Thursday, November 30, 2006

Madame Bovary

After starting and stopping and wondering if I would ever get back to it, I finished Madame Bovary a few days ago. Since then I have been trying to figure out what to say about it. There is so much in it. I was going to write about it yesterday but the cookbook came and gave me a respite. So I read the introduction last night, hoping for something that would answer all my questions only to discover that all the questions I had are ones the professionals argue over too and there were even some things mentioned that I didn't even realize were questions but apparently are. This being a blog and me no professional critic I can only muddle my way in. So here goes. I had issues with Emma. She seemed so sweet at first but as soon as she married Charles and found out that marriage is not like the romances she reads she turned into an unlikable person. She longed to be rich. She longed for a great and passionate love. She longed for a husband with ambition. And all her longing made her ill both physically and mentally. So Charles sold his comfortable house and moved his practice to the village of Yonville which turned out to be disastrous in more ways than one and certainly didn't cure Emma. Sometimes I felt sorry for Emma, stuck with a husband who was oblivious, who loved her but for all the wrong reasons, and who wasn't even smart enough to pass the doctor exams to be a real doctor. The one time Charles tries to do anything other than basic doctoring--he attempts to fix a club foot--he screws it up and the patient's leg has to be amputated by a real doctor. I can't blame Emma for having two affairs. Her life must have been so dull. But she is needy and manipulative and in the end she is downright mean that I could not ultimately sympathize with her. I felt sympathy for Charles most of the time because he was so clueless and didn't deserve his fate. But at the same time he was such a blob of a person. He had no real personality, no spark. He was frequently out on call, couldn't get his patients to pay him, and gave in to Emma's every whim. He had no backbone. Charles and Emma have to have one of the worst marriages in literature. These two people should not have been together. I knew it wasn't going to go well from the start when, walking back from their wedding we get this little passage:

Emma's dress, too long, trailed a little on the ground; from time to time she stopped to pull it up, and then delicately, with her gloved hands, she picked off the coarse grass and the thistle-downs, while Charles, empty handed, waited till she finished.
That, in a nutshell says everything about their relationship. They definitely should not have had a child. Poor Berthe, she is the real victim. She was also a distraction for me because she didn't appear often and I knew she was there and whenever something would happen I'd wonder, where's Berthe? Who's looking after her? No doubt if she were real and alive today she'd be seeing a therapist to deal with neglect and abandonment issues. The introduction tells me that many of the characters are named for their foibles. The one I find most interesting is Lheureux which is taken, according to the intro, from the French word for happiness. Lheureux is a merchant who also offers loans. Emma gets herself into deep debt with him, buying expensive things on credit. Of course, he urges her on, she needs nothing more than a suggestion since she buys the most expensive things when she is most depressed. The things Emma buys never make her happy and lead to her ruin; an early example and moral lesson, perhaps, that consumerism and materialism are spiritually unsatisfying. I have not read any Falubert before and at first was a bit worried because I found the prose to be, if not exactly clunky, not entirely smooth and flowing. But it ends up being a matter of style that once I was used to it was enjoyable and engaging. Flaubert is very good at slipping between characters so I didn't even notice the transition. The introduction mentions Flaubert as an "invisible narrator" which puts the finger on a quality I noticed but couldn't articulate and I am not sure that I can explain. There is a narrator but not really. He's sort of like a fish leaping out of the water, one second he's there, the next he's not and if you weren't looking you would never have known a fish had just jumped. There might be a small ripple or you may have heard a faint splash but you can't be sure. I don't know how Flaubert managed this narrative style but it is really fascinating to see. If you've never read Madame Bovary I highly recommend it. It's good stuff even if you don't want to analyze the themes and details and what not, the story alone is worth the time.