Sunday, November 11, 2007

October: Madame Bovary

I can't remember the last book I read in which I was so unsympathetic toward the protagonist. I expected to feel something more for Emma Bovary, given that I almost always do find myself forging some kind of sympathetic connection with the main characters. And at the onset, I did feel a surface compassion for Emma's restlessness and desire for new places and experiences. But, as seems to be Flaubert's intent, feeling sympathy for Emma's struggles proves increasingly difficult as the novel progresses. Even in Balzac's Lost Illusions, I was able to feel something for Lucien's naiveté and failings, to an extent that I could not even achieve with Emma. As the story progresses, Emma's actions and pursuits only become increasingly irritating, desperate, and rather senseless. With this said however, I don't believe that Flaubert necessarily wanted the reader to abhor Emma completely as there are plenty of passages in which Flaubert gives closer glimpses into Emma's dissatisfaction and there is undeniable reason in these glimpses.

Having heard of this classical work many times and knowing that it involved adultery and suicide, I also expected Flaubert to give greater consideration to morality but Madame Bovary is centered more generally upon a theme of bourgeois life. Three main characters punctuate the novel: Emma Bovary, who seems to be the one exaggerated extreme of bourgeois life...materialistic, dissatisfied, reckless. Her husband, Charles Bovary, is incredibly simple minded and ignorant. Even Charles is a pitiable character with whom Flaubert also makes difficut to sympathize with. And so Charles seems to be that other extreme...unworldly and not particularly ambitous but committed and reliable, yielding and boring. Flaubert's inclusion of Homais, the druggist, strongly reinforces the novel's central theme of bourgeois life in rural France. Homais seems to be the epitome of a bourgeois ideal. He is educated, challenges conventional religion but is principled and ambitous. Homais is very middle class but has an elevated sense of importance and purpose.

In my own reading, I certainly do not believe that Homais embodies a true bourgeois ideal held by Flaubert (juxtaposed with Emma's reckless restlessness and Charles' pathetic acceptance), but rather, I would say that Flaubert is presenting a satire on this social class. The novel ends with Homais receiving the cross of the Legion of Honour ( a very pompous affair following Emma's suicide and Charles' seeming death by extreme sadness at havingt lost Emma) and after all, it was Homais's arsenic that Emma ingested to kill herself...a fact that Flaubert clearly did not inted to be incidental.

Given that Flaubert's work belongs to the class of French Realism, it is appropriate that the book possesses a coldness and rather detached narrative. In saying this, I am only speaking from my limited reading and understanding of French Realism. As much as I love the strongly evoked sympathy for characters belonging to writers such as George Eliot, Charles Dickens or Emily Brontë, I do appreciate French realism for its starkness and focused social commentary. Whereas many of the English works evoke a strong sense of connection with humanity and draw out shared struggles with social conventions as central but almost more of a backdrop to the characters themselves, French Realism evokes a strong primary sense of social conventions and how behavior operates within those social structures. So, although I often found myself irritated with the characters of Madame Bovary, I was invested in the social commentary dominating the work. And as far as the moral element, upon fininshing the book, I was pleased that Flaubert did not assert much commentary on the moral issues. Emma's fatal outcome proves compelling enough in that regard.

**[Added 11/12/07, 920pm]: I read in a piece of criticism on Madame Bovary this evening that viewed this work of Flaubert's as almost anit-romantic. That claim being made particularly so by the fact that Emma does not ultimately commit suicide because of her unfulfilled love affairs but because she is a shopaholic. And this criticism reminded me of mental notes I had been taking during my reading of the work. Although the novel is set in the mid 1800s in rural France, the bourgeois satire does not seem far removed from today. Emma does in fact kill herself because her consumeristic habits bring an insurmountable debt that she can no longer avoid retribution for. In desperation she begs her current lover to steal from his employer for her. When he refuses, she runs to her former lover and he initially believes that she is there because she is dramatically professing her love to him but he is utterly disconcerted when instead, she asks for a large sum of money. Flaubert's satire on the middle class is one that certainly could apply to today's middle class. There is a certain middle class disillusionment that pervades time. I'm not saying that the two social extremes are not without their own dissatisfaction, but the middle class seems to possess a peculiar disillusionment. And much of that centers upon a kind of boredom with life...a boredom that finds itself drowning in consumerism and trite pleasures.


Richard said...

I try to avoid reading books because I think I ought to and prefer to focus on those I want to read. Mind you, it does not hurt to broaden ones' knowledge and experience.

The last oughtta book I tried reading was Don Quixote. I stalled back in 1993 or 1994. It was interesting, but not compelling. Another thing I noticed about it was that the narrative style was uneven - I was not sure if this was the particular translation, or a reflection of the original text (it seemed as though several authors were involved). One day, I hope to get back to it.

This book was not on my reading list (and after this review, is even lower in priority).

Latest book I have requested from the library is "Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes” by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein. As recommended by freckled-one over At This Very Moment.

b said...

richard...don't get me wrong. i don't choose books because i think i should read them but because i genuinely want to. i am sincerely drawn to the classics and have heard much about this work and thus, wanted to read it myself. although i love reading books in which i can connect with the protagonist, i also enjoy reading books that stretch my perspective and experience.

although i would say that french realism does not move me as english realism does, i always enjoy shaking up my reading list a bit and again, stretching my perspective.