Saturday, April 7, 2012

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

A French housewife seeks happiness in all the wrong places

Madame Bovary is the story of Emma Bovary, a French housewife, deeply dissatisfied with her life.  She perceives the root of her unhappiness to be her stolid mildly incompetent husband, Charles. He spoils her, turns the household and his life upside down to bring her happiness, to no avail. Emma Bovary seeks a transformational passion, finding it briefly in the arms of two successive lovers. Later, her deceptions grow bolder.  Eventually she financially and emotionally ruins her loving husband. As the hour of reckoning nears, she kills herself.

This book was hard to read at times because the story is such a downer, but the writing was tremendous. The tawdry or sickening plot is propelled by a number of exquisite set pieces, using detailed language to evoke all the senses. Bovary's visit to the farm, the wedding procession, the party at the nobleman's house, Emma running through the fields to Rodolphe’s house, the endless taxi ride with Leon. And finally, the incredibly written death scene. The end is spectacular, like the end of Moby Dick.  The reader is fascinated, unable to put down the book.  Majestic. Each one of the extremely memorable scenes felt like it was cut with a diamond. The details were perhaps just as important as the passion propelling the story. It’s all about the sadness and the futility of life and the beauty of the sadness and the futility of life.

It's just that Emma Bovary is silly. She longs for vulgar things and thinks they will make her happy and seems stupidly surprised when they don’t. In the end, she destroys her life, which is fine with me, but she also destroys the lives of her husband and daughter, as well. Hands down, Emma Bovary has to be one of the worst mothers in literature.  And yet, I kept thinking, Emma Bovary and I have lots in common. Lots. It’s human nature to be dissatisfied.

Also, it’s not like she gleefully leaps into the abyss. She tries to be good, obviously suffers from incapacitating depressions, and in addition to the admiration of men, attempts to seek solace from the all too practical Church. And does her problem stem from reading too many novels? Perhaps. Perhaps it stems from the leisure time to read so many novels. I don’t think Emma Bovary was hurt by cultural female subjugation as much as she was hurt by the lack of consumer financial protection. The money lender, Lheureux, is the engine of the plot and one of the villains. She is taken advantage of by the handsome rogue and by the money lender, unscrupulous people. The scrupulous people she despises.

The actual reading of the book was sort of a chore – was it because it was a translation? Also, I need chuckles and I need uplift and this had chuckles (although rather tedious nineteenth century chuckles) but it completely lacked up uplift. What does it mean that in the last sentence the mendacious pharmacist gets the Legion of Honor? I read that, and I thought, Flaubert must have hated France.

This was the eighth novel in my project, Re-reading the Classics. So far, a worthwhile endeavor.

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