea as if a second puberty had come to her. So at last she was to know those joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired! She was entering upon marvels where all would be passion, ecstasy, delirium. An azure infinity encompassed her, the heights of sentiment sparkled under her thought, and ordinary existence appeared only afar off, down below in the shade, through the interspaces of these heights.”

“Then she recalled the heroines of the books that she had read, and the lyric legion of these adulterous women began to sing in her memory with the voice of sisters that charmed her.”

And then, when he inevitably leaves her (as Flaubert made sure that we, the reader, understood that he would), she goes into the depths of despair. As she did at the end of Book 1, being deprived of her lover causes Emma to utterly collapse.

It is really easy to develop a dislike of Emma Bovary. It is impossible to respect her, she is such a flighty fool, so easily distracted with the “ooh shiny” pretty bauble or calculated compliment. But, at the same time, it is possible to sympathize with her. She has been poorly educated and raised to be nothing more than a pretty ornament on the arm of a bourgeoise husband. She has been given desires well beyond her station, and no resources to either fulfill them or discover their emptiness on her own.

I see parallels between Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and The House of Mirth. The desperate beautiful woman is a staple of classic fiction.

Part III

Henry James wrote: “Madame Bovary has a perfection that not only stamps it, but that makes it stand almost alone; it holds itself with such a supreme unapproachable assurance as both excites and defies judgment.” (James, Henry (1914). Notes on Novelists. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. p. 80.)

I would not go so far as to call it perfection. But it is very, very good from a technical perspective, although it seems to lack soul. Or heart.

Part 3 begins with Emma and Leon meeting one another at the Rouen Cathedral. They re-encountered one another at a play, and made plans to meet. Emma wrote Leon a letter, explaining that she could not become his mistress, but when she is unable to have it delivered to him, she takes it to the cathedral to give it to him herself.

Then, seeing her again after three years of absence his passion reawakened. He must, he thought, at last make up his mind to possess her.

Whether her intentions are pure or not, it all goes awry, and one of the great and lasting parts of the book occurs when Emma and Leon take a coach which they use to drive around and around town, endlessly, obviously committing adultery in the back. This is probably the strongest image within the book – we see it from the perspective of the coachman, who states:

He could not understand what furious desire for locomotion urged these individuals never to wish to stop. He tried to now and then, and at once exclamations of anger burst forth behind him. Then he lashed his perspiring jades afresh, but indifferent to their jolting, running up against things here and there, not caring if he did, demoralized, and almost weeping with thirst, fatigue, and depression.

And then Flaubert tells us:

Once in the middle of the day, in the open country, just as the sun beat most fiercely against the old plated lanterns, a bared hand passed beneath the small blinds of yellow canvas, and threw out some scraps of paper that scattered in the wind, and farther off lighted like white butterflies on a field of red clover all in bloom.

In the beginning of the affair, Emma is again full of joy and life and the emptiness is, temporarily, filled by the passion that Leon stirs within her. But, of course, it cannot last, and Emma begins, again, foolishly, to turn to debt and shopping in an effort to fill herself. She desires to cut off the affair with Leon, as he has become as familiar to her as her own husband. In one of my favorite quotes, Flaubert tells us that

They knew one another too well for any of those surprises of possession that increase its joys a hundred-fold. She was as sick of him as he was weary of her. Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.

Isn’t that wonderful – “the platitudes of marriage.” This section of the book is so frustrating, because I just wanted to shake Emma until her teeth rattled, telling her that she was a silly woman, that she was squandering everything. As she becomes more desperate about the failure of the affair, she becomes more profligate, less able to resist temptation. She is morally and financially bankrupt, soulless and demanding, seeking to be filled up externally rather than finding a way to fill herself.

There is, of course, no happy ending for Emma Bovary. Like Anna Karenina and Lily Bart, both of whom came after Emma, the prevailing society demands the proper punishment for a woman who dares to demand more than she afford in both life and love. In a deeply desperate, and absurdly romantic, fit, she commits suicide. But even that is bungled – rather than fading off in an appealingly girlish and pathetic fashion, she dies in terrible pain, in fits and gushes and grossness. Flaubert pulls not a single punch with Emma’s demise, we hear of it in all of its terrible glorious drama.

And there is no happy ending for anyone else, either. By the end of the book, the sins of the mother are visited upon poor Berthe, who loses everyone and everything, and ends up a factory worker, in a cotton mill.

So, what was Flaubert’s point? Was he telling the bourgeoise to want less, to not even try to ape their “betters?” That the realistic pessimism and emotional privation of their lives was all there was ever going to be? Or was he strangely sympathetic to his creation. He is quoted as having said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” What does this even mean? Does it mean, as some readers have speculated, that Flaubert is referring to using his own adulterous affair with a poet as the basis for Emma Bovary’s relationships? Or is it deeper than that, describing a self-loathing of his own bourgeoise roots as the son of a surgeon, with his own pessimistic tendencies and his own desire to be more.

Ultimately, for me, Emma Bovary falls far short of Lily Bart from The House of Mirth (by Edith Wharton), but ends up on par with Tolstoy’s remarkably self-indulgent Anna Karenina.

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