Emma Bovary: The Original Desperate Housewife (by Jill)

I finished Madame Bovary a little over a week ago but I waited a few days to start my post about it and then it’s taken a few days to finish it.  I blame the World Series and Hurricane Sandy.  This book also took me thirteen days to read, which seems like a long time, but didn’t seem like it was that long when I was reading it.  I truly wish I had read this book when I was supposed to back in 1993 because I would love to know how I’d have responded to Emma Bovary back then.  I had a pretty visceral and negative impression of her after the first part of the book (as you probably remember after reading my update), and that did mellow out a bit, but only because I discovered that reading about her was sort of like rubbernecking past an accident on the freeway….

For those of our readers who have not read Madame Bovary, or for those of you who haven’t read it in a while, I thought I would do a little plot summary.  Feel free to skip if you know what happens.  The book opens with Charles Bovary as a student and follows him for a little while as he struggles through school, becomes a doctor, and marries his first wife, a woman already widowed once, and significantly older than he is.  He attends to a farmer named Rouault with a broken leg and a beautiful daughter, Emma.  He is entranced with her, and even though his wife suspects something is amiss with all the follow-up visits he is doing for a relatively simple fracture and tells him to stop visiting, he doesn’t forget about Emma.  Eventually Madame Bovary the first dies, and Charles essentially leaves her funeral and goes and proposes to Emma. She accepts and they marry.  And then she realizes that Charles is not quite the catch she thought he was, that married life is not quite the wonderful, beautiful adventure described in all her novels.  Back then no one ever said in novels what happens after the prince and Cinderella ride off into the sunset.  Emma is unhappy because real life is boring; she “longed to travel—or go back to the convent.  She wanted to die, and she wanted to live in Paris (p. 73).”  She engages in an emotional affair with Léon Dupuis, a law clerk in Yonville.  He leaves town, and she starts an actual affair with Rodolphe Boulanger, a wealthy bachelor of Yonville, who ultimately gets bored with her and leaves town.  She then re-encounters Léon with whom she has an actual affair.  In the meantime, Emma develops something of a shopping problem.  She gets into trouble with creditors basically gets screwed over by a local moneylender.  While Léon begins to be bored with Emma’s insistence that life always be romantic and torrid, she starts begging all of her lovers for money to pay off her debts before her husband finds out what she has done to his credit.  When she realizes that no one is going to help her, she decides to eat arsenic from the chemist’s private stock, and then dies horribly.  In a very unromantic way.  For twenty pages.  It is realism at its very best.  And her poor husband mourns her and spends lots of money on her funeral.  And then he dies.  Oh, and there is a daughter named Berthe who Emma basically ignores, though she does once remark that her daughter is ugly; and once she pushes her down and lies about it.  And that’s what happens.

I actually really did enjoy this book quite a lot.  I pitied Charles Bovary, though I thought he was a bit too dim.  Surely he would have had a clue that his wife was overspending?  Oversexed?  Something?  He just seems so happy to have a pretty wife.  I found an interesting passage the night I posted my progress report that made me think a bit more about Emma Bovary’s circumstances in the world.  I’ll share it with you, because my opinion of her changed a bit after that.  “She wanted a son.  He should be dark and strong, and she would call him Georges.  The thought of having a male child afforded her a kind of anticipatory revenge for all her past helplessness.  A man, at any rate, is free.  He can explore the passions and the continents, can surmount obstacles, reach out to the most distant joys.  Whereas a woman is constantly thwarted.  At once inert and pliant, she has to contend with both physical weakness and legal subordination.  Her will is like the veil on her bonnet, fastened by a single string and quivering at every breeze that blows.  Always there is a desire that impels and a convention that restrains (p. 101).”  I had not put Emma Bovary in context when I read the first part of the novel.  She was not a woman of the modern era.  She did not have the luxury of demanding change in her life.  She was stuck.  She could have made the best of her situation, but then if all women had made the best of their situations, perhaps women would still not be allowed to own property or go to college or work outside the home.  I am not saying that Emma went about it the right way.  But perhaps she did not see any other way to have a bit of freedom.  Who am I to talk about people overspending in times of stress, anyway?  People who know me well know that shopping is one of my major vices.

I complained a bit in my progress report about all the realism and detail Flaubert infuses into Madame Bovary.  As things progressed I learned to appreciate it.  I especially thought the death scene was well done.  And this is not just because I thought it was Emma’s karma to have a long, protracted death.  Because what’s less romantic than spending a few days dying of arsenic poisoning?  Here’s an example: “She began to groan, feebly at first.  A violent shudder went through her shoulders, she turned whiter than the sheet she was clutching at her fingers.  Her wavering pulse could hardly be felt at all now.  Drops of sweat stood on her blue-veined face, which looked as if it had been petrified by exposure to some metallic vapour.  Her teeth chattered, her pupils were dilated, her eyes stared vaguely about her….  Little by little her groans grew louder.  A muffled scream broke from her.  She pretended to be feeling better and said she would soon be getting up.  But then she was seized with convulsions (pp. 327-8).”  Now if that isn’t a great example of realism I don’t know what is.

I don’t know if I’ve made it clear, but I didn’t realize right away that Charles Bovary was supposed to be a loser.  For a couple of reasons, I think.  First, I didn’t pay much attention to him at first, other than to be enraged at the treatment he received at the hands of his second wife.  The second just came to me tonight when I was rereading Bethany’s post looking for “point-counterpoint” opportunities.  She mentioned that in the dichotomy of the good-but-boring and the evil-but-interesting character types, she always comes down on the side of the evil-but-interesting character.  I was thinking about that, and realized that I tend to side with good-but-boring.  Take as exhibit A my progress report on Madame Bovary and my tirade against Emma Bovary.  Other examples from literature that I can think of include: in The Marriage Plot I wanted Madeline to end up with Mitchell, the safe and sane choice, not Leonard the manic depressive, even though Leonard was by far the more interesting of the two, though I would hardly call him evil.  Ultimately, she ends up with neither, but that’s not the point.   In the Sookie Stackhouse books I desperately want Sookie to get back together with boring Bill Compton even though she is now with sexy and exciting Eric Northman, if only because Bill is nicer to her.  I kind of even thought that Liz Gilbert needed to go back to her boring, baby-crazy husband and get away from the geriatric Brazilian in Eat, Pray, Love.  As a brief aside, did it annoy anyone else that in the movie version of that book, Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem are basically the same age (I just checked on IMDB and she is actually two years older than he is) and Liz was supposed to be about twenty years younger than Felipe?

Were I writing an actual paper on Madame Bovary I am fairly certain I would want to discuss Emma Bovary as an archetype for women of the nineteenth century and compare/contrast her to Anna Karenina and perhaps to Catherine Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights.  I’d also like to find a nineteenth century fictional woman who got it right.  Maybe Jo March from Little Women?

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

One Response to Emma Bovary: The Original Desperate Housewife (by Jill)

  1. Pingback: AP English Challenge: Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, at long last (by Jill) | Postcards From Purgatory

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