I’ve been doing a little reading about Madame Bovary on the side, and have learned that this book was quite revolutionary when it was first published in 1857. It was one of the first realistic novels published. I can see that: the descriptions are very detailed. Almost too detailed. There are several passages that I marked as descriptions of the vivid realism in this book, but I really don’t feel like typing them out right now. I’ll do it for the final review, I promise. I have not read a lot of 18th or 19th century fiction recently, and in fact this is the first of our AP English Challenge books that was not written in the 20th century (with the exception of Measure for Measure, but that’s another beast entirely). I mention this because I don’t have any recent novels in my mind that predate Madame Bovary, so it’s hard for me to appreciate the realism as a change. I’m used to long, flowing, descriptive paragraphs of scenery and food and outfits (especially outfits—I used to be a big supporter of the chick lit movement, remember). It’s actually the long flowing description of outfits that caused me to begin to look away from chick lit as my primary source of escape fiction (that and I’ve read some shitty books in that genre). Who cares what people are wearing? Not me, unless it advances the plot somehow, or adds to fleshing out a character. And that is the crux of my issue with realism. I appreciate that Flaubert may have been revolutionary at the time, but I am not necessarily interested in Emma Bovary’s outfits or her interior decoration in as much detail as the author describes them.
Beside my dubious interest in the realism movement in French literature, I’ve so far mostly felt disgust with Emma Bovary while reading this book. I kind of hate her. I read a couple reviews on goodreads.com and people seem to begin sympathizing with her a bit as the story advances. Right now, I want to grab her and shake her and tell her to grow the hell up. She has spent her whole life reading novels and is disappointed that marriage and real life are not as wonderful and beautiful and perfect as they promised in her books. Whose fault is this? Is it hers for being stupid? Her father’s for not teaching her about the world outside of her books? Her husband’s for not seeing that she is unhappy because he is so wrapped in how happy he is? Or is it the fault of the bourgeoisie? The French hate the bourgeoisie. Everything might be their fault.
I don’t know that I would have understood the depth Emma Bovary’s diseased romanticism when I was seventeen. (Remember that term from our discussions of Lord Jim? Look at me, referencing prior books! Perhaps Emma and Jim should find a desert island and lie around and bemoan their mediocre existences together.) Back then I was kind of like Emma: romance and love and perfection and all that. I guess everyone has to go through disappointment and heartbreak to grow up and realize what is really important and value what is good, even when it doesn’t look like much to start off with. Emma needs to learn that she is not being treated poorly, or at least not any more poorly than any other woman in mid-nineteenth century France. Her husband is a decent man who adores her and provides a good life for her. Back then there wasn’t much more a woman could ask for out of life. That wasn’t satisfactory, of course, and I doubt I would tolerate being sold like livestock like women were back then. It wasn’t fair. It would be one thing if Emma Bovary were going out and actually doing something about the sad state of affairs for women in the mid-nineteenth century in general, or her life in particular. But she isn’t. She’s sad and she’s laying around in her dressing gown, reading, decorating, and shopping. Not a bad way to spend a day, if you ask me. She isn’t trying to fix anything or change anything. She is a petulant child, lashing out at the one person who cares about her and wishes to do right by her in a society where she is destined to be a second-class citizen.
And that’s all until I reach the end. I truly am enjoying this book. Flaubert is creating a very interesting protagonist. She has definitely evoked a strong emotional response in me, even if it’s mostly negative at this point. I’ll remember Emma Bovary for a long, long time, even if I don’t read another page of this book.
Isn’t that the point, though, that the coping devices Emma has been taught (reading, decorating, shopping) don’t work?
Probably so. I started this progress report on Saturday night
and started to put things together about her and what Flaubert was trying to accomplish with her a bit better after I started thinking about it that night, and more so last night when I continued reading. I think my opinion about Emma Bovary will change a bit as I go through. But my initial gut reaction to her was one of significant irritation which is what I was going for in this post. I’ll think more about her societal constraints and the nature of women’s role in post-Revolution France when I’m writing my final review.
Have you read The Awakening? It’s not really a favorite of mine, but Chopin does a really good job of making the reader feel that Edna’s husband is a horrible son of a bitch without ever having him do one unkind thing on the page – in fact, most of the time he is actively a very nice guy. We get so taken in by Edna’s point of view – a dissatisfaction that, like Emma’s, goes well beyond any concrete thing that she might try to attach it to. I think the two novels and the two protagonists are alike in a lot of ways.
I read The Awakening for something at some point. In high school, I think. I enjoyed it but don’t remember much about it other than the protagonist walks into the ocean at the end. I suppose one could say that one had to be a nineteenth century woman in order to understand a nineteenth century woman. Because from my twenty first century perspective I just don’t get it right now.