Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Emma Bovary is the second wife of a country doctor, a man she believes will give her the life of romantic bliss that is the stuff of her daydreams, formed from novels, art and music rather than from any observation of real life. Her story is a tragedy, as it must be. Daydreams are perfection, and none of us get that.
She has two affairs, managing to hide both from her husband, who for some reason adores her. She financially ruins him and neglects their daughter, leaving her to be raised by a servant.
Emma's biggest problem is Emma. It must have been the condition of her times that made her feel happiness should be handed to her. She had no concept of it being something you build from the materials you have available. She was doomed from the beginning, and in the end she had to face reality. "She now knew the smallness of the passions that art exaggerated." She commits suicide, and even that turns out to be a disappointment. It's supposed to be a dramatically romantic end to the life of a young beautiful woman; instead, it takes a long time to die, and it is painful and ugly. Not the impression she wanted to leave at all.
If I was supposed to feel sympathy for Emma, I'm afraid I failed. I felt for her husband and child, both of whom loved her to the end no matter how she treated them. Life with them may have been dull, but she did choose it. She never outgrew her childish need for immediate gratification and her selfishness ruined all their lives. It's a tragedy, not just for Emma, but for the entire Bovary family.
In spite of my dislike for Emma, I did enjoy the reading - most of the time. There were a few passages that ran on but on the whole it was good. It was meant to be a statement about the reality of boredom and monotony in the average marriage and the average life, and Flaubert succeeded at that. I found this quote particularly poignant: "Besides, 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." Still, I didn't at any point feel any connection with Emma. She was intolerably shallow; I lost patience with her early on and never got it back.
One of my pet peeves with nineteenth century novels is the exaggerated drama and there was plenty of it here. At one point Emma is sitting near a window in her home when she sees a carriage go by. In it is the man with whom she has just broken off an affair. Now, it's natural that seeing him would have some effect on her emotions, but Emma's reaction...? "Emma uttered a cry and fell back rigid to the ground." Then, "brain-fever set in". She was bed-ridden for weeks, weak, unable to eat and almost dying. Either this is ridiculously over dramatic, or women of that time were so frail that it's a wonder they ever survived serious stress....like say, childbirth.
I am glad I read it. For one thing I found a quote that puts into words a thought I've tried in vain to express since my father died 15 years ago: "There is always after the death of anyone a kind of stupefaction; so difficult is it to grasp this advent of nothingness and to resign ourselves to believe in it." For another, I'll understand references to it in other writings, and best of all, it's one more title I can cross off my Guilt List! Yay!