I have been wanting to read Madame Bovary (1856) by Gustave Flaubert and number 85 on the BBC book list for quite some time. Years, even. I finally got to it by listening to it on audiobook while driving to school, and I am glad I did. I know it was scandalous in its time, because the plot centers around Emma’s adultery. Yet there is more than just adultery to be scandalized about in 19th century France. Innuendo played a large role in this novel, from the married Charles Bovary’s back brushing against the young and unmarried Emma’s breasts to her tongue innocently flicking in and out of her mouth while eating. I found those details to be more responsible for the scandalous nature of the book in its time rather than the plot. I think the public did, too. Flaubert was put on trial for obscenity and later acquitted.
The plot centers around Emma Bovary, who marries the widowed doctor Charles Bovary but can never find it in herself to love him. He bothers her almost as soon as the marriage is made. Many married couples would complain of the same problems Emma notices. I think the difference is that Emma is in love with love and lust, rather than embracing the kind, patient, plodding kind of love that keeps couples together. She never works at loving Charles, but instead dismisses him and his peculiarities, immediately letting her eyes rove for other love. At first, this thinking of hers is innocent. She notices handsome men at a ball and about town. She notices, but never acts. And honestly, I felt sorry for her on some levels. I believe Flaubert may have wanted his readers to feel conflicted about judging Emma’s eventual actions. Charles is not an overly attentive husband, and I can understand and sympathize with her frustrations and her needy feelings.
All of this leads perfectly into Rodolphe preying upon her. He can see that she is desperate for love and attention, so he plots to seduce her and be done. They end up having a lengthy love affair. They plan to run away together, but Rodolphe ditches Emma at the last minute, writing her an amazingly insincere Dear Jane letter, untrue phrases of which are still in use today. The letter is hilarious, and particularly slimy, as we know Rodolphe is a player. The version I listened to made this quality even more tangible. Rodolphe’s voice is perfectly creepy.
In the Dear Jane letter, he claims that he loves Emma too much, that it isn’t her, but him, and that he will always think of her fondly. He even manufactures a tear on the page by spilling a drop of water for effect. It reveals what some men are capable of when it comes to a woman’s feelings. It also highlights how differently men and women sometimes view relationships. Women become emotionally attached and want everlasting love, while this man was only in it for the physical pleasure, and he leaves the moment his freedom is threatened. In this, I feel sorry for Emma, although she did get herself into the situation. She had no idea what she was dealing with, and he lied to her throughout their relationship.
This quote sums up Emma’s part of it perfectly: “Poor little thing! She’s gasping for love like a carp on a kitchen table gasping for water” (Part III, Chapter VIII).
There’s an interesting scene following Emma’s deep depression over Rodolphe’s having left her. It is one in which her doctor husband, Charles, performs a procedure to help a man walk, fails at it, and must consequently amputate the leg. Emma is at first proud of her husband and feels herself again drawn to him for attempting this new procedure and for being innovative and successful. When he fails and the amputation must take place, Emma again hates him. I see the amputation scene as a metaphor for their marriage, and for any bad marriage. Perhaps amputation (or divorce and separation) are best in some cases.
Barbara Kingsolver, popular author of The Poisonwood Bible (1998) and The Bean Trees 1988) among other novels, uses the amputation metaphor in her essay on divorce called “Stone Soup” (which you can read here). As I listened to Madame Bovary, I wondered if Kingsolver had gotten her idea of using the amputation metaphor from this piece of literature. Kingsolver defends her own divorce and laments the fact that she feels so judged for doing so and the fact that so many of her friends are not the same.
Here’s what she wrote that reminded me of the amputation scene from Madame Bovary.
“Like a cancer diagnosis, a dying marriage is a thing to fight, to deny, and finally, when there’s no choice left, to dig in and survive. Casseroles would help. Likewise, I imagine it must be a painful reckoning in adolescence (or later on) to realize true love will never look like the soft-focus fragrance ads because Prince Charming (surprise!) is a princess. Or vice versa. Or has skin the color your parents didn’t want you messing with, except in the Crayola box.
