Certain books can determine my emotions to a surprising, slightly scary extent: it's as if the outside world was covered by the book's phantom world. Of course I don't actually start behaving as if I was inside the book - that would give rise to many interesting situations, though -, but I create analogies between my surroundings and the book's mood. Madame Bovary, with its flawless writing, is one such book. I have to say I am glad I have finished it, because it made my reality dull, claustrophobic and nauseating while I was reading it - just like the world of this book.
Don't get me wrong: this is a compliment to the book's power to reach deep inside the reader, make him or her connect to the characters and explore the social setting and, from there, question his or her life choices. It is a classic for many good reasons and I recommend reading it, but it is definitely not a story to leave a smile on you face. Much to the contrary.
As you probably already know, it tells the tragic story of Emma Bovary, a doctor's wife in provincial late-eighteenth century France, trapped by social convention and eaten away by boredom (ennui, in the original French - just because it is closer to the texture of the original). Emma, raised in Romanticism, marries Charles, a doctor who is lacking in intelligence or charm (but who would do anything for her; despite his stupidity, he has a good heart), and, disappointed and bored with her life, takes two lovers (though not at the same time): Rudolphe, a charming member of the nobility who never sees her as a human being capable of feeling, and Leon, a young clerk who she is able to manipulate while the affair lasts. She is not a sympathetic heroine: she spends away the money she doesn't have, neglects her husband and daughter, and eventually wrecks their lives. She lives in a fantasy world and is unable to deal with the dull reality around her. Her actions are determined by her cultural background - she is a victim of Romanticism and of her illusions as much as of the dullness of bourgeois society.
All the same, there is an ambiguity in the way Flaubert treats Emma: he seems to both despise and admire her at the same time. At the time, women enjoyed very little freedom, so Emma's adultery and consumerism are, in a way, brave attempts to escape from her stifling social position. The book masterfully transmits why Emma so wants to escape: the detailed scenes of provincial life are described with unbearable realism, rendering the shallow and dull nature of each and every character (including, alas, Emma Bovary) painfully evident. Flaubert's perfect style - filled with irony, able to reflect the characters' mental state, with each word carefully chosen and placed for maximum effect on the reader - greatly contributes for this effect, and is deserving of every accolade. Though the sentence construction is so well-achieved that it is a source of aesthetic beauty, it must be noted that the nausea pervading the book is achieved through a focus on human ugliness, including quite a few detailed, unflinching descriptions of physical defects and illness. These intensify our sense of the moral and cultural decay of the bourgeoisie, in particular, of the leading character, and force us to confront our own dissatisfaction, illusions and choices.
After all, Emma is killed by the weight of her fantasies, excessive for her own weak character and for the smallness of society around her:
"N'importe! elle n'était pas heureuse, ne l'avait jamais été. D'où venait donc cette insuffisance de la vie, cette pourriture instantenée des choses où elle s'appuyait?... Mas, s'il y avait quelque part un être fort et beau, une nature valeureuse, pleine à la fois d'exaltation et de raffinements, un coeur de poète sous une forme d'ange, lyre aux cordes d'airain, sonnant vers le ciel des épithalames élégiaques, pourquoi, par hasard, ne le trouverait-elle pas? Oh! Quelle impossibilité! Rien, d'ailleurs, ne valait la peine d'une recherche; tout mentait! Chaque sourire cachait un bâillement d'ennui, chaque joie une malédiction, tout plaisir son dégoût, ot les meilleurs baisers ne vous laissaient sur la lèvre qu'une irréalisable envie d'une volupté plus haute."
The fault is is herself, as member of a society she rejects but is unable to fully evade. "Love" fails to save her: there are no magical solutions for existential boredom, which comes from deep inside. Only through facing our own illusions and surroundings and developing our own character can we ever find a form of peace and happiness, though that will probably be very different from the one which resides in our fantasies.
Madame Bovary is a brilliant book, very rich in both ideas and style and extremely influential (looking back, there are echoes of Emma's tragedy in every tale of suburban dullness).
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