My Facebook Reading Challenge 2018 is well underway and March’s theme was a classic. I chose Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert’s 1857 classic, because it seemed to fit well with a lot of the women’s issues around and being discussed at the moment, particularly gender equality and sexual exploitation. It is fair to say that it had a mixed reception among the readers on the Facebook group!
I had read this book previously, but many years ago as an undergraduate, so whilst I had remembered the basic story, I had forgotten much of the detail. I had forgotten for example just how brilliant the writing is and how very like Jane Austen Flaubert can be in his use of irony. By all accounts, Flaubert was a perfectionist and spent years on this book; it is certainly masterful and for me the writing was sublime. I had also forgotten how unlikeable all the characters are! Even Emma, our supposed “heroine”, is at times unpleasant, childish, selfish, superficial and self-obsessed. When I discussed it with my husband (who speaks fluent French and read it in the original) he was surprised that I did not find Charles Bovary, Emma’s husband, sympathetic. Interesting that he felt affection for the long-suffering, betrayed husband who loved his wife to the death, despite her many faults, whereas I found him ineffectual and basically unable to connect with his wife on any level, and that was part of the problem in their marriage.
I don’t think even Flaubert liked his characters and I think it was the intention of the author that we stand with him and examine the people he puts before us, with all their flaws. I believe he wants us also to dig a little deeper and examine the French provincial society that gave rise to Emma. As a young woman she lives a dull and uninteresting life with her widowed father on a farm, until the day she marries Charles, a physician in a neighbouring town, and goes to live a dull and uninteresting life with him. Passed from one man’s home to the next. Emma would not have had expectations, but she was an intelligent woman and the kind of life she was forced to lead did not fulfil her deeper needs. She is a woman of deep passions, but there is no outlet for them, apart from the romantic novels she devours. Certainly, Charles does not really do it for her! “Charles’s conversation was as flat as any pavement.”
Flaubert hints that Emma’s lack of fulfilment may be dangerous when he observes, after she and Charles were invited to an aristocratic ball, where she glimpses how the other half live and begins to fantasise:
“This life of hers was as cold as an attic that looks north; and boredom, quiet as the spider, was spinning its web in the shadowy places of her heart.”
What a sentence! Emma is naïve and inexperienced, however. Her life has been limited and she sees events in the most superficial of ways:
“She confused in her desire, sensual luxury with true joy, elegance of manners with delicacy of sentiment.”
Flaubert doesn’t expect us to like Emma very much, but I think he wants us to see her as a product of a time and a place, not as wilful and malicious.
Seduced by romantic fantasy, Emma takes lovers, both of whom are equally selfish and unpleasant. Whilst she is clearly a willing participant in her adultery, there is no doubt that both Leon and Rodolphe exploit Emma. When Emma’s reckless behaviour leads her to run up unsustainable debts, the town’s notary, from whom she has been borrowing money, also exploits her. When he requests sexual favours in return for his continued discretion we can see how deeply lost Emma’s situation is and how as a woman she has almost no power or autonomy. Her response to him, is when we begin to see for the first time something more admirable in her spirit:
“You are taking insolent advantage of my distress, monsieur. I may be in a pitiful state, but I am not up for sale!”
Parts of the book are heavy going, but it is in Part Three that we see the tragic coming-together of events, the closing-in on Emma of all the consequences of her misguided actions, her falsehoods, and the tremendous dislike she accrued. She is not a nice woman – she betrayed her husband, who did not understand her, but loved her in his own way, rejected her daughter and treated those about her with contempt. She was the architect of her own downfall, but she was also a victim of heartless men, of social norms and conventions that failed women like her and gave them no outlet.
She is a difficult heroine for us, but one who makes us think, for sure. Recommended because it’s just one of those books you have to read!
Do you find it hard to connect with the classics? What is your favourite?
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