Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857)
Trans. Alan Russell
Penguin, 1987

SPOILERS ABOUND (not only for this novel, but for Anna Karenina, too)

If you’ve been following along, you might recall my brief and unsatisfactory meeting with Emma Bovary, about twenty years ago: a passing acquaintance, which offered only a brief glimpse of the sadness that permeated her existence. I was determined to get to know her better over the course of the next week, but was not yet halfway through Flaubert’s novel when I suddenly and disastrously learned of her fate, having stumbled upon a passage in a contemporary novel that summarized the plot succinctly and devastatingly.

Here is the passage from David Bergen’s The Matter with Morris which revealed everything:

“She was reading Madame Bovary. She felt sorry for Hippolyte, the one with the club foot. She felt not a spot of pity for Emma. ‘Emma deserved everything that fell down upon her head.’ Morris had been surprised and dismayed at Beth Ann’s vehemence. Such moral indignation.”

In The Matter with Morris, we don’t know Beth Ann very well, but I think her perspective is representative; it seems like a lot of readers do view Emma as a pariah, deserving of punishment for her transgressions.

In the next sentence of the revelatory passage, we have Morris debating the mechanics of Beth Ann’s sentence structure; he’s struggling to accept the loss of his son (who died in military service in Afghanistan) and he’s distancing himself from talk of guilt and innocence, so it makes sense that he would focus on preposition usage instead.

“He wondered if it should be fell down around her head, but he didn’t correct her. He said that interestingly he had just reread Anna Karenina and he’d always felt that there was a very natural bond between the two books; both about women who are trapped.”

(At this point, I was still simply excited at the chatter about Madame Bovary, but the next bit is the deal-breaker.)

“Beth Ann smiled and said, ‘Well, they do both kill themselves, don’t they? Anyways, Emma traps herself.'”

It’s interesting that Morris pulls out the question of the women being trapped, rather than focussing on their deaths, isn’t it? A trapped person operates under a different rule set. Just as any other trapped animal will behave differently, feeling its life at stake, behaviour is integrally and inherently changed.

(This is also interesting in the context of David Bergen’s novel, for he is trying to understand the events that led up to his son’s death, which fundamentally colour his in/ability to accept the death; if the boy had been killed in another way, the acceptance process would have unfolded very differently, so the events leading up to the death are as importance as the outcome.)

And surely it’s the events that came before, that helped shape Emma Bovary’s then-self, that makes discussing this book so interesting.

Frankly, it’s not very interesting to simply accept that Emma is out-and-out (or should that be ‘through-and-through) guilty. Read as a simple story of authorial revenge, Flaubert’s construction of a two-dimensional sinning-wife is uncomplicated.

But the events leading up to the decisions that irrevocably alter the trajectory of her life (and death) turn this into a complex story. Travelling through the narrative with Emma, from her way-back-then-unmarried-dutiful-daughter self to her infamous-cheating-wife-self, makes this story worth talking about.

When was Emma Bovary trapped? Was it when she succumbed to Rodolphe’s attentions? Or when she first warmed to Leon over bookchat? Or was it when she agreed to marry Charles? Or when she grew old enough to take on the duties of full-time housekeeper and care-giver? Or was it when she was pulled from school because she had more important duties to attend to?

Was she trapped in her marriage, or was she trapped from the moment she was born into a provincial village that offered her the choice of being a wife or being a daughter?

Or does the discussion focus less on entrapment and more on resignation, less on social conditions and societal expectations and more on Emma’s weak-will? Or should we readers reach for the DSM and start a conversation about depression and debilitating mental illness?

Would the novel have ended differently if someone had handed her a full scholarship to attend university in Paris? Or a prescription that would address a systemic physiological chemical imbalance? Or a membership to the local meditation and yoga centre?

For me, this read, my first through Flaubert’s novel, was very much about the story, primarily characterization and plot. But I understand that, were I to reread, I might be more engaged by stylistic concerns. I copied this passage from James Wood’s How Fiction Works (2008) with the scholar he refers to in the last sentence being Stephen C. Heath, who was discussing Madame Bovary:

“We cannot write about rhythm and not refer to Flaubert, and so once again, as if unable to stop rereading the old letters of a former lover, I return to him. Of course writers before him had agonized about style. But no novelist agonized as much or as publicly, no novelist fetishized the poetry of ‘the sentence’ in the same way, no novelist pushed to such an extreme the potential alienation of form and content (Flaubert longed to write what he called a ‘book about nothing’). And no novelist before Flaubert reflected as self-consciously on questions of technique. With Flaubert, literature became ‘essentially problematic,’ as one scholar puts it.”

Essentially problematic. Well, I can’t weigh in there when it comes to the questions of technique that Wood mentions. But plot-wise, sorting out the mechanisms of characterization, trying to trace the lines of blame and responsibility, I’ll agree with ‘essentially problematic’ on that score.

I’m fairly sure that the then-me, who set aside Emma Bovary, would have settled out closer to Beth Ann’s analysis, blaming Emma Bovary and, if I even conceded that she was trapped, I might have agreed that she did it to herself. But the now-me thinks Beth Ann’s view is too simplistic. I’m glad Emma Bovary and I didn’t spend much time together back then; it wasn’t just the novel’s vocabulary that I wasn’t prepared for.

Thanks again to Frances for hosting the group read of this classic.