This month I revisited Madame Bovary.
Madame Bovary, written by Gustave Flaubert, made waves in its day as a scandalous piece of work in which a married woman pursues adulterous affairs. That tale is, alas, as old as time. What makes Madame Bovary a truly modern woman is her absolute existential boredom.
She was a devout child, but the author tells us time and again, sincerity is not the motivation. Strong emotion is. Bovary desires to be moved, transported, whether through music, poetry, romance or sex. First religion, then novels, then she tries her hand at marriage and homemaking only to find her husband a weak match for her flights of fancy. Motherhood comes next, then adultery.
Through each step the reader witnesses her first delights, then her acclimation to the new passion, then her desperate hope to keep the feeling going, then the abandonment. Either she abandons it or, out of boredom with her, it abandons her.
Her early dabbling into poetry, mythology and novel reading is akin to the excitement and entertainment the modern woman seeks through our endless array of media: cinema, television, the latest Oprah recommended novel, and social media. She wants to be the heroine of the story.
Social media allows the modern woman to believe she actually could be the heroine by seeing other women “like her” have it all in decor, fashion and good sense. Like a good Instagram follow, Bovary pours herself into her home, her marriage and her motherhood.
Bovary tried to follow the rules, but then chucks it all for the thing that feels good. What feels good must be right. She must follow her heart. “You do you” is the modern expression for the rule of unconditional non-judgmental acceptance that works fine for what wall color you want or method for getting your toddler to sleep, but most individuals will draw the line when it comes to vow breaking, murder or self-harm. Relativism can only go so far.
Nothing fills the existential void. She deteriorates further. Emma shops, surrounding herself with beautiful things to forget her misery. Debt accumulates. Credit was more personal in those days, but still just as dangerous.
Her personality faults, the weaknesses of her vision, are much like the modern traps of today. Bovary’s heart desires transports, which speaks to a deeper need for transcendence. She is the mystic who cannot find her vision.
For all her attempts at repentance, the author makes clear she is not seeking real meaning, but just a way to revive the passion she once felt. She is, so to speak, chasing the dragon, looking for transports but not transcendence.
No one can see her for who she is.
The men in her life project their images onto her. She is a darling or angel, she is a fine body, and she is a kindred spirit, she is a monetary opportunity. To the women, she is a shameless piece of work who cannot keep properly house. Not one person sees her as a complete person, able to speak the truth to her of how she fails herself and those around her. The answer to her trouble cannot be found in the world around her.
The Introduction of this particular edition described the Flaubert’s personal views of women. It may be that Emma Bovary is never seen because the author himself was less than capable of seeing women as whole persons.
Writers, painters, musicians, playwrights, and the like, can see deeper into the world and articulate it through their medium. Yet there comes a point when the medium will be limited or exalted through their perception of the world.
Are moments of grace possible, or are we all doomed to follow the trajectory we set out on early in life, determined perhaps so primitively as by our personality? Are we just responsive to physical impulses, incapable of setting meaning to the emotions that move us or satiate us? Flaubert dabbles with deep things but ultimately cannot answer them.
It isn’t the adultery that makes the book a bad book, but the belief that Bovary and the man she married are ultimately doomed because they believed or hoped in something greater than themselves.
When you stop believing in that, what hope is there?