REVIEW | Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis

image via Strand

image via Strand

title: Madame Bovary [support an independent bookseller and buy at Strand]
by: Gustave Flaubert      translated by: Lydia Davis
genre: classic/literary fiction
pages: 342
published: 1856    this translation: 2010
source: my personal library

GENERAL SPOILER ALERT: If you’ve never read Madame Bovary, and would like to discover it with no previous knowledge of the plot, I suggest you stop here. Since it was published in the 1856, I’m writing with the assumption that the cat’s out of the bag in terms of any plot twists, and you’ve probably read it already or are super familiar with the plot. So, if not, stop. Now. You’ve been warned.

“We should not touch our idols: their gilding will remain on our hands.” (page 250)

First off, I want to start by saying that Lydia Davis is a FABULOUS translator.  Like Anna Karenina, I also own another older translation, but just wasn’t grabbed by it in the way that I was by Davis’ work.  Brava!

Flaubert was quite the pioneer. To quote James Wood from How Fiction Works:  “Flaubert established for good or ill, what most readers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible.”  That’s a pretty damn huge accomplishment, to write the piece that majorly influences the way novels are written. And the story absolutely stands the test of time.  So many of the issues Emma deals with over the course of the book (her shopping problem and subsequent refusal to face her mounting debt, all of her relationships with men, etc), and the way she deals with (or refuses to deal with) these issues appear again and again in literature as well as in life.  Think about The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.  Emma Bovary could absolutely take Adrienne Maloof‘s spot and fit right in…

Poor Charles.  image source

Poor Charles.
image source

Emma is such a polarizing character, which is a testament to Flaubert’s talent.  She’s a character that I understood, I identified with, but I didn’t necessarily always like…and I think that was what Flaubert intended. Not to get all Freudian on you, but Emma, in many ways, is a living, breathing embodiment of the id, that little voice most of us are able to overrule that is needles us to just do what feels good, even if it’s not the right or responsible thing to do, consequences be damned.  Emma’s not really big on consequences.  Not once does she really concern herself with how her husband would FEEL if he should find out about her persistent cheating.  She’s more worried about what it would mean for her if he found out.  She spends money her husband doesn’t have, taking out loan after loan, the terms of which she doesn’t make any real attempt to understand.  She’s not worried about what financial ruin would do to Charles or even Berthe but about how she can save herself from going to court.  Completely self-focused, but not in an irritating, shallow way…it feels more desperate than that, and thus far more complex and human.   I think Emma represents the restless part in all of us, the piece that’s constantly searching for what will ultimately make us happy.  And what Emma thinks will make her happy is love. Or her twisted delusional understanding of it.  Emma spends the entire novel searching for a kind of love that doesn’t exist, for some grand exquisite FEELING, and when she doesn’t find it, it proves to be her ultimate undoing.

Flaubert tells us that Emma has gained her understanding of love from novels, which, in this time period, tended to portray love as this  grand passion, full of intense feelings and heaving bosoms…all the hallmarks of infatuation and lust.  The problem with this definition is that it fails to recognize that much of love is a choice.  Maybe we don’t necessarily choose who we fall in love with, but we definitely choose how we love that person.   Love lies in the decisions we make when we commit to share that love.  The decision to be honest, to communicate effectively, to compromise, to nurture, to persist, etc.  Unfortunately, open and honest conversations about love and marriage weren’t exactly daily occurrences at this time in history, and most people didn’t get married because they felt a desperate, all-consuming passion for someone.  They got married because that was what society expected of them, and their partner was selected based on who was the most acceptable, beneficial option.  Case in point: think about Charles’ first wife, Madame Dubuc, whom Flaubert tells us the elder Madame Bovary “found” for her son.  Madame Dubuc was…

“…a baliff’s widow from Dieppe, who was forty-five years old with an income of twelve hundred livres.

Although she was ugly, thin as a stick, as pimpled as the budding spring,* Madame Dubuc certainly had no lack of suitors to choose from.  To achieve her ends, Mere Bovary was obliged to supplant them all, and she very skillfully foiled even the intrigues of a pork butcher favored by the clergy.

Charles had foreseen in marriage the advent of a better situation, imagining that he would have more freedom and would be able to do as he liked with himself and his money.  But his wife was the one in charge; in company he had to say this, not say that, eat no meat on Fridays, dress as she expected, pester at her command those clients who had not paid. She would open his letters, spy on his movements, and listen to him, through the wall, whenever he saw patients in his office, if they were women.”  (pages 10-11)

*BURN! Point: Flaubert.

In just these few sentences, we learn THE MOST IMPORTANT THING about Charles, the thing that will be shown to be true over and over and over again in the story: He has no spine.  None.  He’s almost Emma’s foil in that way, and though opposites may attract, marrying your foil is a BAD CALL.  Whereas Emma is ruled exclusively by her will, he seems to completely lack a will of his own, or at least the balls to exercise it.   The women in his life control EVERYTHING, starting with his mother and ending with Emma.  Even his neighbor, Monsieur Homais , is able to convince him to perform a risky operation on a local man that Charles absolutely knows he has NO BUSINESS performing (even Charles knows he’s a mediocre doctor at best), which ultimately results in said local man losing his leg (!!!!!).  He is so easily manipulated and taken advantage of, I found myself alternately pitying him and yelling at him as I read.  But Charles has one redeeming quality that ultimately made me root for him:  he’s loyal.  I just wish he would have extended some of the same loyalty to himself that he showed to others…maybe he wouldn’t have ended up alone on a bench.

