This exquisite novel tells the story of one of the most compelling heroines in modern literature–Emma Bovary. Unhappily married to a devoted, clumsy provincial doctor, Emma revolts against the ordinariness of her life by pursuing voluptuous dreams of ecstasy and love. But her sensuous and sentimental desires lead her only to suffering corruption and downfall. A brilliant
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really liked it
Oh, Emma. Emma, Emma, Emma. Darling, why must you make it so easy ? No, dear, (for once) I don’t mean for the men. I mean for everyone else in the world who goes into this book just looking for an excuse to make fun of you. I would say that most people don’t know that much about France, but they do know a few things: that they like their baguettes, their socialism, Sartre, dirrrty dirrty sexy lurrrve and they despise this thing called the bourgeoisie. This book doesn’t really do a thing to dispr
It makes it easy for people to plausibly dismiss this story with things like this:
(If it makes you feel better, dear, you are hardly the only one.. Your other compatriots in 19th century repressed female misery receive similar treatment:
It is easy to despise you, Emma. You and your seemingly shallow priorities, the unthinking selfish harm you did to your husband AND your baby girl, the endless excuses you had for your, frankly, off the charts stupid behavior, the fact that you didn’t even try and communicate how unhappy you were to the guy who loved you who might’ve done something about it (since all the evidence shows that he is willing to COMPLETELY CHANGE HIS LIFE whenever you ask him to) and, finally (what can seem to be) the incredibly coward move you made in finding a way to not face the consequences your childish sense of the world couldn’t believe would eventually come up. What goes around comes around ,as the wise chanteur sayeth. (Perhaps the alternate cover above should substitute ‘Justin Timberlake’ for Sassy Gay Friend.)
That’s pretty much how I felt about you for about 150 pages after you made your entrance, Emma. While you started your endlessly copied, endlessly bastardized fall from Angel in the Home Grace, and while you tried to make a saint out of yourself for not having sex with a young clerk who couldn’t have supported you anyway. You were simply the grandmother of Lady Chatterley, an extended protest letter to a dead king I couldn’t care less about.
But in the end, you won, Emma. I couldn’t escape you. Seriously, y’all, this book would not leave my head alone, for days, and I thought… many different and contradictory things about it. In the end, though, I kept coming back to one thought: the most terrifying thing I can think of is getting caught in Emma Bovary’s eyes. Did everyone read that profile about Dan Savage this weekend about infidelity and marriage? I did. Emma is the literary incarnation of Savage’s argument. Her eyes are on the cover of this book, and the more I looked at them, the more disturbed I got. Those eyes are the reason that marriage is so frightening, why ‘commitment issues’ exist. This is a novel about how reality can look just the same to you from one day to the next, but to your partner, it can have turned into a hell or a heaven, even if it is the same Tuesday routine as the last one. Emma’s gaze, how each time she fixes her eyes on some scheme of happiness and how those eyes transform everything they see. She shows how unstable marriage is, how thin the foundations are- resting on nothing but the words- “I love you.” Words that just need one more word to dissolve the entire thing. That’s it, you guys. One word and someone’s will to speak it is all that stands between a solid marriage and one that is over- no matter how much paperwork you sign, how many kids you have, houses you fill with furniture. You never really know what the person across from you is thinking. How do you really know what motivates someone? Are they with you because they have made a resolution to be? Are they there with you because the stars shine in your eyes? Are they perfect to you because they are about to leave? Marriage, for better or worse, no matter what people say, adds so many complications. It is the commitment that people twist and bend over and around in so many different contortions to try to make it work- because it is a marriage, because it means something. How difficult is it to trust that people are simply what they say they are? Charles is simple and straightforward and rather sweet- and Emma hates him for it. She smiles and smiles and smiles… and then cheats on him, bankrupts him, tries to prostitute herself and kills herself rather than spend another day with him.
This is the most anxiety inducing book I have ever read about marriage. It’s the 19th century where you have to make a vow for life that you can’t get out of, not really, in order to test the idea that you might want to be with someone. If you’re wrong, that’s it. You’ve failed. It’s all-or-nothing. Emma is the incarnation of the expectations of the institution at the time- all-or-nothing. Madame Bovary is destroyed because she tries to put her all into Charles, then Rodolphe and then Leon, and none of them can withstand it. Each of them are good for different things, and only for a little while, and she can’t accept it. That is not the ideal. She won’t accept less than the ideal. You guys, she’s nothing more than exactly what she is told is available to her- granted, she’s after the best of what she’s told is available: the ideal. But why do we hold that against her? As long as we live in a society where we’re told to strive after the ideal, to never give up, you will have people who destroy themselves and everyone around them to get it. Savage’s discussion of what the “ideal” means in real life is enlightening and pertinent here, I think. He talks about how you have to be willing to change a lot and make a huge effort to keep the deal of monogamy alive. Of course everyone has their limits, and in many marriages, the trade offs of one person’s limits for the others (I won’t do this, and you won’t do that- I won’t do that, but I will do this) end up making the deal of monogamy work. But you have to be honest about it, you have to be able to say things that you’ve never said out loud before. You have to admit that you won’t be happy unless you live a life where you have crystal knickknacks on your fireplace, and you get off from pies being thrown in your face. But it’s not that easy- Emma was on her deathbed, writhing in agony from eating arsenic, and she still couldn’t tell Charles what she wanted from him.
