The Literary Year: 12 December
Today we can look across the channel at the incredibly influential author, Gustave Flaubert. Were he alive, he'd be 199 today!
Madame Bovary (1856) is undoubtedly his best-known work, but not his only one. For an author renowned for his perfectionism, the 5 years he spent on the novel were a significant investment of time and creative effort. Was it worth it?
Although popular with the reading masses, those of us familiar with 19th Century Literature can well imagine how controversial the subject matter was with 'the authorities' - an ambitious woman who has not one but two affairs ...
There's more to the character, though, and to the story ...
Another - perhaps 21st Century - way of looking at Emma Bovary is that she is a disappointed woman who wants, deserves - as we all do - love, but makes poor choices in trying to achieve it. In this, Feminist Literary critics might also look at the way the novel exposes the hypocritical treatment of women: let's not forget that an affair involves two adults.
This also opens the uncomfortable possibility that love is, ultimately, unattainable ...
Yet others (ahem) might find sympathy for Emma as an avid reader. Flaubert rejected a flowery style in favour of realism, yet time and time again he writes beautifully of the reasons we read - here's an example:
What better occupation, really, than to spend the evening at the fireside with a book, with the wind beating on the windows and the lamp burning bright ... Haven't you ever happened to come across in a book some vague notion that you've had, some obscure idea that returns from afar and that seems to express completely your most subtle feelings?
... and another one:
I'm absolutely removed from the world at such times ... The hours go by without my knowing it. Sitting there I'm wandering in countries I can see every detail of - I'm playing a role in the story I'm reading. I actually feel I'm the characters - I live and breath with them.
Perhaps the most telling one might be:
She was the amoureuse of all the novels, the heroine of all the plays, the vague “she” of all the poetry books.
There might be some bitter lessons in the novel - those of us who spend huge chunks of our lives between the covers shouldn't expect real life to work out like a story ...
No text lives in complete isolation from any other. If you have read Madame Bovary, or are interested in other similar texts, try these:
Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1878): a similarly 'scandalous' heroine is treated badly by her society for choosing a love affair over a boring marriage;
Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891): closer to home, Tess' life exposes the evils of the British class system and the patriarchy, and the plight of women within those hierarchies;
Austen, Northanger Abbey (1817): a lighter and more witty take on the idea that we shouldn't believe everything we read. Catherine Morland's dreams of being a Gothic heroine lead her into all kinds of scrapes ...
What did YOU think of Madame Bovary? Which other texts belong in Emma Bovary's network? Let me know!
If you want a PDF copy of the opening graphic, there's one here.