Madame Bovary – Modern Woman

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.

Decadent young woman. After the dance by Ramon Casas 1899

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?

I recommend

I recommend satire.

This month I read “A Handful of Dust” by Evelyn Waugh. Set in the 1930s, Tony and his wife live a Downton Abbey existence but he is more Mr. Grantham than Lady Mary and does not change with the times. He just rolls along attached to the traditions.

She is a modern lady with modern ideas. She does not like the décor of their stuffy, uncomfortable estate, but does enjoy her monthly day trips to the city. There she meets a man, pushes him into an affair with her and takes a London flat to continue their dalliance.

This could be the subject of any genre, really, but the author is a master of subtle satire. Instead of intimately probing their goings-on, he shows the fallout how all they build, all they hold onto, it but ashes compared to the seriousness with which they give it.

The weight of their concerns likes in sentiment, how it feels. Sentiment is based on certain psychological associations and traditions. Emotions are a combination of cognitive and bodily sensations that can be as influenced by my prejudiced beliefs as by the meal I neglected to eat.

Thus satire can take our unspoken, unconscious conclusions and illustrate to us how they really look.

I recommend “The Princess Bride.”

This is not satire. This is comedy. This is the perfect romantic comedy in which everyone except the villain and his henchman is loveable.

During our most recent viewing, after Westley has been attacked by the R.O.U.S., his shoulder bitten and bleeding, my children marveled, “how come he’s still going if he’s hurt?” The innocents of our home are practically paralyzed by a small cut on the toe. To see a man persevere despite injury puts their passions in perspective.

“Some hard things are worth doing,” we tell them.

The classic hero-villain story in which we do not explore the psychology and woundedness of the villain is ripe with moral lessons children need to learn in their simplicity before they are cognitively ready to take them in their complexity.

I recommend the musical “Hamilton.”

My husband and I were gifted two tickets in July 2017. The musical, now available on Disney+, does the opposite of Waugh’s satire in “A Handful of Dust.” All the founding fathers seek to build something lasting, something built on principle, rather than emotions, sentiments, or passion.

As a modern composition, Lin Manuel Miranda explores and experiments with various ideas of what psychological motivations stood behind these historical actions.

Despite the complexity, George Washington is a hero, a man who is challenged, facing hard things, carrying his own regret, but pushing forward. “There’s nobody else in their country who looms quite as large,” King George acknowledges.

Washington is no saint, but neither is his legacy denigrated by his mistakes. He openly admits to having “led [his] men straight into a massacre” when he was younger. He cautions Hamilton in his desire for glory and upward mobility.

It is a wonder to think what individuals faced in order to build something that has lasted 224 years.

“Congress writes, George, attack the British forces/I shoot back, we have resorted to eating our horses.”

 “A thousand soldiers die in a hundred-degree heat/as we snatch a stalemate from the jaws of defeat.”

Some hard things are worth doing.

While purists are put off by then creative license and avenues taken, when the facts are missing, storytellers are generally allowed to fill in the gaps of our knowledge as they tell the story. As in film, writers condense complex timelines and historical records to highlight particular aspects of the story. I do not recommend “Hamilton” for studying history; I recommend as a study of character.

The desire to build something lasting and the urge to make something of himself motivated Hamilton.

Ideals motivate Jefferson.

The desire to become important and essential motivated Burr. Finding another in the place he desired, his motivation, the emotion that moves his actions, turns to jealousy, leading to this final and conclusive action.

Whether literature, film, or Broadway, there are stories that can teach us something about ourselves. When we identify with a character, we see their actions and principles play out safely at a distance. We can learn without having left our seats. And hopefully, we can improve.

Lyrics taken from memory then confirmed at

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!”