I Really Am Reading It: Thoughts on Part I of Madame Bovary (by Bethany)

I know it’s taken me a while to get started, but I’m reading Madame Bovary actively now and am enjoying it. I do think Lydia Davis’ translation is the best I’ve ever encountered, although I’m also willing to blame my impatient younger self for not previously appreciating the long – but often beautiful – passages of description in this novel. Maybe the translators weren’t entirely at fault. (You can check out my pre-reading notes for the background on this question of translation if you missed it.)

The first observation I have at this point is that Part I of this novel isn’t really about Emma Bovary but about the world that created her. I’ve read far enough into Part II to know that its focus does shift more completely onto Emma, but I also have reason to think that Flaubert intends us to read this novel at least in part about the larger world that Emma Bovary represents than about Emma as a unique individual. I have trouble imagining a reader who doesn’t see the inevitability of Emma’s downfall almost from the moment she is introduced as a character – and we foresee this tragedy so clearly not so much because of any foreshadowing Flaubert does but because Emma Bovary is such a type. Every time she bawls out the servants or complains about her husband’s clothes or looks up from the book she’s reading to gaze in despair out her window at the provincial landscape that surrounds her, she might as well be a double-exposed photograph in which a shadow of her future infidelities and suicide is superimposed over her face.

Characterization as foreshadowing. I like it. Or, as Heraclitus wrote and everyone who has ever held a pen has at some point quoted, “Character is fate.”

Emma Bovary is a female version of Lord Jim. Her “diseased romanticism” is just as acute as his. She is just as corrupted by the idealized world of romance and marriage that she has absorbed through reading as Jim is by the adventure stories that led him to seek a life at sea. (Could that be what Fr. Murphy wanted us to notice when he offered this extra-credit assignment? He could be a tricky guy, Fr. Murphy.) Her tendency to romanticize the world seems to have had its origins in the church, where “she loved the sick ewe, the Sacred Heart pierced with sharp arrows, or poor Jesus falling, as he walked, under his cross. She tried, as mortification, to go a whole day without eating. She searched her mind for some vow she could fulfill” (31), and she also remembers an elderly woman who used to visit her school and tell stories of “love, lovers, paramours, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely pavilions, postilions killed at every stage, horses ridden to death on every page, gloomy forests, troubled hearts, oaths, sobs, tears, and kisses, skiffs by moonlight, nightingales in groves, gentlemen brave as lions, gentle as lambs, virtuous as no one ever is, always well dressed, and weeping like tombstone urns” (32). Her husband Charles is everything this fantasy is not: his “conversation was as flat as a sidewalk, and everyone’s ideas walked along it in their ordinary clothes, without inspiring emotion, or laughter, or reverie” (35).

Charles Bovary deserves some discussion here as well. He is thoroughly unappealing: a dogged but lackluster student as a boy, a doctor who is so afraid of killing his patients that he can barely bring himself to treat them, a weak-minded sycophant who allows his first wife to insist that he spend a few more hours in bed before leaving to treat a patient’s broken bone. He’s not a bad person, but he’s staggeringly boring. He’s worse than Léonce Pontellier in The Awakening, possibly worse than Casaubon in Middlemarch. When it is revealed at the end of Part I that Emma is pregnant, my alarm had nothing to do with foreknowledge of how Emma’s future actions would damage her child and everything to do with the fact that I had been assuming all along, without being told, that Charles Bovary was impotent.

Yet I find it fascinating that the novel begins with Charles – not only that, but it is narrated at its outset by some kind of strange first-person-plural amalgamation of his former schoolmates: “We were in Study Hall, when the Headmaster entered, followed by a new boy dressed in regular clothes and a school servant carrying a large desk. Those who were sleeping woke up, and everyone rose as though taken by surprise while at work” (3). I remember only vaguely the discussions we had in grad school about this strange narrative choice, and I think I remember that this “we” comes back later in the novel (it disappears shortly into Part I, although the vaguely omniscient tone of the prose remains). The only other example I know of first-person-plural narration is in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, in which the story of a family whose five daughters commit suicide one by one is narrated by a semi-omniscient yet mystified “community” voice that seems to be that of the family’s neighbors. I understand the reason for this narrative choice in Eugenides’ novel but am still a little baffled by it in Madame Bovary. I don’t understand why a collective voice of Charles’ former classmates should be the lens through which we experience this novel. I’m intrigued, and I trust Flaubert to make his intentions clearer as the novel progresses, but right now I still find it an odd choice.

I also think there’s a certain “meta” quality to this novel. When it was published in 1857, realism in fiction only existed in embryonic form. The development of literary realism loosely parallels the technologies of photography, audio recording, and film. In the 19th century, when photography was brand new and staggering in its ability to create a lifelike image of the real world, readers demanded the same verisimilitude from fiction writers – a demand that is easy to see reflected in the detail with which Flaubert relates the food served at Charles and Emma’s wedding and the clothing worn by the aristocrats at La Vaubyessard. The stories Emma likes to read, of course, are not “modern” works of realism – which, to be honest, couldn’t have existed for Emma, since her creator, Flaubert, played such an important role in inventing modern realism – but swashbuckling tales of adventure and romanticism written by Sir Walter Scott and others like him. It’s already obvious – even if I hadn’t read the book before – that her obsession with trying to find a life for herself that resembles those lived by the heroines of these novels is going to lead to Emma’s ruin. Charles Bovary, on the other hand, represents the real world at its most mundane. He represents averageness. He represents boils and back pain and meals of overcooked chicken and undercooked potatoes. There’s something epic about the marriage of these two symbols, as if, in the writing of this novel, Flaubert is throwing the last fistfuls of dirt on the graves of Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo and others like them. With this novel, the nineteenth century – with its smokestacks and its railroads and its transatlantic cable and its utilitarianism and its photography and its Darwin – is finally here to stay.

The disastrous effect of reading on Emma Bovary has made me think about who I am as a reader. With a few exceptions, I have always preferred realistic fiction to fantasy or romanticized adventure stories, even as a child. I can’t remember the last time I read a book and wanted to BE its protagonist (OK, wait. Yes, I can, and you’re going to laugh when you hear which book it is. You seriously want me to tell you? All right, here goes. I want to be Zooey Glass. Yes, seriously. I always have, ever since I first read Salinger in my early teens. In particular, I want to be Zooey Glass when he is sitting in the bathtub reading his letter from Buddy. Mostly, I think, I wish I had a brother who wrote me letters that say things like, “[Mother] didn’t say what she’d like you to get the Ph.D in, but I assume Math rather than Greek, you dirty little bookworm.” You’re laughing, right? Told you!). But with this one parenthetical exception and possibly one or two others like it, I don’t usually live vicariously through the characters in the books I read. Maybe the reason is the fact that my background as a reader is quite heavily academic – although I was a reader long before I was a student of literature, and I do plenty of reading that qualifies as escapist. I’m always aware of fiction as art – or, in other words, of fiction as artificial, even when its mode is pure realism. I’m also always aware that fiction does something that real life only does occasionally: it resolves itself.

So that’s it for Madame Bovary for now. I’m enjoying it and looking forward to reading more and writing more. And, possibly, given my new penchant for artsy photography, to taking more pictures of it.

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This entry was posted in AP English - 18 Years Later, Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Gustave Flaubert, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

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