Madame Bovary (Penguin Classics)
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Feedback: Feedback is left for buyers after purchase has been completed. Should our services meet your satisfaction, your feedback would be greatly appreciated. Should you have an issue or problem with your order, we request the opportunity to make amends or resolve the issue before feedback is left. That may be its deception. The sentence structure, as Mr. Simmons has pointed out, is purposely perfect throughout for reading aloud, in its lengths and pauses.
I did admire the wonderful choices of detail in describing a scene or characters' actions, and the way Flaubert expertly described difficult-to-capture feelings through metaphor. I'm extremely curious how much of the novel's vaunted perfection is lost in translation from French to English, but still I can be appreciative of what comes across. My final impression of the novel's style is that, while I can't point to exactly what its perfection entails, I sense the evidence sufficiently well to accept the opinions of my scholastic betters at face value.
I've not yet addressed what the novel is about. A woman married to a country doctor becomes dissatisfied with her present circumstances, comparing it always to an alternative of which she dreams. Her fatal flaw lies in believing happiness is delivered to oneself as a package with a particular setting, with particular accoutrements.
She lives in her dreams of a fantasy life that is expressly free of all domestic concerns, thoughts for others, practical matters. Her desire for its attainment becomes her only goal of worth, to be had at any cost, for which she begins to excuse herself any action. It is her fascination with the fantasy life she dreams of obtaining that continuously places more distance between her and reality, until she becomes susceptible to those who would take advantage.
Madame Bovary: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) (Paperback)
With even so little external validation as that, she loses all ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality and becomes lost thereafter. What does it all mean?
It's unlikely to simply be a commentary on the immorality of adultery. I've gathered Flaubert was no fan of the bourgeoisie, and this novel may summarize his views: their fascination with haute-culture, their equating it with happiness, and how very far from happiness this attitude taken to its extreme might lead. The flip side interpretation is that Emma's flights of fancy are in fact condoned by the author as insightfulness into beauty, which the staid bourgeoisie community surrounding her is entirely blind even to imagining.
Either way, bourgeoisie get the shaft. I'm going to dare a criticism and say, what I felt missing was Madame's inner thoughts and feelings which led her into marriage. They are so quickly mentioned and then put behind her, I barely grasped what placed her in her predicament. It would have been more satisfying to me had more of the initial story been told from her perspective, so we could witness and better understand what her impressions and expectations of Charles had been.
In spite of that, what I won't dare is to give this novel a less than perfect score.
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I was assigned this in high school--and remember being decidedly unimpressed--bored. Well, I don't think I can blame that on the translation, I just think that there are some books you're incapable of appreciating, if not because you're too young, then maybe because you just haven't read enough. OK, and probably because you're too young at sixteen to really empathize with Emma and her disappointed dreams.
She's a female Don Quixote driven to her ruin by reading too many romance novels. Or so it seems. This time around my magpie soul was entranced by the shiny prose. Even in translation or maybe in this translation by Eleanor Marx Aveling I was struck by the beautiful writing. Apparently some contemporaries complained of too much description--imagine that--in the 19th century a novel known for its "excessive details. But I felt the descriptions weren't mere bagatelle but really did reveal character.
And I was surprised at the sensuality of the prose: As it was empty she bent back to drink, her head thrown back, her lips pouting, her neck straining. She laughed at getting none of it, while with the tip of her tongue passing between her small teeth she licked drop by drop the bottom of her glass. AND It was the first time that Emma had heard such words addressed to her and her pride unfolded languidly in the warmth of this language, like someone stretching in a warm bath. Or this implied description of sex: From time to time the coachman, on his box cast despairing eyes at the public-houses.
He could not understand what furious desire for locomotion urged these individuals never to wish to stop. He tried to now and then, and at once exclamations of anger burst forth behind him. Then he lashed his perspiring jades afresh, but indifferent to their jolting, running up against things here and there, not caring if he did, demoralised, and almost weeping with thirst, fatigue, and depression. And on the harbour, in the midst of the drays and casks, and in the streets, at the corners, the good folk opened large wonder-stricken eyes at this sight, so extraordinary in the provinces, a cab with blinds drawn, and which appeared thus constantly shut more closely than a tomb, and tossing about like a vessel.
