She thought sometimes that, after all, this was the happiest time of her life--the honeymoon, as people called it. To taste the full sweetness of it, it would have been necessary doubtless t o fly to those lands with sonorous names where the days after marriage are full of laziness most suave. In post-chaises behind blue silken curtains to ride slowly up steep roads, listening to the song of the postilion re-echoed by the mountains, along with the bells of goats and the muffled sound of a waterfall; at sunset on the shores of gulfs to breathe in the perfume of lemon trees; then in the evening on the villa terraces above, hand in hand to look at the stars, making plans for the future. It seemed to her that certain places on earth must bring forth happiness, as a plant peculiar to the soil, that cannot thrive elsewhere. Why could not she lean over balconies in Swiss chalets, or enshrine her melancholy in a Scotch cottage, with a husband dressed in a black velvet coat with long tails, and thin shoes, a pointed hat and frills?
Critic James Wood writes, "Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him. There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him." Wood argues that modern realist begins here, with the author of Madame Bovary, with its carefully chosen detail and the way that observation is refracted through the lens of its characters. Flaubert famously searched for le bon mot, the perfect word, perfectly arranged. Knowing all this, I was nerdily excited to read Madame Bovary.
And, of course, Wood isn't wrong; what Flaubert does in many places is exceptional. Emma, the titular Madame Bovary, is fully realized and expressive. The writing is meticulously mannered, and Flaubert manages to say very much with a very limited arsenal of literary tools.
But for all this, I had a lot of trouble caring about Madame Bovary. I am not one who needs a thrilling, action-packed book, but I couldn't help but feeling that the plot here was exceptionally dull. The focus is on Emma Bovary, the wife of a mediocre doctor living in a rural French town called Yonville-D'Abbaye. Emma loves romantic fiction, and quickly realizes that her marriage simply can't live up to the whirlwind, exciting Parisian romances of her favorite books. She seeks release in two separate affairs, one with a dashing rake named Rodolphe and another with a mild-mannered clerk named Leon. These unfold in the manner that affairs do, with secret meetings, banal lies, and the like, and the entire time we are aware that neither of these feel quiet about Emma the way that they do about her. Perhaps I am just weary of adultery stories--after all, Bovary was roundly criticized as glorifying adultery when it came out, so it was then sort of unique--but my attention flagged. The final chapters of the book stand out as an exception, in which the extravagant bills that Emma has stockpiled in service of her affairs come to a head, and the prospect of financial ruin drives her to desperate acts.
Perhaps also I am just not the right audience. Bovary has been praised for capturing perfectly the manners and attitudes of the French bourgeois, which I suppose it does--I have nothing by way of comparison--but I admit that, try as I might, I cannot make myself care about the manners and attitudes of the French bourgeois.
So let me address one aspect I did find interesting: How are we meant to see Emma? Emma is certainly tragic in that she is undone by her own flaws; her fatuous attachment to romance is what leads her to expense, which leads to her downfall. For example, when Leon suggests that they might be happier in a smaller, less expensive hotel, Emma objects, unable to fathom anything short of the sort of opulence she reads about. Uncharitable audiences might find her character repulsive. I admit that this is my first reaction, as well--her disaffection is understandable, but her husband Charles is at his heart a good man and she treats him cruelly. Yet, there were no options available for a rural doctor's wife to escape her situation in nineteenth-century France, and many have seen Emma as a proto-feminist heroine.
Flaubert once famously remarked, "Je suis Madame Bovary!"--I am Madame Bovary! Reflecting on this, I recalled something I had said to Brent about Catcher in the Rye: That perhaps those who rejected the book because of Holden's character flaws were being willfully ignorant of the same tendencies in themselves. Who of us has not felt like Emma, imagined ourselves in a favorite book, or imagined a scene in our lives that more resembled a movie? Emma's defining characteristic is an aspect of ourselves writ large, and for this I think we ought to show the same empathy that Flaubert does.