Friday, June 13, 2008

Thoughts Concerning Madame Bovary

After 4 years of college and 2 more of grad school (both studying literature) — and five years spent learning the French language (and, no, I still can't really speak it) — I have finally read one of Gustave Flaubert's most notable works and can't for the life of me understand why it was never assigned.

I actually read the first chapter a dozen or so times over the past few months, unable to really submerge myself in anything other than Harry Potter and quick hits of poetry.

But I'm back, and reading with a vengeance.

And as for Madame Bovary: once I made it past the first chapter, I was hooked... marveling at Flaubert's understanding of the human psyche, and underlining passages and phrases as though I might be writing a research paper (and forming at thesis) at the end of the term.

The book chronicles the moral collapse of a provincial woman who becomes bored with her small-town doctor husband (who loves her dearly). Emma Bovary has big aspirations in life, and resents being held back by the limitations of her gender in 19th century French society... and not to mention, she could really use a little more disposable income.

But Emma is not entirely the "c you next Tuesday" I may have hitherto portrayed her as being: she is capable of great sympathy and remorse, even at those points when she is unable to control her emotions... and even as she acts out against her husband, who is completely undeserving of her biting remarks.

In fact, her mood fluctuations led me to believe that she might have been what we today term "bipolar" — at times very warm and kind; one moment, passionate and willing to give everything she owns to the world. And the next... spending everything on herself and slinking away into a deep depression.

What amazed me all the while was the third-person omniscient voice that speaks the thoughts and actions of so many characters, with Flaubert brilliantly tapping into the minds of countless personality types. I found his characters to be so believable — even though they are 150 years in the past — because I understood them in a way that pervades time and place.

It was easy for me to see, however, why Flaubert was charged with indecency for this novel; and it was easy for me to see how he was able to escape a conviction on the grounds that Emma — and her entire family — suffers greatly for her sins.

And that is where the novel loses me, for a bit. I could almost sense Flaubert methodically adding plot devices and morals to the closing chapters — all a means of validation, should the preceding pages get him into legal trouble.

That bothered me a bit, as it took a subtle message and made it shout like an impassioned courthouse rebuttal.

And yet: I couldn't help but think that Gustave was smiling wryly as he composed those pages, understanding better than most that no good deed goes unpunished.


disgruntled world citizen said...

i was assigned this book in college. i read it. i hated it.

M@ said...

Never read it and probably never will. I need to get off the CNN and start reading some more. It's awful.

Pamela said...

This book sounds more like something I would read than Slaughterhouse Five. I'm not sure why - but I can't read books or see movies about war. I guess I get enough in the news.