As I draw near the end of reading (rereading) Madame Bovary, I find myself shocked at how contemporary/modern Emma is for a character in a 19th century novel. Aside from the setting and the consequences, Flaubert’s development of Emma as she goes from romantic farmer’s daughter to bored middle class housewife to adultress is chilling modern psychology. Of course, as other critics have noted, if Emma were a late 20th century character, she would’ve gone to a psychiatrist (or perhaps a marriage and family counselor) and probably would have been prescribed antidepressants to deal with her malaise.
But, still she stands out. Jane Eyre, on the other hand, while certainly a stronger character, a woman willing and able to withstand substantial suffering in order not to compromise her sense of self, is still a woman of the 18th/19th century: She values marriage and family and waits until the right person (Rochester) comes into her life. And she is willing, even after coming into her own fortune, to serve Rochester (although by the time they reunite he needs the help). In her character, though, is a precursor to a moderate feminist model. That, I would think, couldn’t be said for Emma Bovary.
Many have said it’s difficult to actually like Emma Bovary. I’d say it’s really difficult to like Flaubert’s characters, in general; as with real people each has his or her own flaws. It’s not necessary to like a literary character, though. But I do, as many others, have sympathy for Emma. I also admire Flaubert’s psychological insight into adultery itself. In Emma we find ourselves. If anyone has never longed for something different than what she has, or have found themselves unsatisfied and unhappy with their circumstances, then they can’t be living. The Buddhists know that every moment we are alive, we desire something. How we act on those desires determines our fate. We are indeed Emma Bovary.
As Emma recklessly spends and as creditors come to take the Bovary estate away, I suddenly felt as if Flaubert had been staring into my own life. As I read, my father’s (not be too personal) own straying down the Bovary path, sinking his family into debt, came to mind. This is real, I thought of the book. This is how these things happen.
I remember in grad school discussing the various literary theories, and how exciting theory was. Back then I had a distaste for Reader Response theory, which basically said, as I understood it, that it’s the reader who makes the meaning. I was much more keen then on Barthes and Bakhtin and unraveling discourse in the texts (as theorists like to call books). Now, though, I prefer reading the oldfashioned way, following narrative and story and character and discovering meaning as I read. And I’ve discovered the meaning changes when you read. I first read Flaubert in my early twenties and was much more in sway to the book’s romanticism and to characters like Roldolphe.
Now, though, I sympathize with one character and then another. I was deeply touched by Emma’s funeral. Though I thought Charles was a bit too overwrought, I understood the grief, having recently lost both parents. It’s the strength of Flaubert’s storytelling that makes Madame Bovary such a fresh novel.