Wednesday, June 1, 2011
"Madame Bovary" by Gustave Flaubert
Setting: Provincial town in Northern France 1827-1846
Emma Bovary, the protagonist, is a hopeless romantic. As a young girl of fifteen, she "made her hands dirty with books from old lending libraries." She drank her fill of novels that "were all love, lovers, sweethearts, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely pavilions, postilions killed at every stage, horses ridden to death on every page, sombre forests, heartaches, vows, sobs, tears and kisses, little skiffs by moonlight, nightingales in shady groves, 'gentlemen' brave as lions, gentle as lambs, virtuous as no one ever was, always well dressed, and weeping like fountains."
Emma cannot be faulted for loving books and losing herself in a good story. However she did not understand that when the last word is read and the book is closed, the story is over. Life is not a novel. Love is not like in novels. Men are not like heroes in novels. Fiction is not reality.
Unfortunately, Emma did not have any women in her life; ones that she could confide her confusing thoughts to and receive perspective. Her mother died when she was a girl leaving her in the care of a father who catered to her every whim. Thus, she never learned to keep her mind and emotions in check. She grows into a beautiful young woman who marries a non-romantic, country doctor that has no chance of understanding his new bride.
For a while, "in accord with theories she believed right, she wanted to make herself in love with him. By moonlight in the garden she recited all the passionate rhymes she knew by heart, and, sighing, sang to him many melancholy adagios; but she found herself as calm after this as before, and Charles seemed no more amorous and no more moved. When she had thus for a while struck the flint on her heart without getting a spark...she persuaded herself without difficult that Charles' passion was nothing very exorbitant."
The marriage was doomed. The reality of her life was simple, plain and provincial. What she wanted however, was love, passion, beauty and wealth. The dichotomy of these two worlds in Emma's mind drives her to a kind of madness. She can't see beyond the superficial. She cannot love her healthy baby daughter. She lives with such unrealistic expectations, and is therefore always disappointed.
She becomes ripe picking for the conniving womanizer, Rodolphe Boulanger, who successfully seduces her. So she becomes an adulteress in pursuit of what she feels is "owed" to her. Her sense of entitlement is amazing. This is why I say it is almost a madness. She has broken from reality and will do whatever it takes to live her fantasy. The first affair ends badly, causing Emma to have a breakdown. She slowly recovers to then fall into the arms of a lawyer, Leon Dupuis, whom she knew previously. He had always been infatuated with her and the second affair begins.
Emma's moral decay continues at a fast pace. She goes into debt in order to finance her secret life with Leon, and ends up owing money she cannot possibly pay back. By this time, Leon has tired of her and neither he or Rodolphe will save her from bankruptcy. When she has exhausted all her options, she swallows arsenic and dies a slow, painful death.
The only one who truly loved her, which she could not see, was Charles. After her death, he became a romantic, ordering her to be buried in her wedding gown. And later, "to please her, as if she were still living, he adopted her predilections, her ideas; he bought patent leather boots and took to wearing white cravats. He put cosmetics on his moustache, and, like her, signed notes of hand. She corrupted him from beyond the grave."
Reading the book was like waiting for a train wreck. One could see it coming. But I had no sympathy for Emma. She was responsible for her actions. And even in death, there was no humility, no sorrow, no repentance. She died as she lived - a cold, heartless, selfish woman who could've been happy, had she just opened her eyes and heart to those who truly loved her.
I did not find any enlightenment in the famous suicide scene. To me, it was just "par for the course". Of course she would take her life, when rejected by her two lovers, leaving Charles to clean up the mess. An utterly selfish act.
Flaubert's prose is flawless. I would have rated this book a 4 or 5 had he written about a more likeable character.