Genres: Classics - Victorian
Emma Bovary is beautiful and bored, trapped in her marriage to a mediocre doctor and stifled by the banality of provincial life. An ardent devourer of sentimental novels, she longs for passion and seeks escape in fantasies of high romance, in voracious spending and, eventually, in adultery. But even her affairs bring her disappointment, and when real life continues to fail to live up to her romantic expectations, the consequences are devastating. Flaubert's erotically charged and psychologically acute portrayal of Emma Bovary caused a moral outcry on its publication in 1857. It was deemed so lifelike that many women claimed they were the model for his heroine; but Flaubert insisted: 'Madame Bovary, c'est moi.'
Henry James wrote: “Madame Bovary has a perfection that not only stamps it, but that makes it stand almost alone; it holds itself with such a supreme unapproachable assurance as both excites and defies judgment.” (James, Henry (1914). Notes on Novelists. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. p. 80.)
I would not go so far as to call it perfection. But it is very, very good from a technical perspective, although it seems to lack soul. Or heart.
Part 3 begins with Emma and Leon meeting one another at the Rouen Cathedral. They re-encountered one another at a play, and made plans to meet. Emma wrote Leon a letter, explaining that she could not become his mistress, but when she is unable to have it delivered to him, she takes it to the cathedral to give it to him herself.
Then, seeing her again after three years of absence his passion reawakened. He must, he thought, at last make up his mind to possess her.
Whether her intentions are pure or not, it all goes awry, and one of the great and lasting parts of the book occurs when Emma and Leon take a coach which they use to drive around and around town, endlessly, obviously committing adultery in the back. This is probably the strongest image within the book – we see it from the perspective of the coachman, who states:
He could not understand what furious desire for locomotion urged these individuals never to wish to stop. He tried to now and then, and at once exclamations of anger burst forth behind him. Then he lashed his perspiring jades afresh, but indifferent to their jolting, running up against things here and there, not caring if he did, demoralized, and almost weeping with thirst, fatigue, and depression.
And then Flaubert tells us:
Once in the middle of the day, in the open country, just as the sun beat most fiercely against the old plated lanterns, a bared hand passed beneath the small blinds of yellow canvas, and threw out some scraps of paper that scattered in the wind, and farther off lighted like white butterflies on a field of red clover all in bloom.
In the beginning of the affair, Emma is again full of joy and life and the emptiness is, temporarily, filled by the passion that Leon stirs within her. But, of course, it cannot last, and Emma begins, again, foolishly, to turn to debt and shopping in an effort to fill herself. She desires to cut off the affair with Leon, as he has become as familiar to her as her own husband. In one of my favorite quotes, Flaubert tells us that
They knew one another too well for any of those surprises of possession that increase its joys a hundred-fold. She was as sick of him as he was weary of her. Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.
Isn’t that wonderful – “the platitudes of marriage.” This section of the book is so frustrating, because I just wanted to shake Emma until her teeth rattled, telling her that she was a silly woman, that she was squandering everything. As she becomes more desperate about the failure of the affair, she becomes more profligate, less able to resist temptation. She is morally and financially bankrupt, soulless and demanding, seeking to be filled up externally rather than finding a way to fill herself.
There is, of course, no happy ending for Emma Bovary. Like Anna Karenina and Lily Bart, both of whom came after Emma, the prevailing society demands the proper punishment for a woman who dares to demand more than she afford in both life and love. In a deeply desperate, and absurdly romantic, fit, she commits suicide. But even that is bungled – rather than fading off in an appealingly girlish and pathetic fashion, she dies in terrible pain, in fits and gushes and grossness. Flaubert pulls not a single punch with Emma’s demise, we hear of it in all of its terrible glorious drama.
And there is no happy ending for anyone else, either. By the end of the book, the sins of the mother are visited upon poor Berthe, who loses everyone and everything, and ends up a factory worker, in a cotton mill.
So, what was Flaubert’s point? Was he telling the bourgeoise to want less, to not even try to ape their “betters?” That the realistic pessimism and emotional privation of their lives was all there was ever going to be? Or was he strangely sympathetic to his creation. He is quoted as having said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” What does this even mean? Does it mean, as some readers have speculated, that Flaubert is referring to using his own adulterous affair with a poet as the basis for Emma Bovary’s relationships? Or is it deeper than that, describing a self-loathing of his own bourgeoise roots as the son of a surgeon, with his own pessimistic tendencies and his own desire to be more.
Ultimately, for me, Emma Bovary falls far short of Lily Bart from The House of Mirth (by Edith Wharton), but ends up on par with Tolstoy’s remarkably self-indulgent Anna Karenina.
My final post on Madame Bovary will deal with The Public vs. M. Gustave Flaubert, Flaubert’s 1857 obscenity trial following the publication of the novel in La Revue de Paris.