Gustave Flaubert, tr.Hopkins
I can't be fair to Emma. For me, reading the book
was unbearable, like watching the slow-motion crash of an airliner I had
almost boarded. Give Flaubert credit for writing a powerful book.
Emma is the misogynist's idea of Woman: emotional,
incapable of rationality, but exciting. From a Social Darwinist point of
view, she was the natural prey of the seducer Rodolphe and the usurer
Lheureux, and could never have been anything else -- whereas the hapless
Charles (the me-figure in this story) was her own natural prey. From a
Buddhist point of view, her story is a tidy little morality play about the
fatally self-defeating essence of desire. Or it could be a bourgeois
homily on debt, or on the virtues of chastity and faithfulness. But I
don't think those are messages I was intended to get.
Don't tell me that this is realism and that there's
no moral to the story. Flaubert just had a most peculiar way of spilling
his guts. He objectified his feelings in minute details which he insisted
also had to be accurate descriptions of physical reality. Everything had
to work two ways at once, which is why the book took so long to write.
Flaubert's own voice is hidden. In this he is like several generations of
post-romantic or anti-romantic French poets who renounced the declamatory,
prophetic voice (as well as the identification of the author's voice with
the voice in the work).
He slips occasionally and throws in an old-fashioned
metaphor or simile. Emma's hopes are compared to wounded swallows flopping
in mud, but no actual swallows are present. Upper-class women do not
really have banknotes in their stays protecting them like a cuirass. The
same goes for the plotting. In Rouen the first coincidental meeting
with Léon is a bit much, and even more so the later rumor he and Emma hear
about her seducer Rodolphe. Homais' extravagant tantrum about the arsenic,
which serves to set up Emma's suicide later in the book, seems gimmicky,
and the reappearance of the blind beggar at the end is the worst of all.
The episode of the amputation also seems wrong.
Charles is mediocre, unromantic, boring, and not rich enough -- that's
what drives the story. But he's not the type to attempt an innovative,
untested surgical operation, and in fact the book shows Homais as the one
in charge. My bet is that as the story progressed, Flaubert found Charles
becoming a little too sympathetic, so he threw in the operation to
rebalance the plot, and in my opinion that was "piling on". (Both
the Homais tantrum and the amputation episode strike me as grotesque
satirical realism, as in Gogol).
Was there a turning point? I came away feeling that
there wasn't, and that it was just destiny, as Charles said -- especially in
the sense that "character is destiny". The world in which Emma's needs
could have been met has never existed, and could never exist. From the
time of the wedding (which was more her idea than his) Charles and Emma
were doomed. Given who he was, Charles couldn't have made things better by
loving Emma more or by being more attentive. In fact he ended up
loving her terribly, as the book shows, but by then it was too late. (I
have wondered whether things might have turned out better if she had just
married a prosperous peasant of her own class, but probably that's just
me. The terribly mediocre bourgeois life of Yonville seems much less fun
than the jolly, brutal life of the country folk).
Rodolphe ends up feeling contempt for Bovary's
resigned acceptance. In fact a real man, a sexy man whom Emma could love,
would have killed Rodolphe. But before that he would also have put Emma in
her place by beating her soundly. Again, this is not the message we are
supposed to take from the book, but is the message that the men Emma most
desired would have taken from it. (Think Zorba the Greek, Anthony Quinn
version). Instead, Charles pitifully tries to make Emma happy by letting
her have everything she asks for.
The feminist reading would be that Emma is the way
she is because women are like that when they're unfree. To me this is
wrong. At the end of the book Emma controls the family finances -- how
could she be more free than that? But not only does she squander the
family money, but all of the financial agreements she signs are bad
and disadvantageous, or even fraudulent (by my guess). I found Flaubert's
presentation of these agreements terribly confusing, and given what we
know about Flaubert's method, I think that we can conclude that this was
intentional, and that he was mimicking the tricks Lheureux used to confuse
Emma and Charles.
Emma wanted her love to be "caparisoned". Money had
to be spent. She wasn't a gold-digger and didn't care where the money came
from -- mostly she spent Charles' money on the other men. (It is said that
the contemporary billionaire Paris Hilton loves the way her boyfriend
Paris Latsis spends money on her. She could easily buy everything herself,
but the experience of seeing money spent excites her). We can call
Madame Bovary a satire on bourgeois life, but not because Emma was a
victim of the bourgeoisie. She was an unsuccessful aspirant to an
imaginary high-bourgeois world where the money flowed freely. (And the
various non-bourgeois worlds where she might have been happy were all
Note the "Paris" motif just now. If Emma had made it
to Paris would she have been happy? Not likely -- competition is
pretty fierce in the big leagues. One of the fatally self-defeating
aspects of Emma's desire is that it was comparative. In effect, she always
needed more. Just by simple arithmetic, almost no one who wants
more is going to get it. In kid sports moms pretend that every athlete
can be a winner, but the whole point of sports is to make losers of every
player but one. Desire can work that way too.
When Emma died miserably, the Church forgave her
even though she was a suicide, and I had to forgive her too. The last
pages were terribly affecting. But my God, what a nightmare the three
hundred preceding pages had been!
I am emersonj at gmail dot com.
Original materials copyright John J