I can’t blame Emma, ultimately. It actually made me think, of all things, a bit about Planet of Slums. That book talks about the millions of people who have been born outside the system, in illegal settlements to parents who are illegal themselves, and who are not, in fact, ignored by the system. They never get into the system in the first place– a system that is not built to cope with the mind-blowing poverty that arises from its excrement. The system can’t acknowledge it and justify itself. At the risk of sounding like I think relatively-well-off white lady problems bear any resemblance to the horror of someone living on the outskirts of Kinshasa in a lean-to, Emma is just trying to get in to a society that can’t acknowledge her and go on. She’s trying with all her might to buy into the fairy tales she’s been told (just like the revived, and growing belief in magic in some slums), and does whatever she has to do to get her hands on it, even if only for a little while. She saw that fairy tales are real (or so she thinks) at that ball that one time- she SAW it, mommy- and can’t handle the fact that they exist on this earth and she can’t be a part of it. And in case anyone finds her head-in-the-sand refusal to face the world overly childish or impossible to relate to: The endless line of irresponsible credit she takes out from the scam artist down the street in order to feed her fantasies about the way she believes her life should look has obvious immediate relevance to America in the pre-2008 financial crisis era. In some ways, the existential crisis Flaubert is trying to outline here: between a solidly practical, profit-and-advancement outlook on life and a sensibility that at least tries to aspire to something higher, even if it is unaffordable or impossible, is the distilled essence of the push and pull of American partisan politics. Monsieur Homais would have done very well on Wall Street. Emma can be read as being more American than French, really.
Emma is a true believer. She doesn’t just want attention from men, or shiny things. I didn’t really believe that until the part where she tries to renounce the whole world for fervent religious devotion. Failing making it into her fairy tale, she wants to escape where she is- to somewhere else, anywhere else. By the end, I felt like I was suffocating right along with her. Virginia Woolf said that the “present participle is the devil” . Emma adds the present place, the present time, the present person you are with. She really is willing to try anything to escape. On her deathbed, as she pleaded to die, my heart was racing along with hers and the whole finale read like a blockbuster last action scene with explosives and severed limbs flying. I didn’t enjoy the journey I had with her, but I had made it and lived in tiny spaces with her, spaces that got ever smaller as the book wound down. Every chapter there was less and less light until she was curled up in a ball in solitary confinement with no hope of escape. In the Count of Monte Cristo, we root for the hero to get thrown over the side of a cliff in a body bag because it is his only hope of escape. How could we do less for poor Emma? She deserves her chance to make it to the place she always hoped for- even if priests and businessmen argue whether she got there over her corpse. If she can’t be buried in ‘blessed’ ground, well, at that point the priest’s God is just another man telling her she has to stay in the woods with the witch and her oven rather than try to find the path home, like she was always taught to do.
Flaubert handles his prose deftly, precisely, and with a deceptively commonplace hand. He doesn’t try for smart metaphors and delicate similes, but rather has characters say what the mean in an effectively believable way that makes Emma a character who can impact the lives of real women. Parts of this novel are spine-tinglingly sordid, others wrench out your gut, most of it can be drearily, boringly, mind-numbingly quotidian, and every so often, a gem shines through that makes you turn around and look at someone you had thought you were done being interested in. In other words, it’s like last Wednesday. And the Tuesday before that. And today. And probably next Monday. The morning when you woke up vowing that today it was all going to be different, that afternoon when you just wanted to die, the evening when you forgot it all making dinner and laughing about that thing you saw on the internet.
Flaubert can’t get it all, or say it all right, but he knows that. In fact, he’s willing to tell his readers that. But he does it in such a way that you just want to punch him in the face like you do that size 0 model who complains that she’s too fat:
“Whereas the truth is that fullness of soul can sometimes overflow in utter vapidity of language, for none of us can ever express the exact measure of his needs or his thoughts or his sorrows; and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.”
Aw, come on, Gustave. Why do you want to make those of us with irrevocably not-size-0 rears, who can’t get from Q to R, cry? Yet, even your complaining makes me want to hug you.
I guess what I am saying is why are you so awesome, Monsieur Flaubert?