Read With Me: Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary is one of those books that has an atmosphere about it: even if you haven't read it, odds are you've heard of it and have some vague notion of it in your mind, likely containing a sense of something grand and forbidden. Or, so was my sense of Madame Bovary when I picked it up this month for Nadia's Read With Me: La Porte Rouge Book Club.

The story, of course, follows the life of Emma Bovary, a young provincial girl who marries the Doctor Charles Bovary, only to find that she doesn't actually love him-- and so begins Emma's search through life for Romance. When talking about Emma it seems appropriate to capitalize that "r"- romance is something in the realm of the factual, of possibility, but Romance is something entirely different, something grand and lofty, belonging firmly in the shady realm of the ideal. For Emma, it is all very much a matter of Romance, as she seeks everywhere for the extraordinary and the sublime, for the life that can, in reality, only exist on the page. And really, that seems to be exactly where Emma has pulled her idea of life from, from the only realm of experience really offered to her, from the novels of Sir Walter Scott and other writers, as well as from the tragic histories of women such as Joan of Arc, Mary Stuart, and Marie Antoinette. Armed with such limited and inaccurate means of experience, and also deprived by her sex and time of any real outlet for her emotions, Emma's mind brews a twisted sense of reality that no real life scenario can compete with and which, ultimately, leads to her ruin, ironically, not far from the story's fictional town of Rouen.

Part of me really did sympathize with Emma, as who hasn't dreamed of having a life full of the stuff from novels? This part of me even understood her struggle to come to terms with the difference between the reality of love in life and the glorious star-crossed lovers mythos; I think that her feelings of disillusionment in her life with Charles are not all that uncommon, that struggle to give up the ideal of love and find comfort and beauty in the reality of it. This same part of me sympathized, as I think most inevitably would, with Emma's desires for excitement and wealth, for a beautiful home, a fashionable wardrobe, and the glories of the city with it's vast cultural diversions and opportunities. All of these sympathies are part of what makes Emma an attractive character in the beginning, and in some ways, they are what make her story tragic rather than just a cautionary tale (even though part of me cannot shake the sense that, despite all of it's realism, Madame Bovary is a cautionary tale).

Of course, as the story progressed, I found myself arching my eyebrows at Emma and watching her disintegration with a mingled sense of pity and frustration. I found myself worrying for Emma when she fell for Rodolphe, yet wondering how she could fall for his pretenses; when she stumbled into debt I found that I hated that damnable shopkeeper for the way that he exploited her ignorance on the subject, making it seem as if there was no end to the supply and then demanding it back-- and yet I also admit that the modern girl in me was wondering how Emma could be so ignorant as to fall for it (but then I remember that she wouldn't have been taught a fraction of the things that most women know about money now). Then, there is the last sordid bit with Leon which intensified all of my irritations with Emma and made me dislike her in a way that her earlier affair and financial troubles didn't. For somehow, with Leon, Emma manages to let go of reality completely and sink into a total fabrication of herself and her life-- and the further she slipped into it, the less empathy I had for her. By the end of the affair with Leon, Emma is no longer quite Emma, she's Madame Bovary, the stuff of novels, and her death is somehow the tragic meeting of Emma and Madame Bovary, in which both inevitably perish.

I wrote that I couldn't help but feel that Madame Bovary is still a cautionary tale, even though I don't think Flaubert would want me to feel this way. Indeed, I imagine that he would like me to feel an outpouring of sympathy for Emma, that he would want me to acknowledge that she is the victim of her time, something akin to a butterfly caught in a thunderstorm-- and some part of me does see this, and does feel it for her. Yet, for all of that, the fiber of me mingles with my upbringing and this age of ours sinks into my perception of it and I can't help but feel that Emma is a victim of her own choices and her own refusal to be happy. Continually in the novel Emma seeks happiness in other people, in objects, in places, but never really within herself. Emma tries to love Charles when the idea of doing so, and thereby resisting the earlier advances of Leon, makes it seem Romantic and virtuous, but never does she really try for the sake of her own happiness. When Berthe comes she seeks no solace in the child, discovers no sense of selflessness in her love for her. Then with the money she cannot learn to be content with what she does possess but must continually covet and borrow for more (even though her understanding of credit is pretty much nonexistent). I suppose what I struggle with is that it is painfully obvious in the novel how much Charles loves Emma and what lengths he will go to in order to make her happy and be loved by her-- in many ways, I feel that Emma has the hero she seeks right in front of her with Charles, only she fails to see it. Thus, for me, Emma becomes a cautionary tale in the dangers of letting Romance go to far, in failing to accept the realities of life, and more importantly, in failing completely to look at what she does have.

Yet, even as I write that, I can't help but feel that old twinge of sympathy for Emma as I find myself thinking, "but how does one tell where dreaming must end and reality must be submitted to?" After all, isn't there a certain amount of dreaming that is good, indeed even beneficial? So then I find myself feeling for her all over again in this twisted cycle of logic within my head about her and her adventures-- although escapades is probably a far more apt descriptor for Madame Bovary.

It is easy with this book to go on forever, debating the points of the novel, questioning and dissecting Emma, looking at Charles and probing his behavior after her death, and yet, at some point, one must stop- for the sake of the page and of the poor readers one besets with such ramblings. However, I find that I must ask one last question first- was anybody else shocked and angry at what became of Berthe, all because her parents couldn't accept reality? Or did you feel differently about it?


Anonymous said...

I was heartbroken for Berthe! Even now as I look back at reading Madame Bovary, that's what strikes me the most. It frustrates me to no end to think that Charles couldn't find enough in her to live for. Bah!

Mary said...

I know! I'm the same way- she was hardly in the book and yet I got so attached to her- when Flaubert announced her fate at the end I was so stunned that I just closed the book and sat there. :)