February 14, 2012

The Case Against Madame Bovary

I blame Jennifer Jones.

The actress embodies one of the many glamorous movie versions of Emma Bovary, played by pretty women with pretty features that the camera falls in love with, argues for, advocates.

As helpless as a lovesick suitor coming every day to the door, the pursuing camera pleads the case for these dishonorable belles, no matter how shallow the character may be when she first lifts her bonneted head from the pages of Flaubert’s novel. The camera sees only the roundness of the soft cheek, the smoothness of the black hair with the center part.

Here for instance is Jennifer Jones in the celebrated 1949 Emma Bovary, directed by the lyrical Vincente Minnelli, whose loving camera can never slight a lovely face:



The movies have falsified the petite and petty heroine, much to her advantage. In fact, as written by Flaubert, Emma is a second-rater. Provincial, grasping, full of illusions from cheap romances. Even her beauty is of a parochial sort, more a hybrid of youth and pursed lips, than any quality of soul shining through the eyes.

It is no wonder that the real Emma has never debuted on screen, which is peopled by leading ladies with heightened charisma. The genius of Flaubert is that he writes in a fascinating way about a not fascinating woman. Her self-deluded extramarital affairs, her dream of going to Rouen (as opposed to the more important Paris), even her notion that suicide will seal her indiscretions with a final bit of pathos and poetry are all pedestrian conceits.

It is not Emma who makes the novel she inhabits a masterpiece, but Flaubert’s crystalline commentary on her. Balancing sentences with the precision of a watchmaker, gifted with a musical ear that never gets the better of a much colder allegiance to unadorned facts, Flaubert is famous for the mot juste, the just-right word, doing with one deft phrase what a lesser author might fail to invoke with a string of flabby adjectives.

Here, for instance, is Flaubert making us feel Emma’s boredom, without actually boring us. Note the many glowing phrases that keep cropping up without ever impeding the speed of the passage:

But it was above all at mealtimes that she could bear it no longer, in that little room on the ground floor, with the smoking stove, the creaking door, the oozing walls, the damp floor-tiles; all the bitterness of life seemed to be served to her on her plate, and, with the steam from the boiled beef, there rose from the depths of her soul other exhalations as it were of disgust. Charles was a slow eater; she would nibble a few hazel-nuts, or else, leaning on her elbow, would amuse herself making marks on the oilcloth with the point of her table-knife.

Perhaps a kinder reader would say that Emma was the victim of the romantic novels she read. This is certainly the orthodox gloss in literature classes — poor Emma, mislead by fairytales about dukes and midnight assignations behind the rosebushes of Versailles. But I find this a superficial read. It is not simply the books she read in girlhood but a vapid self-indulgence that allows Emma to get lost in intoxicating excesses like the following: where she imagines what “true love” might be like if only she were loved properly by someone more worthy than her dull, plodding husband:

Did not love require, even as tropical plants, a duly prepared soil, a particular temperature? Sighs breathed beneath the moonlight, prolonged embraces, tears falling upon hands kissed in a last farewell, all the fevers of the flesh, all the languors of tender love, could not then be found apart from the balconies of noble chateaux, where time fleets by unheeded, or from boudoirs with silken hangings and luxurious carpets, from flower-stands filled with richest blooms, a bed raised upon a dais, the glitter of precious stones and the shoulder-knots of liveried flunkeys.

Political readings of the novel in Women Studies classes have favored the Emma as victim trope. Much has been made, for instance, of the following short passage, which neatly excoriates the status of 19th Century women. Notice, however, that it is Flaubert peeking from behind the critique. Emma, as we have come to know her, does not think on this level. She thinks not very far beyond herself and is too grandiose to allow that she might be typical or her plight common. All Emma is imagining is a sort of inchoate revenge.

She hoped for a son; he would be strong and dark; she would call him George; and this idea of having a male child was like an expected revenge for all her impotence in the past. A man, at least, is free; he can explore all passions and all countries, overcome obstacles, taste of the most distant pleasures. But a woman is always hampered. Being inert as well as pliable, she has against her the weakness of the flesh and the inequity of the law. Like the veil held to her hat by a ribbon, her will flutters in every breeze; she is always drawn by some desire, restrained by some rule of conduct.

Now, if you knew her only from movies or through the soft-focus of female victimology, you have finally met the real Emma and can share the annoyance I felt when, in an article on the most unhappy marriages in literature, some intern at the Huffington Post came up with this clanking Frankenstein of a summary, banged together, one feels, from equal parts Wikipedia, Women Studies, and Jennifer Jones.

The benighted juvenile wrote:

Emma Bovary is one of the earliest women in literature to refuse passivity in her empty marriage to an astonishingly boring man. Although (or, perhaps, because) divorce was socially unacceptable, Madame Bovary goes through great lengths to do as much damage to her marriage as possible before her novel ends. She accumulates an insurmountable debt, squeezes in two affairs, and commits a painful suicide before the novel ends, all in an attempt to escape the absolute tedium of her life: “Each smile hid a yawn of boredom, each joy a curse, each pleasure its own disgust; and the sweetest kisses only left on one’s lips a hopeless longing for a higher ecstasy.”

A lot of bloated nonsense. I had no choice but to take to my keyboard in a fury of flying fingers and post the following reply:

“Disagree with your eccentric rewrite of the Bovary story. Emma Bovary’s boredom came from within herself, not from her marriage. She was a thoughtles­s woman, given over to shallow pretension­s and Flaubert’s object lesson in the perils of certain Romantic Era conceits, such as following one’s ‘heart’ and sacrificin­g all for ‘love.’

“As a result, she was an impulsive and selfish woman with no intellectu­al reflection or sense of priorities­. Her seduction by a nobleman takes place during a country fair where manure is being weighed and auctioned — a master stroke by the author. Her second affair with a pretty and much younger man is similarly blind and heedless. Neither of these trysts are remotely about love, though Emma makes the sort of formulaic romantic profession­s she has read in books. These affairs are merely about sensation, on the part of both parties. Emma’s husband is indeed a dull country doctor, but he is not the culprit here. In fact, his simple love for Emma and their child is the only ‘true love’ in this brutal and unsentimen­tal novel.”


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