On Rediscovering Madame Bovary

(Warning: Spoilers abound.)

In my freshman year, I comped for the undergraduate literary magazine. (Comping: that’s Harvardspeak for “trying out.”) As I recall, the process had two major phases: first, we had to read submissions to the magazine and review them—pointing out flaws, recommending rewrites. I imagine I did pretty well at that, because it got me to phase two—the interview.

That interview lives in my memory as one of the most intimidating moments of my life—more so than any job interview I’ve had since. I walked into a dimly lit room to face a tribunal of what in memory seems like a dozen people who tossed questions at me, designed to gauge my literary tastes and my ability to articulate them for the magazine. One editor, a blonde girl dressed all in white, asked what my favorite book was. The answer came quickly: Madame Bovary. But then came the hardest question of all.

“Why?” she asked. “Tell us what makes it your favorite.”

A simple enough question, but I was flummoxed. It was true that I had loved the book. It was also true, however, that I believed the mere fact that I had read it would impress them. It struck me as a rather mature choice for an 18-year-old.   But I stumbled over the why. I have no memory now of what I said, but I do know that it was inarticulate, unimpressive, and not enough to get me into the club.

Of course, I hadn’t yet learned how to explicate a text, how to explain how a particular work of literature makes its mark on a reader. That was what I was about to learn in class, years spent reading and discussing the work of writers from Geoffrey Chaucer to Virginia Woolf. But at that point, still adjusting to college and figuring out where the libraries were, I did not yet have the tools.

There was, of course, another reason for my inarticulateness. I may have had a visceral reaction to the themes of Madame Bovary and an appreciation for Flaubert’s artistry, but I had no life experience to prepare me for the content. A person enraptured by fantasies of love, prey to the danger of romantic notions in an all-too-practical world, was as yet a completely foreign concept to me.

Now, more than 30 years later, I have finally reread Flaubert’s masterpiece, in the wonderful recent translation by American writer Lydia Davis. And this time was completely different. To see Emma’s story through the eyes of experience is to discover something almost entirely new.

Madame Bovary is the story of a naïve woman whose understanding of love is shaped entirely by novels, and when I first read it, so was mine. At the time of first reading, I grasped Flaubert’s point—that romance and reality are very distinct, and that a failure to appreciate the difference can be disastrous. But my understanding of even that theme was purely intellectual. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn’t protect me from later making mistakes very similar to Emma’s, albeit with far less tragic results.

In fact, despite what I should have learned from Flaubert, I spent most of my twenties and thirties in pursuit of romance. I cursed my loneliness, decried the imperfection of my lovers, and despaired of ever finding happiness. Along the way, I fell hard for a married man, another whose mental illness brought out every codependent nerve in my body, and a series of others who were unable to commit to a third date, let alone a white picket fence. All the while I seldom stopped to ask myself whether the problem lay less in the reality I was finding than in the expectations I brought to the process.

Flaubert famously said of his heroine, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” And now I know what he meant. I have been Emma Bovary, again and again. I have had my share of Charles Bovarys, men whose love for me couldn’t compete with the imaginary Mr. Right I kept stowed away in the back of my head. In my youth, I even shared Emma’s tendency to go into debt, thinking that pretty things (oh, the money spent on those “colourful” Alexander Julian shirts that were my fashion obsession in the 80s!) would compensate for what was missing inside.

In rereading the book all these years later, I found that my sympathy for the heroine had expanded into empathy: I could actually relate to her experience. Flaubert is judging her, of course, using her as an example of the dangers of not just romantic notions but commercialism and the forced conformity of provincial life. But he also demonstrates compassion for her. Emma’s mistakes are an indictment of society as much as of the woman herself. She is taught to depend upon men for everything, but she is never taught how to calibrate her dreams in relation to her circumstances. Most tragically, she comes to believe that love—that is, the romantic notion of love promulgated by fiction—can cure all ills, can in fact give her the identity she seems unable to grasp on her own. Because she is so desperate to find that soul-stirring love (essentially, nothing more than a mix of romance and lust), she never discovers the deeper love that actually can cure all ills: the kind of love that comes only with time, because only time can teach you patience, and only prolonged attachment can teach you true compassion.

Emma is disappointed when marriage doesn’t bring her immediate pleasure and constant excitement. She is disappointed when Rodolphe proves unable to translate his lust into commitment. She is disappointed that Léon is unable to give her the luxurious life she craves. Emma’s life is a series of disappointments because her dreams get in the way. Despite my compassion for her, I can also say that she is rather narcissistic: the men in her life amount to little more than vehicles for her own pleasure.

The first time I read the book, I’m sure I was rooting for Rodolphe, the swarthy one. Or Léon, the serious, sensitive one. I’m sure I wasn’t rooting for Charles, the steadfast, earnest one.

Oh, what a difference a few decades make.

I can’t help thinking now that Charles does indeed love Emma in a mature, almost noble way—ironically, just the way she needs to be loved, the way anyone needs to be loved, really. His great flaw is that he is blind to her impractical desires and therefore can’t prevent her from giving heedlessly in to them. It never occurs to him that the comfortable life he offers her might not be enough to satisfy her. He never really understands just what she wants from life—nor does he really ask the question. That is his own tragic flaw, the source of his downfall.

Flaubert brilliantly draws a convincing portrait of Emma, far more psychologically nuanced than one would expect for a novel published in 1857. To my mind, the psychological depth of this novel would not occur in English literature until more than 30 years later, with the late novels of Thomas Hardy. And no doubt, this psychological realism is the true reason Flaubert was charged with obscenity: Madame Bovary not only deals with sexual desire, but does so sympathetically and credibly. It was one thing to depict a woman’s sexuality if you condemned her in the process, but to show compassion for her was, at the time, no doubt unforgivable.

Although Emma does die, of course—and it is one of the most agonizing deaths in all of literature—her fate cannot be read as the author’s attempt to punish her behavior. On the contrary, at the end, Emma finally understands that her life itself was the real agony. She isn’t suffering now because she did something wrong; she suffered all along, because she lived her life in terms of desire rather than reality.

I don’t remember the language of the translation I read 30 years ago well enough to tell you whether Davis’s is better, but it is certainly very, very good. The novel flows in beautiful English, but with a cadence and syntax that reveal its French roots.

Emma Bovary never had the chance to learn that time and experience are the greatest of all teachers. So the rest of us should be more grateful that we do. I know I’ll never again be so tongue-tied when someone asks why I love this novel so much.

In my senior year of college, with more experience as an English major under my belt, I comped for the Crimson, the campus newspaper. This time I succeeded, and got my first byline writing film reviews—which, I recently discovered, are now available online. I’m not quite sure I’m ready to reread those.

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