Lydia Davis’ translation of Madame Bovary was deemed the most ‘scandalous’ novel of all time by Playboy. Yes, you read that right. From publication, it titillated the sexually deprived and outraged “civilized” society, so much so that Flaubert was taken to court for obscenity. Nothing like a book about attraction, sex, and infidelity to get the nineteenth-century blood boiling.
It’s not really surprising then that opinion is divided when it comes to Emma, the infamous Bovary of the title. Is she sympathetic heroine, or pathetic housewife?
Nurtured in a nunnery, her life consisting predominantly of religious worship and the surreptitious reading of romance novels, Emma’s expectations of the outside world are understandably skewed. Inevitably, her marriage to country doctor, Charles Bovary, proves dissatisfying. Bored and craving her fictional reality, Emma becomes infatuated with the first adequate candidate: handsome student, Leon. He soon distances himself, however, hindered by a pesky conscience and in my opinion, a subconscious awareness of Emma’s instability. But all is not lost, for Rodolphe, another handsome bachelor, intends to settle in the village. Emma immediately showers him with affection, pinning on him all of her hopes and desires, much to Rodolphe’s alarm. Being what one might call a player, Rodolphe is rapidly deterred by Emma’s adoration and cuts the affair short. Emma now feels as if her romantic notions aren’t as straightforward as initially thought, and is accordingly miserable. She takes to her bed in mourning. At this point, one might think it prudent for Emma to give up the pursuit of romance altogether. She does not. Emma is reunited with the old flame Leon, and feeling the throes of infatuation for the third time, embarks on another affair. This romance, unsurprisingly, concludes tragically, death and misery abounding.
Clearly, Emma and her romantic notions cause a significant amount of trouble. The real question concerns whether she is justified. Can we sympathise with Emma despite her bad behaviour?
Whilst some people might point the finger at conservative nineteenth-century society, patriarchy and unbalanced conjugal roles, I am reluctant. Can anything justify Emma’s coldness, her cruelty? Her selfishness? Can we write off her naivety and petulance? Her reckless handling of money? She ensures her own and her family’s destitution for the sake of pretty dresses, riding crops, and golden curtains. And then, sensing no resolution to her financial difficulty commits suicide. Charles then dies, presumably from a broken heart, and her daughter is sent to live with an aunt (very Jane Eyre) who, herself impoverished, forces the child to work in a cotton mill. Don’t you just love a happy ending?
Emma’s character is unpleasant, her behaviour even more so. But isn’t she just a little bit too relatable?
Emma lives for fantasy. All of her expectations, her desires romantic and otherwise, are a direct result of her reading. Madame Bovary Senior wasn’t wrong when she said the source of Emma’s melancholy was the romance novel. And we sympathise. As bibliophiles, we fall in love with fiction every time we read. We know what it is to close a book and to somehow still be absorbed within it; the beauties of our own reality paling in comparison to the ones we invigorate with our own minds. We know what it is to be ruined by impossible expectations. Is it any wonder that dissatisfaction abounds when we’re waiting for a Hogwarts letter? Is it any wonder that Emma is dissatisfied when Charles is essentially a slim Uncle Vernon with a somewhat nicer disposition?
Escapism is a drug and Emma is addicted. Can we condemn her for that when we are too?
We are not Emma. We know that the fictional and the actual are two very different things. We inhibit our expectations, we restrain ourselves.
Is this a blessing or a curse? Is there weakness or strength in restraint? Is Emma’s liberality brave or foolhardy?
Madame Bovary is a woman who chases delusion, she stops at nothing to attain the unattainable. Her disregard for conjugal roles, norms, and etiquette is construed as empowering. She turns the obligation of a nineteenth-century wife and mother on its head, assumes control within her marriage and beyond it. She handles finances, dominates in the bedroom, she carves the roast beef at the dinner table. Emma’s final act is perhaps itself empowering, it is an act which demonstrates ultimate control over one’s fate, an act which continues to manipulate Charles from beyond the grave. But what makes Emma powerful also makes her unpleasant, spiteful, selfish, cruel, prone to self-destruction. Flaubert is subversive – Emma’s empowerment becomes a mockery, a suggestion that strong women are simultaneously fallen women, corrupted. Her control of finance concludes with bankruptcy, her dominance causes her suitors to abandon her, her life concludes, symbolically, in the marital bed with a drawn out and gruesome suicide. She has achieved nothing. Her rebellion has meant nothing.
Perhaps it is easier to sympathise with Madame Bovary’s situation than it is her character. Emma is cold, a sirenesque figure leading young men astray. But it is impossible not to appreciate her pluck, her fire. No other nineteenth-century heroine would dare have adulterous sex in a moving carriage traveling through Rouen. That, if nothing else, is certain.