I think Madame Bovary is the wisest, most beautiful novel that ever bored me to tears. Structurally, it’s flawless: the establishment right from the start of Charles Bovary as a harmless buffoon who ever since childhood has been separated from his peers by a nebulous veil of misunderstanding, his accidental tumbling into marriage first with a middle-aged widow and then with Emma Rouault, his bumbling career as a rural doctor, and his blindness and ineptitude at perceiving his wife’s unhappiness and infidelity. In spite of the title, in some ways I think this novel is at least as much about Charles as it is about Emma. He is the one that the events of the novel happen to; she is the steamroller that flattens him. At times this novel paints a fascinating picture of rural life in the 19th century (I was exaggerating when I said it bored me to tears, really, although at times I stared at the same page for twenty minutes while my mind was miles away). I am interested in medical history, and I loved the parts of the novel that dealt with medicine – Bovary’s inept operation of Hippolyte’s clubfoot, for example, along with the many scenes in which the various hierarchies of physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries all show up and start one-upping each other. Of course, part of what makes this novel good is its painstaking detail – which is also what sometimes makes it boring. Therein lies the irony.
For me, an important part of the realist ethos in fiction that Flaubert helped to pioneer is the idea that we are who we are, and sometimes our identities and personalities are inexplicable. What is it about Emma Bovary that makes it impossible for her to settle down and be a country doctor’s wife, as hundreds of other women in 19th century France undoubtedly did with relative success? It’s not an exciting or luxurious life, but it’s not a terrible one either; Charles is capable of giving her a comfortable home with a couple of servants, and he is devoted to her (OK, he is totally obsequious and spineless in his devotion to her – I am no fan of Charles Bovary). Why is it that 99.9% of women would be capable of carving pleasant, meaningful lives for themselves in Emma’s circumstances, yet she cannot? I don’t know – yet I do find her frustration and unhappiness plausible and even – up to a point – sympathetic.
I don’t share Jill’s antipathy for Emma Bovary. Of course, I don’t admire her. She’s materialistic and dishonest and selfish and sometimes cruel, but the sense I get is that she can’t help being these things. She’s miswired, somehow, and she is made just as miserable as the people around her by her actions. To me, the dynamic between a good-but-boring character (like Charles) and a bad-but-interesting character (like Emma) is one of the great archetypes in modern realist literature, and I do find it compelling. I will always sympathize with the evil-but-interesting character in this dichotomy: I learned that much about myself a long time ago.
I had forgotten how much this novel focuses on economics. This novel provides a great illustration of the 19th century world of finance and debt that Thoreau sought to escape when he moved to the woods. Money, material desires, and debt do much more than her failed love affairs to drive Emma Bovary to suicide – and, of course, money is still – 2012 – a primary cause of stress in individuals and in marriages.
There’s also a great deal of politics just under the surface of this novel. I had forgotten what a comic character Homais the pharmacist is, with his Latinate terminology and his inviolable “capharnum” and his upward mobility and his atheism and his children named Napoleon and Franklin. I remember thinking when I read this book in grad school that Homais was present in the novel only so that Emma Bovary would have easy access to arsenic – and, of course, that’s part of his function in the novel. But there’s something very insidious and symbolic about Homais also. At the end of the novel, after Emma dies, Flaubert summarizes the many measures Homais takes to become a public figure and be awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor: “[his] success emboldened him; and from then on, whenever a dog was run over in the district, or a barn burned down, or a woman got beaten, he immediately let the public know about it, guided always by a love of progress and a hatred of priests… Homais was undermining the foundations; he was becoming dangerous” (306).
I find this novel hard to write about, and it’s already clear to me that this review is going to be short and disjointed and inadequate to the task of really capturing this novel. It seems to me that Emma is both protagonist and antagonist – in that her choices shape the plot of the novel and that she is the agent of her own destruction. Charles is a victim partly of Emma’s cruelty but mostly of his own stupidity, which of course is something he can’t control. He doesn’t even really know how stupid he is until the end of the novel, when he finds all of Emma’s love letters from Leon and Rodolphe. I’m not sure how important Flaubert intends Charles’ mother (another Madame Bovary) to be – she is strong and controlling and scheming, and her jealousy of Charles’ love for Emma continues until the very end of the novel. Young Berthe Bovary is yet another of the shadow-children of the literature of adultery (along with Pamela Buchannan in The Great Gatsby and Raoul and Etienne Pontellier in The Awakening), who exist in order to raise the stakes of their mothers’ infidelities. Berthe gets picnic-lightninged out of the way effectively on the novel’s last page: “When everything was sold, there remained twelve francs seventy-five centimes, which was used to pay Mademoiselle Bovary’s fare to her grandmother’s house. The old woman died the same year; Père Rouault being paralyzed, it was an aunt who took charge of her. She is poor and sends her to work for her living in a cotton mill” (310-11).
And of course, it is entirely significant and appropriate that Madame Bovary should die of poisoning. The scene in which she charges into Homais’ capharnum and heads straight for the blue jar of arsenic and “thrust in her hand and, withdrawing it full of white powder, began to eat it” (279) made me giggle a little, but really this is the perfect way for Madame Bovary to die. First of all, the image is one of a child breaking into the kitchen to steal powdered sugar from a jar (this comparison actually exists in the text when Homais manages to exonerate himself from blame for her death by telling the public that she mistook the arsenic for sugar), and it allows her to die in the act of the same self-destructive impulsivity with which she lived her life. And of course, Emma Bovary has been figuratively poisoned for the entire novel – again, in ways that can never be 100% explained but that do seem plausible to me. There is something in Emma Bovary that insists upon destroying everything it comes in contact with, including Emma herself. I don’t think Emma is capable of controlling whatever this force is, nor is she capable of preventing herself from being tortured and unhappy, and I think this is why I sympathize with Emma more than Jill does, even though I don’t like or admire her. It’s also true, of course, that Emma acts as a poisonous agent in the lives of Charles and Berthe – there is no doubt that she causes their misery and hastens Charles’ death – but she is not the only “poisonous” character in this book. The elder Madame Bovary – Charles’ mother – is mysteriously sinister, and Rodolphe’s hedonistic extravagance does a great deal to heighten Emma’s inner darkness. And I also think that money is a poisonous substance to almost every character in this novel.
So that’s my review of Madame Bovary. I did read it carefully, although I also spent a lot of time with the book open before me and my mind a thousand miles away. I have a greater sense than I ever have before of how important this novel is in the development of realistic fiction, and I am in awe of Lydia Davis’ beautiful translation. I’ll stop just short of saying that I like it, although I admire it and am glad that I finally read it for real.
As a preview to my review which I will be finishing at some point in the near future (but after I finish the last 30 pages of Life of Pi), I learned to stop wanting to throttle Emma Bovary and to watch her like one watches an accident on the freeway…
Well, yes. There was a certain fascination of that kind as well.