I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: I love reading the classics. They’ve retained their popularity for a reason. Often, after I finish one, I wonder why I even read “modern” lit which may or may not be worth my time.
Such was the case with “Madame Bovary,” which I read because daughter #2 is reading it for AP lit at school. I was not disappointed. This was a fairly easy classic to ‘get into.’ The action moves along, it’s descriptive but not overly so, and it’s well-written. Another point in favor of classics is that they’re often free on Project Gutenberg, so if you have an e-reader, you can read them immediately. Speaking of the “well-written” part, in a book like MB, which is translated from French, this can be affected by the translation. I’m not thinking my free Project Gutenberg translation was the best, as there were several terms that confused me (took a while to realize that “the cure” was the priest or curate, for instance). My daughter’s paper copy was a different (and I’m thinking, better) translation.
So. Emma Bovary is a very passionate lady. She meets Charles Bovary, a pretty average country doctor (“Charles had no ambition”), and they get married. But it’s not long before Emma is bored with her life.
“Accustomed to calm aspects of life, she turned, on the contrary, to those of excitement. She loved the sea only for the sake of its storms, and the green fields only when broken up by ruins. She wanted to get some personal profit out of things, and she rejected as useless all that did not contribute to the immediate desires of her heart, being of a temperament more sentimental than artistic, looking for emotions, not landscapes.”
Emma is addicted to excitement. Several times, I thought of Pa in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, and how he had a restlessness and always wanted to keep moving to a new place. Emma and Charles are invited to a ball, and Emma loves it. She feels it is wrong that she doesn’t regularly get to live such a lifestyle: “She had seen duchesses at Vaubyessard with clumsier waists and commoner ways, and she execrated the injustice of God.”
She embarks on an affair with a rich man who has brought a servant to Dr. Bovary for treatment. Emma is caught up in the passion of this affair, and wants to run away with the man. But he is spooked by this, and leaves her a note on the day they are to leave, in effect standing her up.
The passionate Emma falls into despair, but soon begins another affair, this time with a law student. In this relationship, she spends lavish amounts of money. This continues for a while, but soon her creditor comes calling, and the affair begins to lose its luster: “Nothing was worth the trouble of seeking it; everything was a lie. Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a curse, all pleasure satiety, and the sweetest kisses left upon your lips only the unattainable desire for a greater delight.” “She was as sick of him as he was weary of her. Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.”
While reading the book I often thought of King Solomon of Biblical fame, and his “vanity of vanities” monologues in Lamentations. He was another character who experienced much of the luxury life had to offer, only to find it empty. Emma is definitely in need of some contentment. She could have used The Serenity Prayer taped to her bathroom mirror.
Madame Bovary’s story doesn’t end well (I won’t spoil it in case you haven’t read it). It’s a sad tale of someone whose personality seems bound for destruction and unhappiness. It’s a cautionary tale for all of us.