My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Earlier this year, I read Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot and enjoyed it tremendously. Reading that book about the protagonist's obsession with the great 19th century French writer made me want to re-read his masterpiece, Madame Bovary.
I first read the book long ago in my youth, in what I now think of as my "romantic period." Quite honestly, although I remembered the broad outlines of the plot, I had long since forgotten many of the details. Thus, reading it this week has been much like reading it for the first time.
The book was published in 1856 and was subjected to attacks for obscenity by the public prosecutors. The resulting trial, which cleared Flaubert of the charge, was held in early 1857 and had the predictable result of making the book a sensation and a best-seller. Reading the book today, one is amazed that it could ever have been thought to be obscene. It seems so mild by present-day standards. Thus has the world changed.
The plot is so well-known, even by those who have never read the book, that summarizing it seems almost unnecessary. The story takes place in provincial northern France near the town of Rouen. We first meet Charles Bovary and follow him as he grows up in the care of his doting parents. Their ambition is for him to become a doctor. He follows his parents' wishes in all things, including marrying a wealthy widow who will be able to help him carry the financial burden of middle-class provincial life.
In his position as doctor, Charles goes to set the leg of a farmer and there he meets the farmer's daughter, Emma. He is immediately attracted to her and returns often to the farm, ostensibly to check on his patient. He is still married, of course, and not free to pursue his interest in the daughter. Fate soon takes care of that, though, when his wife dies unexpectedly.
His patient, the farmer, brings him a turkey and offers his condolences. He also invites him back to the farm. Charles starts visiting there once again, and asks for Emma's hand in marriage once his period of mourning is over.
Emma, for her part, is amenable and imagines a romantic life with this respected country doctor. But once the ceremony is over, she is soon disabused of her fanciful notions. Married life settles into a dull routine and all of Emma's efforts to bring a bit of spark into the relationship are ignored by her placid husband. He is perfectly happy and so he imagines that his wife is also.
The dissatisfied Madame Bovary becomes easy prey for local womanizers. The first to seduce her is Rodolphe and they carry on their affair until Rodolphe begins to tire of her and eventually leaves town in order to get away from her. Later, she succumbs once again - this time to the attractive young clerk Leon, whom she imagines that she truly loves.
Their affair runs its thoroughly predictable course, and, during all of this, her docile husband never suspects a thing. Neither does he suspect the financial shenanigans that she engages in in order to subsidize their life. He is so dull and so trusting that one has to pity him.
But one can pity Emma, too. Life just never turns out to be the romantic adventure that she wants. She is disappointed in all things. And, read in today's environment, one sees that she is a victim of a paternalistic society that does not value women except as sex objects and for producing children. She had wanted so much more for her life.
It's easy to blame Emma and to say that she frittered away her existence, always waiting for something exciting to happen. She never learned to appreciate what she had - a husband who adored her, a respected position in the community, a healthy child, plenty to eat, more and better clothes than any of her neighbors, a warm and comfortable house. But, no, it wasn't enough. She wanted a romantic love that would make her heart race and leave her breathless. Charles just wasn't up to that and the result was tragedy for them both.
So, what can we learn from Emma Bovary? Perhaps that we should accept our circumstances and as the old aphorism says, "Bloom where we are planted." Imagining that things would be so much better if only X would happen is a prescription for dissatisfaction and disappointment. Better to take what we've got and try to make the best of things.
If Emma could have done that, she might have enjoyed a long and honored life and been able to raise her daughter to womanhood and teach her to appreciate the simple life. But then we wouldn't have Madame Bovary as a cautionary tale to encourage us to keep our feet on the straight and narrow path.
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