Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary
Gustave Flaubert, tr.Hopkins
Oxford, 1999.

I can’t be fair to Emma. For me, reading the book was unbearable, like watching the slow-motion crash of an airliner I had almost boarded. I suppose I should give Flaubert credit for having written a powerful book.

Emma is the misogynist’s idea of Woman: emotional, incapable of rationality, but exciting. From a Social Darwinist point of view, she was the natural prey of the seducer Rodolphe and the usurer Lheureux and could never have been anything else — whereas the hapless Charles was her own natural prey. From a Buddhist point of view, her story is a tidy little morality play about the fatally self-defeating essence of desire. Or it could be a bourgeois homily on debt, or maybe on unchastity. But I don’t think those are messages I was intended to get.

Don’t tell me that this is realism and that there’s no moral to the story. Flaubert just had a most peculiar way of spilling his guts. He objectified his feelings in minute details which he insisted also had to be accurate descriptions of physical reality. Everything had to work two ways at once, which is why the book took so long to write. Flaubert’s own voice is hidden, in theory at least. In this he is like several decades of post-romantic or anti-romantic French poets who renounced the declamatory,  prophetic voice and the identification of the author’s voice with the voice in the work.

He slips occasionally and throws in an old-fashioned metaphor or simile. Emma’s hopes are compared to wounded swallows flopping in mud, but no actual swallows are present. Upper-class women do not really have banknotes in their stays protecting them like a cuirass. The same goes for the plotting. The first  coincidental meeting with Léon in Rouen is a bit much, and even more so the later rumor he and Emma conveniently hear about her seducer Rodolphe. Homais’ extravagant tantrum about the arsenic, which serves to set up Emma’s suicide later in the book, seems gimmicky, and the reappearance of the blind beggar at the end is the worst of all.

The episode of the amputation also seems wrong. Charles is mediocre, unromantic, boring, and not rich enough — that’s what drives the story. But he’s not the type to attempt an innovative, untested surgical operation, and in fact the book shows Homais as the one in charge. My bet is that as the story progressed, Flaubert found Charles becoming a little too sympathetic, so he  threw in the operation to rebalance the plot, and i call that piling on.  (Both the Homais tantrum and the amputation episode strike me as grotesque satirical realism, as in  Gogol).

Was there a turning point? I came away feeling that there wasn’t, and that it was just destiny, as Charles said — especially in the sense that “character is destiny”. The world in which Emma’s needs could have been met has never existed, and could never exist. From the time of the wedding Charles and Emma were doomed. Given who he was, Charles couldn’t have made things better by loving Emma more or by being more attentive. In fact he ended up loving her terribly, as the book shows, but by then it was too late. (I have wondered whether things might have turned out better if she had just married a prosperous peasant of her own class, but probably that’s just me. The terribly mediocre bourgeois life of Yonville seems much less fun than the jolly, brutal life of the country folk). 

Rodolphe ends up feeling contempt for Bovary’s resigned acceptance. In fact a real man, a sexy man whom Emma could love, would have killed Rodolphe. But before that he would also have put Emma in her place by beating her soundly. Again, this is not the message we are supposed to take from the book, but is the message that the men Emma most desired would have taken from it. (Think Zorba the Greek, Anthony Quinn version). Instead, Charles pitifully tries to make Emma happy by letting her have everything she asks for.

The feminist reading would be that Emma is the way she is because women are like that when they’re unfree. To me this is wrong. At the end of the book Emma controls the family finances — how could she be more free than that? But not only does she squander the family money, but  all of the financial agreements she signs are bad and disadvantageous, or even fraudulent (by my guess). I found Flaubert’s presentation of these agreements confusing, and given what we know about Flaubert’s method, I think that we can conclude that this was intentional, and that he was mimicking the tricks Lheureux used to confuse Emma and Charles.

Emma wanted her love to be “caparisoned”. Money had to be spent. She wasn’t a gold-digger and didn’t care where the money came from — mostly she spent Charles’ money on the other men. (Back in the day people would say that the billionaire Paris Hilton loved the way her billionaire boyfriend Paris Latsis spent money on her. She could easily buy everything herself, but the experience of seeing money spent excites her). We can call Madame Bovary a satire on bourgeois life, but not because Emma was a victim of the bourgeoisie. She was an unsuccessful aspirant to an imaginary high-bourgeois world where the money flowed freely. (The aristocratic Rodolphe Boulanger de la Huchette is a version of the suave continental lover in American girls’ fantasies and the mustachioed French seducer in cheesy melodramas. In other words, this particular stereotype is just provincial, and not specifically American.)

Note the “Paris” motif I just sneaked in. If Emma had made it to Paris would she have been happy? Not  likely — competition is pretty fierce in the big leagues. One of the fatally self-defeating aspects of Emma’s desire is that it was comparative. In effect, she always needed more. Just by simple arithmetic, almost no one who wants more is going to get it. In kid sports moms pretend that every athlete can be a winner, but the whole point of sports is to make losers of every player (or every team) but one. Desire can work that way too.

When Emma died miserably, the Church forgave her even though she was a suicide, and I had to forgive her too. The last pages were terribly affecting. But my God, what a nightmare the three hundred preceding pages had been!