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Monday, November 19, 2012

All she asked was to have something more stable than love to lean upon.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Madame Bovary is a story of unrequited love, affairs, passions of the heart, and an omnipresent and confounding sense of gloom.  Charles Bovary is a country doctor, in the time just before doctors are really sure of what they're doing (botched club foot surgery = amputation - ACK!).  After an unsuccessful first marriage that ends in his wife's untimely death, Charles marries Emma Rouault, the daughter of a country farmer and former patient of Monsieur Bovary. Emma quickly realizes that she does not love Charles; Charles falls head over heels for Emma. Emma is very unhappy, and they eventually move to a small town, Yonville, where Emma gives birth to a daughter, Berthe. (Emma wanted a son.) From here, the story devolves into a series of Emma's affairs with unhappy endings.  She quickly runs Charles into the ground financially by spending extravagantly on her affairs and desires, and manages to keep it a secret until the property in their house is priced to be put up for auction. After some disastrous groveling at the feet of old lovers, local lawyers, and near prostitution, Emma forces her way into the local pharmacy and eats some arsenic. She dies a slow and highly unpleasant death.  Charles is bereft. After many years, Charles eventually finds Emma's old love letters, but can't even bring himself to be angry about her affairs. A haggard, grieving widower, he dies alone in the garden. Berthe is sent to live with an aunt and is forced to work at a cotton mill to earn a living.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Whew! Aren't you feeling so Happy after that one? I liked Flaubert's descriptive writing, and the plot points were interesting, but I found Emma to be a pretty unlovable character. She felt like a less-likable Anna Karenina (and that's Saying something because Anna K was no charmer). All in all, I can't say you should go run out and grab it. Maybe stroll over and contemplate it. Or take it off a 'free books' shelf.

My thoughts, in no special order:
  • On naming their daughter Berthe - I can't say all my associations with the name are negative (I think many of my readers know a very special centenarian named Bertha ;) but in French, it's pretty much the ugliest sound I can think of. Bearrr-ttt-uhhh. It sounds a bit like I'm vomiting when I say it. I guess it's apt, considering how her parents feel about her and how little pen-service Flaubert pays her.
  • Monsieur Rouault, in a letter to Emma - "It grieves me that I have not yet seen my beloved granddaughter Berthe Bovary.  I planted a plum tree for her in the garden under your window, and I won't let anybody touch it except to make preserves for her later on, and I'll keep them in the cupboard for her, for when she comes here." Old Monsieur Rouault was one of the only lovable characters in the book. So of course he ends up paralyzed.
  • The apricot break-up - Definitely my favorite scene in the novel, though it typified the callousness of Emma's lovers.  Rodolphe Boulanger, Emma's second (or first) affair (depending on how you count them), breaks up with her the day they're supposed to run off together. And how does he send her the message? He writes her a letter and puts it under a pile of apricots in a lovely basket and sends a servant over to her house with it. CLASSY, Rodolphe. Reallll classy.
  • Emma and Léon (affair #1 and/or #3) - Léon was sort of nice at first, and they had a good thing going for a while.  Then Emma sort of ruined it and so did he. But anyway, I liked this bit during their stolen moments together: "It was storming, and they talked under an umbrella, by lightning flashes." Romantic! Hazardous. Dangerous. Life-threatening, yes. But romantic! It reminded me of "my mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning)."Oh, Humbert. 
  • On Emma's pervasive unhappiness - "It made no difference. She was not happy, and had never been.  Whence, then, came this insufficiency on the part of life, this instantaneous decay of things upon which she leaned?" I think the saddest part of this book wasn't even Emma's suicide at the end. She was so clearly miserable during the rest of the novel that it seemed almost a relief for her to take the final step. But it wasn't the kind of deep depression or funk that some characters sit, and almost revel in, for whole books (Holden, Raskolnikov, Javert); it was more an unexplained feeling, a sense that all was not quite right. And most likely never would be. 
  • The other title I mulled over for this post was "Early remedies are not what I need." Poor Emma -  even she didn't know quite what it was that she wanted, or how to attain it. And poor Charles for loving her so much (even though she absoLutely did not deserve it). And poor Berthe, for having negligent parents who had to go off and die to leave her working a cotton mill. With that awful, awful name.
Passages I particularly liked:

-- "But now he possessed for life that lovely woman whom he adored. The universe, for him, was no more than the silky ripple of her petticoat." Charles, on marrying Emma

-- "But eagerness for a change of conditions, or perhaps the irritation caused by that man's presence, had been enough to convince her that she at last possessed that great passion which until then had hovered like a great pink-plumaged bird soaring in the splendor of poetic skies - and now she was unable to believe that the tranquility in which she was living was the happiness of which she had dreamed."  Emma, on marrying Charles

-- "They led the sort of existence in which the heart dilates, the senses expand. But life for her was cold as an attic whose window faces north, and boredom, a silent spider, spun its webs in the shadow of every corner of her heart."

-- "Little by little love was extinguished by absence, regret smothered by habit; and that fiery glow which had washed her pale skies with purple sank away into shadow and was gradually obliterated."

-- "For pleasures, like students in a school yard, had so trampled his heart that no green thing grew there, and those who passed that way, more heedless than children, did not even leave their names scratched into the wall as they did."

-- "It was like the sky when a gust of wind drives away the clouds.  The cumulus of sorrowful thoughts which had been darkening them seemed to be withdrawn from her blue eyes; her whole face glowed."

Onwards to better (and hopefully brighter!) things. Thanksgiving, turkeys, pies, Chex Mix, and an adventure with Her Light Elements. Yes. I'm 100% sure I got it this time. ;)