Thursday, January 13, 2011

Madame Bovary

I came to Madame Bovary late. For years I made attempts to read it — three times I tried and failed to get past the halfway mark. I see now that I went into the novel with preconceptions and expectations that were not supported by the words on its pages. Madame Bovary is not like Anna Karenina, in which the main character evokes sympathy. Emma Bovary is not sympathetic; she’s a reprehensible person. She can be pitied only for her suffering — because she does suffer. But she doesn’t suffer as a blameless victim. Rodolphe abandons her, but she picked a man who would do just that. For all his dashing exterior qualities, ones that coincide with her illusions of the perfect lover, he’s an uncaring brute; she doesn’t perceive his true nature because she sees only what she wants to see. Nor does she love Leon, the inexperienced young man she has her second affair with; after her initial rush of excitement has abated she treats him with contempt.
            A strong strain of cynicism runs through the novel. Emma not only becomes jaded about love, but about life: “nothing was worth the trouble of seeking it; everything was a lie.” A search for something of value in the world of Emma Bovary yields only the fleeting intoxication of illicit sex. We search for a character who is good, and Charles, her husband, stands out (Emma tells him, on her deathbed, “you are good,” though this is merely a cold statement of fact, devoid of affection). But again, in Charles we’re presented with someone who cannot perceive the true nature of another person. He loves Emma but is blind to her real emotional life. He too loves a myth. Still, he is kind-hearted and gentle. But such a bore, so mediocre! And a dupe, easy to deceive. Emma soon comes to loath him. He snores as she smoulders.
Emma Bovary smoulders. At not attaining her dreams of glamour and romance — grandiose dreams found in novels and brought to glimmering life at the Viscount’s ball. But the Viscount only existed for one dance, and novels lie. Flaubert set out to write a novel that doesn’t lie. Is he critical of the constricted lives people lead in provincial French towns? Is he withering in his portrayal of its inhabitants, many of whom are ignorant, selfish and, in one notable case, truly evil? Yes, but that’s not the point. For Flaubert — who’s as cynical as he makes Emma — life is this way, people are this way. That fact doesn’t justify or excuse Emma’s actions. She can make choices, and why are so many crucial ones wrong and hurtful? Would she have found happiness if she lived in Paris? In Sentimental Education Flaubert writes about upperclass Parisians, and it’s a novel of disillusionment. Would she have been happy if she had married another man? Considering her restless, volatile nature, I doubt it. In this novel who or what does she enduringly love? I can come up with nobody, nothing. If she had been born in the present day, with her intelligence and beauty, exciting possibilities would have been open to her; but having a plethora of options doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness. The choices one makes must be guided by wisdom. In what instance does Emma act wisely?
Emma Bovary also smoulders with anger. She hates the things and the people around her. She even hates Berthe, her daughter. She has to repress her anger, because it’s dangerous. If she expressed it she would be considered insane. So she has fainting spells, palpitations, physical maladies of all sorts. These are considered common in a woman of her sensitive nature, so are accepted and indulged by her husband. But what is being treated with smelling salts are merely symptoms covering the real sickness: her overwhelming dissatisfaction with life as it is. For her it’s a dreary procession of empty days; the affairs that enliven it turn wearying in their falsity. Near the end of her liaison with Leon she feels that “She would have liked not to be alive, or to be always asleep.” Life has led Emma to a dead end. One of her final crimes is to make Justin — just a boy, one who adores her — complicit in her suicide, for he is the chemist’s assistant and so has the key to the room where a jar of arsenic is kept; before his despairing eyes she eats a handful of the white powder.
            What factors caused Emma Bovary to become the person she is? Romantic novels, which inflamed her youthful imagination, cannot be blamed for forming her character. Girls today ardently follow the glamorous lives of movie stars and singers, and novels in the romance genre are consumed like bonbons by women of a certain age. But people put aside the fantasy world and accept the real one. That Emma holds on to illusions, even when she recognizes them as false, is a symptom of mental illness. We learn, in a quick summary, that as a child and a young girl she was treated well by her parents. She was educated in a convent and for a while was a devout student; but religion lost its allure, and the discipline imposed on her was “antipathetic to her constitution.” The nuns were not sorry to see her leave. During her stay at the convent her mother died; first she cried, then romanticized the death (imagining the songs of dying swans, etc.), then soon reached the state where she had “no more sadness at heart than wrinkles on her brow.” When she returns to the home of her father she becomes disgusted with the isolation and boredom of country life, but she gives the appearance of being calm and passive. She slips into her marriage to Charles with the same passivity, though he’s clearly not a man who would please her. He doesn’t try to disguise his dull and plodding nature. How could she have not foreseen the disappointment that quickly sets in? And so the tragedy unfolds. Flaubert does not convincingly show us how Emma’s character was formed. What is portrayed strongly is the person she becomes, in all its perversity.
We do have insight into Charles and what shaped him. But he’s a simple man; in Emma there’s a complex tumult. Perhaps Flaubert was saying that there are people like her (he being one) who are at odds with the world, and they are restless, tormented souls. He crushes her at the end with one hammer blow after another. Is she innocent in the financial disaster that grips her like a vise, a disaster which will also pull her husband and child down? No, she is to blame for every franc of debt. But there is a bit of nobility in her final struggle (she refuses to prostitute herself for money); and, when everyone she turns to, including her two ex-lovers, fail her, there’s an imperious resoluteness in her seeking of death. She devours death like she once wished to devour life’s pleasures.
           When Emma is gone, Flaubert deprives Charles of his cherished illusions about her when he finds love letters from Rodolphe and Leon. After her father’s death Berthe is sent to work in a cotton factory. Flaubert’s destructiveness is extreme — it’s as if he were reveling in his power to expose the world as he knew it to be: brutish and cruel. In doing so he is brutish and cruel. In his short story, “A Simple Heart,” the servant Felicite accepts things as they are and finds purpose and contentment in religion and a life filled with daily tasks. Flaubert was not a simple man; nor is Emma. He wrote, famously, Madame Bovary, cest moi. Could Emma embody all the pernicious and corrupt qualities he perceived in himself? And could his destruction of her be directed, masochistically, upon himself? The novel gives off no moral light. Instead, using the ordinary light of Yonville, Flaubert takes a magnifying lens and concentrates his unyielding gaze on the dry leaves of one life. A restless glow begins to smoulder, flaring up occasionally in a passing gust, but before long all is consumed. Only ashes remain.

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