Saturday, 25 June 2011

Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert

Recently I got into a discussion about which books I should have read and Madame Bovary featured high on the list (and it's a lot shorter than Remembrance of Things Past) so I bumped it to the top of my ever expanding pile of books.  Books that threaten to overwhelm me with their demands, their insidious paper fingers, their words like confetti silently falling around me as I fall too! The dangers of fiction. And then the dangers of having to write about it. What can be left to say about Madame Bovary that hasn't been said a thousand times before.
 Madame Bovary seems to me to be, like Don Quixote, a warning on the dangers of books. They only give birth to illusions, all of which, in the eye of Flaubert, shall be dulled by life. "Before the wedding, she had believed herself in love. But not having obtained the happiness that should have resulted from that love, she now fancied that she must have been mistaken. And Emma wondered exactly what was meant in life by the words 'bliss', 'passion', 'ecstasy', which had looked so beautiful in books."

The life lived in books was one of high excitement but that which Emma Bovary lived after her marriage was one in which "the silent spider boredom wove its web in all the shadowed corners of her heart." The book is too famous for me not to have known that she would have an affair and that her life would be touched by tragedy. This tragic web is spun by the conflict between expectation and boredom. When the excitement of one thing wears out, why not move on to the next. No deferred pleasure for Emma either , "she rejected as useless whatever did not minister to her heart's immediate fulfillment" So, after marriage comes an affair.
But why have affairs? It seems that they too, suffer the fate of marriage and eventually "the charm of novelty, gradually slipping away like a garment, laid bare the eternal monotony of passion." Flaubert displays a profound cynicism in this book, so much so that one wonders why he even bothered to write when "human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we strum out tunes to make a bear dance, when we would move the stars to pity." Maybe he liked to hear himself speak, an affliction suffered by some of the novels characters, especially Homais, the chemist who is the closest thing to a writer in the book.
Flaubert famously said, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi" and Flaubert's own disillusionment with relationships seems to seep from the pages: " his pleasures had so trampled over his heart, like schoolboys in a playground, that no green thing grew there, and whatever passed that way, being more frivolous than children, left not so much as its name carved on the wall."
An inevitability hangs over the book - all things will eventually be dulled by familiarity. "She had no illusions now. She had laid them out in all the varied ventures of her soul, the successive phases of maidenhood, marriage and love, strewing them along her path like a traveller who leaves behind a portion of his gold at every wayside inn." "Idols must not be touched, the gilt comes off on our hands."
She tries religion but it doesn't give her what she wants: "She was trying to make faith come. But no bliss descended from the heavens, and she rose with weary limbs and the vague feeling that it was all a vast deception."
Eventually a deep cynicism pervades her thoughts "But, of course, such happiness must be a fiction, invented to be the despair of all desire. She knew now the littleness of those passions that art exaggerates."
Realising that the romantic is not real, she still hangs onto it because quotidian life is unbearable:  "this was how they would have liked it all to be: they were both constructing an ideal of themselves and adapting their past lives to it. Speech acts invariably as an enlarger of sentiments." Any tendency of speech to exaggerate the joys of life are absent from Madame Bovary: Flaubert is like a bored aristocrat at a clay pigeon shoot - Love, pull; religion, pull; science, pull; family, pull - until all we are left with is shattered shards of clay.
Even when people experience (brief) happiness the people around them don't feel any warmth form it. In the early happy days of his marriage Charles Bovary's mother "observed his happiness in gloomy silence, like a ruined old man gazing through the windows at people dining in his old home." Read this book and you can be one of those people dining in comfort  looking out at a ruined woman gazing in. Her gaze is piercing, disquieting....


  1. This is a great post that really got me thinking about how your analysis could so easily translate to our present day society's obsession with consumerism. With Flaubert, we need only substitute love affairs with gadgets and we've a perfect image of how people's obsession with acquiring "stuff" leaves one cold and unfulfilled. Perhaps different periods in time go through various modes of consumption (consuming goods, countries, lovers, or a mixture thereof), and that's what keeps Madame Bovary so timely despite the book's age. There's more to it than that of course, but reading your post and its mention of novelty and a sense of boredom relates so tangibly to so many people I see around me.

  2. Emma turned away from Charles and increased the volume of the music pouring from her iphone until it washed away all other sounds. She saw herself standing on a stage, flashbulbs flowering around her like a halo as she swaggered into the dreams of a nation.
    He tried to talk about the bank balance but she wouldn't hear him. Rodolphe never talked of money and he had the iPad5. Why shouldn't she have it? She took out her iPad4 and quickly ordered one.
    Charles tried to stand up to come towards her but he felt as if his legs were too weak. He reached into his desk drawer and studied the labels of a number of pill bottles before randomly opening one and swallowing two red and yellow pills.
    He sunk into a dreamy reverie.

  3. Love it! who needs all those zombie and monster rewrites of Jane Austen? You can just put out a new mash-up of Flaubert!

  4. Great review. And the comments aren't shabby either ;)

    For me, the biggest lesson I took away from this is that one can't define themselves by externals. Not someone outside of themselves, not material things, and definitely not notions of themselves viewed through the medium of books.

    And yes, Marisa, it is interesting to view MB through the prism of current consumerism. And the whole notion of people "completing" themselves through a relationship.