Saturday, January 1, 2011

Girl on Book Action: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
ISBN: 0-486-45404-5


Bored and unhappy in a lifeless marriage, Emma Bovary yearns to escape from the dull circumstances of provincial life.  Married to a simple-minded but indulgent country doctor, she takes one lover, then another, hastens her husband’s financial ruin with her extravagance, and eventually commits suicide.


My Thoughts:

Every so often I look at the shelves of books I’ve read and chide myself for the overabundance of fantasy and horror novels which isn't at all balanced with “literature.”  When these moods hit I tend to find some classic that I haven't read yet and force myself to ignore the siren-song of the new Catherynne Valente book (oh yes, someone was a lucky Doomwench and Cthulhu saw fit to bring it wrapped in tentacles and madness) in order to read a book most likely written by a dead white man about the depredations of women…I mean, proper literature.

Now, I won’t say that I hated Madame Bovary, nor am I trying to imply that I don’t enjoy novels written by dead white men, but I also didn’t like Flaubert’s novel.  You could read it as criticism of the way women were treated. You could read it as a commentary on how the lack of possibilities (other than marriage to men) drives them to behave like Emma. There are all kinds of social criticism that can spring from this novel, but I'm a lazy and jaded reader and in my cranky old age I don't want to try and pry these meanings from this book to redeem it. The novel showed all women in a poor light and that made it hard to read.  Perhaps my pallet has become less sophisticated, who can say?  All I know is that when the end came I was relieved, because it meant I could move onto something else.

Undoubtedly, part of the problem was my foolish hope (despite what it said on the back cover) was that there would be some positive experiences for Emma, not just illusions and wishful thinking.  I was disappointed, so sorely disappointed.  When it comes down to it, none of the relationships she has are based on reality.  They are all constructed based on things she’s read in novels and idle day dreams of what she’d like her life to be like.  Honestly, I can’t really blame her.  Living as a country doctor’s wife sounds like it was beyond boring.   If she'd had more sense about money or some other redeeming features, I could have enjoyed the book more. Then again, where would she have learned responsibility with money or any other skill. I spent the whole novel pitying Emma but not really liking her. The novel was an exercise in futility of feeling. How could anyone have  expected her to turn out any different than she did? She was so feeble-minded and no one took the time or care to instill common sense in her.  Ugh.

The only thing that saved the book from being a waste of time was the language.  There were some lovely passages and the ending was well done.  Emma’s death scene and Bovary’s mourning were sad and heartfelt and for once didn’t set my feminist teeth on edge.  At least Flaubert knew what he was talking about when it comes to mourning (I suspect he knew what he was talking about when it comes to bored middle-class Frenchwomen, too, but alas, that didn’t make for a story I enjoyed).

Enough of my complaining.  I am glad I read Madame Bovary.  It’s another classic crossed off my list and now I’m ready to get back into reading delicious fantasy novels (some of which really should be considered literature) without feeling guilty.  The English major in me is once more appeased.  My final thoughts on Madame Bovary are that I wouldn't recommend it. Well, I wouldn't recommend it unless you're a completionist like me and need to one day be able to say that you’ve read all of the major classics. The whole affair made me feel thoroughly sad, and not in the profound way some literature will effect me. Rather, it was a sort of mundane, pitying and grubby sadness (much less grand and fun).  It's possible that I might have enjoyed the novel more if I had read it at a different time of life. It might very well be that Flaubert reads more gracefully with a less cynical eye.Knowing what I know about the piece, I might try to read it again later with
fewer expectations.

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