Once in the middle of the day, in the open country, just as the sun beat most fiercely against the old plated lanterns, a bared hand passed beneath the small blinds of yellow canvas, and threw out some scraps of paper that scattered in the wind, and farther off lighted like white butterflies on a field of red clover all in bloom. I know, by today's standards tame. But this is set in the s and was first published in serialized form in Maybe the French were less restrained, but in England it's been claimed they were covering the legs of tables because for them to be bare was seen as indecent.
The other complaint of contemporaries according to the book's introduction was Flaubert's "excessive distance"--his ironic tone. From what I gather contemporaries were disconcerted he didn't comment more in the narrative and explicitly condemn Emma. Yet Flaubert never struck me as cold. I remember as a teen dismissing Emma as a rather silly woman. This time around I felt a lot more sympathy for her--even when she does act like an idiot.
Which doesn't rule out feeling sympathy for her wronged husband, either. Interestingly, Flaubert begins and ends with poor Charles Bovary.
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It's an unsparing, unsentimental novel, but not without a sense of intimacy and even painful empathy. This was a surprisingly good read.
I should have known this, of course, seeing as it is an acknowledged classic, but I was afraid it was going to be a classic romance - a book with more feminine appeal. As it turned out it was a fairly biting criticism of the notions in those very books that I dislike. This is a story about romantic notions, unrealistic expectations, destructive behaviours and where these things lead.
And since he's but a middle ranked law clerk, she pays for a lot of it, often with money borrowed from Monsieur Lheureux. As with Rodolphe, the affair with Leon starts to loose its initial passion, because that's what happens in long relationships, and Emma redoubles her effort to maintain her fantasies and gets a little nutty with the emotions and all that. She needs the constant shiny excitement.
Leon starts to back off, especially with his employer and friends urging him to do so. Did I mention that Emma was supposed to be at weekly piano lessons, rather than shacking up with Leon at an expansive hotel? Eventually Monsieur Lheureux calls in all the money he is owed by the Bovaries. They don't have a fraction of it, of course. Emma goes to great lengths to hide this all from Charles, and tries to get money from everyone she can think of, including Rodolphe, but nothing doing.
She eventually steals some arsenic from the apothecary, eats it all up, and spend several pages dying a nasty death. Charles is rather distraught, and he still owes a pile of money.
Then he up and dies one day. Their orphaned daughter ends up working in a cotton mill. The end. From a feminist perspective, we have a couple problems. The men, for one. Lheureux is quite to blame here, but he doesn't end up in any trouble at all. He doesn't even feel bad.
Rodolphe gets very little blame for all this either. They both played Emma like a harp and consciously took every advantage of her. Yet this is not a story about dastardly men; it is a tale about a bad woman, who ruins not only herself but her whole family through her need for excitement.
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And there's problem two. A woman's sexuality can not be separated from her morality as a whole. Ok, Emma sleeps around a little. But she can't do it without completely fucking up the whole rest of her life, and then, of course, dying. At least for women; Rodolphe and Leon get away without damage. I most of all feel bad for Charles. Left to himself, he would have muddled along well enough.
He's not terribly bright, but he loved his wife and daughter, he always tried to do right, and there wasn't a mean bone in his body. He hadn't a clue about Emma's affairs until after her death, when he found some letters from Rodolphe she'd hid in the attic. Had he instead had a wife that was jolly and responsible, they would have had a quaint, uneventful life, and spent their old age by the fireside, doting on grandchildren. Instead, he ends up a disgraced pauper and dead at an early age. Poor guy. Both feature silly young women who have internalized too many cheesy novels.
But one leaves the young woman in question feeling a little ridiculous but alive and well, and mentally better off than when she began.