Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert; translated by Lydia Davis; published by Penguin Books, 2010
This has been on my to-read list for years, and I’m glad I’ve finally read it. I was extremely impressed.
Here’s what I knew about Madame Bovary, which I learned from Writers Gone Wild and the introduction to this book:
Gustave Flaubert was brought to trial because of this scandalous sentence: “The townspeople would stare wide-eyed in amazement at this thing so unheard of in the provinces, a carriage with drawn blinds that kept appearing and reappearing, sealed tighter than a tomb and tossed about like a ship at sea.” Apparently, this was shocking to the modest sensitivities of the French population in 1856.
But, in truth, it was more than that. Gustave Flaubert had written a novel about a woman who commits adultery and, although she certainly does not come to a happy end, Flaubert does not demonize her, either. He never outright says, “Emma Bovary was a bad woman.” He does not offer a contrasting woman of good moral behavior. The French government was concerned about this ambivalence.
As Lydia Davis writes in the introduction: “It depicted the lives of its characters objectively, without idealizing, without romanticizing, and without intent to instruct or to draw a moral lesson.” We’re used to this realist approach to fiction, now. Modern authors pride themselves on their ability to render a situation “as it is,” without declaring a moral judgment. But this is a recent convention in writing.
(On a side note: this “art for art’s sake” is a very popular view today. But I often wonder if that’s true or right. What is the purpose of art, of literature? Yes, I enjoy many books that don’t offer uplifting or inspiring lessons for life, but does that mean I should? As a Christian, is this a righteous view of literature? What will literature look like in the Kingdom of God?)
Anyway, I enjoyed Madame Bovary. At the beginning of the book, I sympathized with Emma. She is a country girl who dreams of love and falls for the first man who offers her a chance out of her boring life. Unfortunately, her situation doesn’t get any better. Her husband turns out to be a lifeless, uncurious sap. She reads all of the Romantic books of the last century and is captivated by the fantasies they offer. She goes through phases of trying to find meaning in life through religion, men, and material goods. I thought she was silly and immature, but I didn’t dislike her. I think too many women are victims of the same way of thinking; they are fed by movies and books that teach them to dream of unrealistic men and unattainable lives. Including me.
By the end of the book, however, I disliked her. She didn’t appreciate her daughter, she betrayed her husband, she spent all of his money and ran them into debt, she offered to prostitute herself to get them out of debt, she lied continuously, and she finally committed suicide. She was absolutely pathetic. She was oblivious to her own faults and persistent in demanding that her dreams be realized. She had no capacity for sacrifice.
I grew frustrated reading this book, and I kept waiting for the moment of redemption. Surely, in the throes of arsenic poisoning, she would repent and confess to Charles! She must feel bad eventually! The priest arrives to see her on her deathbed and I think, “Oh good. Here it comes. She’s going to admit everything and die peacefully.”
It doesn’t happen. She dies in terror. She hears the Blind Man of the town singing a song about a woman whose petticoat is blown away by the wind—the woman is literally exposed. Emma’s fear is that her own awful deeds will be exposed, and she dies in a spasm of fear. No redemption.
I almost couldn’t believe it when I finished. Books aren’t supposed to end that way!
But, of course, I applaud Gustave Flaubert for delivering what I did not expect, for accomplishing his intent to give the world a woman who is hopelessly real. We all want to think the best of people; we hope for them to change, we anticipate redemption. But sometimes it doesn’t happen. How do you deal with hardened hearts, like Pharaoh’s?
I think Emma encapsulates the dissatisfaction of so many people today:
“She needed to derive from things a sort of personal gain; and she rejected as useless everything that did not contribute to the immediate gratification of her heart,—being by temperament more sentimental than artistic, in search of emotions and not landscapes.”
Emma constantly lived in the future:
“Deep in her soul, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like a sailor in distress, she would gaze out over the solitude of her life with desperate eyes, seeking some white sail in the mists of the far-off horizon… But each morning, when she awoke, she hoped it would arrive that day, and she would listen to every sound, spring to her feet, feel surprised that it did not come; then, at sunset, always more sorrowful, she would wish the next day were already there.”
As much as Gustave Flaubert tried to avoid moralizing, there’s a sermon in there somewhere. I’ll let you figure it out.
One of the things I loved most—the only thing that continuously gave me joy reading this book—was the writing itself. Flaubert was a master of metaphor and simile, and Lydia Davis rendered these moments beautifully. They sound almost cliché to us, but Flaubert uses their over-sentimentality to emphasize just how oblivious Charles was to his wife’s faults, and how lost Emma was in her own delusion. Just look at these brilliant lines:
“Charles’s conversation was as flat as a sidewalk.”
“The less Charles understood these refinements, the more captivating he found them. They added something to the pleasure of his senses and to the sweetness of his home. They were like gold dust sprinkled all along the little path of his life.”
“How happy those days had been! How free! How full of hope! How rich in allusions! There were none left now. She had spent them in all the different adventures of her soul, in all those successive stages she had gone through, in her virginity, her marriage, and her love;—losing them continuously as her life went on, like a traveler who leaves some part of his wealth at every inn along his road.”
There is so much to this book, and I’ll definitely be reading it again sometime. Just skimming through it, I’m already seeing more insightful, profound lines. I love literature for these gems of wisdom.