“It’s awfully easy to hold in contempt the straw broken home, and that mythical category of persons who toss away nuclear family for the sheer fun of it. Even the legal terms we use have a suggestion of caprice. I resent the phrase “irreconcilable differences,” which suggests a stubborn refusal to accept a spouse’s little quirks. This is specious. Every happily married couple I know has loads of irreconcilable differences. Negotiating where to set the thermostat is not the point. A nonfunctioning marriage is a slow asphyxiation. It is waking up despised each morning, listening to the pulse of your own loneliness before the radio begins to blare its raucous gospel that you’re nothing if you aren’t loved. It is sharing your airless house with the threat of suicide or other kinds of violence, while the ghost that whispers, ‘Leave here and destroy your children,’ has passed over every door and nailed it shut. Disassembling a marriage in these circumstances is as much fun as amputating your own gangrenous leg. You do it, if you can, to save a life–or two, or more.”
I highly recommend Kingsolver’s essay. It’s full of interesting thoughts and issues. I’m not sure that I agree with everything she says, having been part of a step-family as a child, but I do like her style.
Before we get back to Emma and her plight, I must take a moment to say how disappointed I was with the description on the back cover of the audio book I listened to. Do you notice anything wrong with it?
No? Yes? Maybe it is too hard to see. First, the publication date refers to its publication as one volume and ignores the 1856 serialization of the novel. Yet my biggest issue is that it calls Madame Bovary one of the finest novels of ENGLISH literature. Uh, it’s FRENCH! That’s a serious mistake, in my opinion, and I’m sure Flaubert would agree. It’s French literature, NOT English.
Okay, back to the book.
Emma’s deceit does not stop after Rodolphe. She again engages in another affair, and rumors start to fly. Her husband never discovers it until she is dead, by her own hands. She kills herself with arsenic after finding that she is financially ruined. The morality part of this novel asserts that women who are unfaithful to their husbands and do not follow church teachings end up becoming the laughingstock of their communities and being bound by debt and financial problems. Spiritual and moral problems lead to financial and temporal problems.
I can see that this sort of pattern could have been true in other times, but I think we live in a time now where our society is concerned with avoiding responsibility for our actions. I think it is possible now to delay the consequences or contain them. Now such behavior does not lead to financial ruin. Has that lack of complete ruin taught us that we are invincible? Has a lack of consequences, in anything, contributed to a society that is more interested in the individual than the community? Are there consequences for pretending that we can get away with anything and not have to worry about spiritual problems causing temporal ones?
There’s another reading of this novel’s end. Why does a woman have to die when she asserts her sexuality? Her husband was a boring loser, she was young and pretty and deserved nice things. Why shouldn’t she seek for love and riches? Why does she have to die when she acts the same way men have been acting for centuries?
I think an argument against this reading is the fact that Rodolphe was such a jerk. He plotted to have a one-night stand with her and when he couldn’t get rid of her, he played her and took her trust and crumpled up her hope and threw her away. There is a warning for women in this snake-like persona of Rodolphe, who just says the right things to get into Emma’s bed. He was disingenuous, and while Emma should have resisted or known better, she was tricked all the same. I see some clear imagery and parallels to one of the oldest stories we like to tell: that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
I am not sure which approach Flaubert intended to promote. Perhaps none of what I saw. But any way you look at it, Madame Bovary broaches the tough issues of life and explores human nature in the face of difficult situations. There is something to be learned from Emma’s behavior and downfall, just as there is instruction in how to be a better husband from Charles’s failures. There is a lesson to be learned about not trusting snake-like men. From the perspective of the pharmacist’s clerk, who ended up accidentally giving Emma the poison she used to kill herself, there’s a lesson in looking for warning signs of mental illness and preventing those we love from suicide.
There’s also the most poignant lesson of all, and yet it only takes up a few pages at the end. Once Emma dies, and Charles a little while later, what happens to their daughter, Berthe? She doesn’t lead a happy or successful life, and there’s a lesson there for parents to grow up, get over themselves, and put their children first. (And now we’re back to Kingsolver’s quote. Does divorce “ruin” children?)
Have you read Madame Bovary? What lessons did you learn from it?