Wednesday, February 25, 2015

MADAME BOVARY by Gustave Flaubert

The notoriety stemming from an obscenity trial propelled this novel to fame, but, as you might expect, it’s chaste by today’s standards.  Emma Bovary, the second wife of a mediocre doctor, is bored and generally disillusioned with life.  To liven things up, she flirts with Léon, but he moves away before their relationship gets out of hand.  Next is Rodolphe, a wealthy womanizer, who leads Emma into adultery.  Their affair loses some of its luster, until Emma’s husband Charles collaborates with the local pharmacist to correct a stable boy’s club foot as a means of making a name for himself.  The outcome is so devastatingly horrific that Emma’s revulsion toward her husband reaches new heights, driving her to rekindle her passion for Rodolphe.  His ultimate betrayal leaves her distraught, until she encounters Léon at the opera and begins her second (and final) affair.  (Two affairs, with absolutely no explicit sex scenes, doesn’t seem very scandalous.)  She travels to Rouen for her trysts with Léon, under the pretense of taking piano lessons, but Charles is still none the wiser.  He’s equally clueless regarding the huge debts his wife is incurring and even grants her power of attorney.  Even if he doesn’t notice that her piano expertise has not improved, one would think he would notice all of the extravagances that he can’t possibly afford.  His oblivion certainly helps explain why he’s such an unsuccessful doctor.  He’s a textbook case of someone who sees only what he wants to see, and he worships Emma.  He is the true tragic figure here, beguiled by a woman who treats him like dirt.  Their daughter Berthe is almost a footnote, but she is another casualty of Emma’s misdeeds.  My edition has a foreword by Mary McCarthy in which she suggests that Flaubert knew several women who could have been the inspiration for Emma Bovary.  (Rule of thumb:  Save the foreword to read after finishing the novel.  The same goes for dust jacket blurbs.)  As they say, write what you know.  About the only compliment I can pay this book is that it was very readable.  That’s not to say that it wasn’t a struggle, because it was.  Also, I found the title mildly intriguing, as there are actually two Madame Bovarys—Emma and Charles’s mother, who, like her son, has a despicable spouse.  The contrast between the two women is striking:  Emma has the potential for a contented life but is too restless to find joy in it, while her mother-in-law soldiers on, making her own way, despite the burden of a dissolute husband.

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