Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Madame Bovary

I spent the week of April 17-23 in rural France with Emma Bovary, who unfortunately did not receive the  psychological help which would have so greatly benefited her.  If you have a friend who is exhibiting Bovary-like symptoms, such as lounging all day in a silk dressing gown while reading Danielle Steele novels and maxing out credit cards on, I beg you to stage an intervention. I recommended that Emma get herself an education and a sense-of-entitlement-ectomy immediately, but she refused to comply.  Charles told me quite seriously that such a surgical procedure would be dangerous, as it could disturb the spleen. I complimented his mental vacuity, at which he became choked up and said, "Aw shucks" (direct quote).

     Upon my return home, I was initially relieved to get away from the unpleasant situation in the Bovary household.  However, an unsettling awareness soon crept upon me. Emma Bovary is everywhere. Gustave Flaubert, that terrible genius, took the flaws which occasionally arise in nearly every western individual and fashioned them into a formidable literary character.  You know that guy down the street with the average job and the really expensive car (and wristwatch, and tv)? Conspicuous consumption. Madame Bovary.  How about the girl who always tells you how perfect her boyfriend is, even though you get a little confused because it's a different boyfriend every month? Emotional insecurity and romantic idealization. Madame Bovary.  That friend who is always bored because everything is so cliche, so unoriginal, so beneath him, and he really deserves something better? Ennui plus sense of entitlement. Madame Bovary.  And how about that thing I just spent the entire paragraph doing: pointing the finger at everyone but myself?  You know it. Madame Bovary!  Now that you're depressed to the point of eating arsenic directly from the jar, remember that there was no escape for Emma because she chose to isolate herself and wallow in self-pity.  When we see a little of Madame Bovary in ourselves, we can make the opposite choice and perform the sometimes painful -ectomy.

     Whether you think Emma's dissatisfaction with life was caused by anomie, ennui, acedia, boredom or general malaise, the result is her melodramatic refusal to integrate herself into her social reality, followed by a descent into manic dysfunctionality complete with fainting spells, (not so) secret infidelities, massive debt and arsenic. Oh, Emma!  Flaubert's talent shines in his creation of a masterpiece novel which is built on these incredibly banal characters and a rather boring but realistic plot. It's as though he were competing in an Iron Author competition in which the announcer states, "For characters you have a stupid doctor, his spoiled and dissatisfied wife, a scheming pharmacist and a greedy moneylender.  The plot: their deluded, self-satisfied daily lives. You have five years to finish...Go!" And so he went. The result was this scathing commentary on the bourgeoisie which Flaubert so detested. In lauding Flaubert for his realism and his influence on later authors, I offer you the words of James Wood in How Fiction Works:

      Flaubert decisively established what most readers and writers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is   
       almost too familiar to be visible. We hardly remark of good prose that it favors the telling of brilliant detail; that it 
       privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, 
       like a good valet, from superfluous commentary; that it judges good and bad neutrally; that it seeks out the truth, even 
       at the cost of repelling us; and that the author's fingerprints on all this are paradoxically, traceable but not visible. You 
       can find some of this in Defoe or Austen or Balzac, but not all of it until Flaubert.

Country bumpkin: Charles Bovary
Archetypal fool: Emma Bovary
Swindler: Monsieur Lheureux
Dangerous liaisons: Rodolphe and Leon
Two-faced saboteur and enabler: Monsieur Homais
There was a lot of: spending money, fainting, pouting, wishful thinking, cheating (financial and marital)
There should have been more: descriptions of food and eating. Come on, this is France! Couldn't she have bought some fancy cheese once in a while?
This book makes you want to: live an examined life, clearly label all household poisons and store them on a shelf away from the sugar
This book makes you glad you don't have to: stare into an empty abyss of meaningless years stretching before you...then shrug and pick up a haute couture magazine

1 comment:

bren j. said...

Too true. Spot on, in fact! Loved this review!!