But back to conflicting notions of love:  Charles expresses love through acts of loyalty.  He mourns Madame Dubuc’s passing because that’s what good husbands do.  He enjoys catering to Emma’s many whims because her happiness is ultimately what makes him happy. He does well with duty.  He’s that kind of guy.   Emma, on the other hand, is constantly searching for the man to whom she can give herself completely, and really feels a loyalty only to herself.  She follows an incredibly predictable pattern:  she meets a man who shows feelings for her. He professes his love. She makes a thinly veiled attempt to refuse his attentions out of modesty, then ultimately GIVES herself to said admirer, because that’s the literary model she’s been provided with.  It’s what heroines in novels did.

“Before her marriage, she had believed that what she was experiencing was love; but since the happiness that should have resulted from that love had not come, she thought she must have been mistaken.  And Emma tried to find out just what was meant, in life, by the words bliss, passion and intoxication, which had seemed so beautiful to her in books.” (page 30)

(n.b. As frustrating as dating it, I’m beginning to think it’s a nice evolutionary step forward.  If we just married the first person we were infatuated with, the vast majority of us would be in horribly unhappy marriages.  Dating at least allows you to really get to know someone, to get past the haze of infatuation, before you decide to make the ultimate commitment.) Even Charles’ mother sees that these novels are not the best thing for Emma to be reading, which is really Flaubert underscoring for the reader where Emma’s delusions stem (and is possibly a not-so-thinly veiled comment on the non-realistic romance novels of his time?).  This surrendering of herself is pretty pathetic, but the literary models Emma had were mostly likely written by men, so it’s really no surprise that the balance of power is skewed in favor of her male partner.  And the partners she chooses! We have Rodolphe, who is an absolute shit, who we know for a fact is in the habit of collecting  mistresses and is just using Emma to get it in.  And does he ever.

“[Emma to Rodolphe] ‘Some other women may be more beautiful, but I am better at loving you! I’m your servant and your concubine!  You’re my king, my idol! You’re good! You’re handsome! You’re intelligent! You’re strong!’

He had heard these things said to him so often that for him there was nothing original about them.  Emma was like all other mistresses; and the charm of novelty, slipping off gradually like a piece of clothing, revealed in its nakedness the eternal monotony of passion, which always assumes the same forms and uses the same language.”  (page 167)

Rodolphe is about as jaded about love as Emma is sentimental.  Not a good combo.

Back to Emma’s pattern: after said “giving of herself,” she continues to chase the dragon of infatuation that she mistakes for love. With every encounter with each of her lovers, she expects these intense feelings to be present, and when they’re not there, it shakes her to the core.  She’s constantly chasing that high.  At times, it’s like watching a drug addict go after their next fix.  And there’s a desperation in this, which is ultimately a turn off to the men she’s with, and is entirely understandable.  Regardless of the time period, desperation is never a good look.  Her behavior becomes increasingly reckless as the story progresses, so by the time Rodolphe has dumped her and she’s moved on to Leon, she is ABSOLUTELY COMPROMISING HERSELF ALL OF THE TIME.  The way Emma just catapults herself forward in her quest for perfect romantic love gives the novel a great momentum, but also, for the empathetic reader, becomes increasingly uncomfortable to read.  Even if you don’t know the ending, it’s obvious the novel is not going to end well.

Emma and Leon literally running off to have some sex in the 1975 BBC adaptation. image source

Emma and Leon literally running off to have some sex in the 1975 BBC adaptation.
image source

To the writing: The scene where Emma “gives herself” to Leon is my favorite in the book.  Flaubert is so damn clever.  When they jump into the coach outside the Rouen Cathedral, we know they’re getting it on, but all Flaubert gives us is an endless listing of all the places that coach is passing.  So many places in fact that a couple of paragraphs in you’re like OMG WHAT ARE THEY DOING IN THERE?  ARE THEY GYMNASTIC RABBITS????  TALK ABOUT STAMINA!!!!  DAMN!!!   Finally we get a slightly disheveled Emma disembarking the coach. Just brilliant.  His lack of description of the actual act reveals quite a bit after all.

I would also like to give props to Flaubert for not engaging in slut shaming, which is surprisingly modern of him.  Emma is a fallen woman,  but Flaubert presents her as such without moralizing by taking us inside her descent, which is far more complex than just “she cheated on her husband and therefore was punished by the universe.”  I think anyone who walks away from reading this book thinking “well, Emma just a big slut” has missed the entire point of the novel.  Yes, Emma has sex outside her marriage, but with men she feels she loves.  Is she monogamous? No.  Promiscuous?  Not really.  She has lots of sex with only three partners over the course of her life, which is a lot less than many contemporary women.   Is she lost? Absolutely.  Clinically depressed? Strong possibility.  She may be one of fiction’s first portrayals of a compulsive personality (the love addiction, the shopping addiction, her mood swings…I’m no Dr. Drew, but the more I think about it, maybe contemporary Emma Bovary belongs more on Celebrity Rehab than on The Real Housewives…). But she’s not a whore.  In fact, during her final desperate hours of trying to solve her insane debt, she could have banged the notary when he propositioned her and it would have probably helped her out, but she says flat-out “I’m not for sale.”  I think that shows a fairly evolved attitude toward sex on Flaubert’s part.  Again, bravo.

Rubric rating: 9.5.  LOVE LOVE LOVE.  (Which should come as no surprise, considering I have the phrase “le mot juste” tattooed on my arm.)

P.S.  Madame Bovary is apparently going to be a movie with Mia Wasikowska as Emma and Ezra Miller as Leon.  I couldn’t find who’d been cast as Charles, but Paul Giamatti will apparently play Monsieur Homais, which I think is perfect.   At least Baz Luhrmann is not directing.

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2 thoughts on “REVIEW | Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis

  1. Pingback: 2013: My Year in Books | wine and a book

  2. Pingback: Review: Report From the Interior by Paul Auster | wine and a book

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