Madame Bovary

Occasionally, after I slip one too many needless literary references into my conversation, people will tell me that I’m well read.

While I may preen and strut, the fact is that I should be: literature was my degree after all. 3 years of whistling through the classics may not leave one with many vocational skills, but they give one enough ammunition for a lifetime of obnoxious references. Not, however, enough. I recently stumbled across this note I wrote in Facebook back on a cold dark February night in 2008, my final year at University, yearning to read beyond the syllabus:

BOOKS I shall READ when my LITERARY LIFE is once more MY OWN!
2 February 2008 at 19:18

Please suggest/dissuade – those with * mean I don’t know which book to read of an author…
Also are any of these worth it: Kafka, Rushdie, Roth, Coelho, Amis?

Crime and Punishment
To Kill a Mocking Bird (I know, I just never got round to it)
Wuthering Heights (ditto)
Love in the Time of Cholera, Garcia Marquez (despite the dirgeful trek that was 100yrs solitude)
Brideshead Revisited, Waugh
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
Ian Mcewan, all
Never Let Me Go, Kasauo Iziguro [sic]
Hemingway *
The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
Lolita, Nabokov
William Dalrymple, any
A S Byatt *

The Frenchies:
Balzac *
Maupassant *
Baudelaire *
Zola *
Sartre ~ La Nausee

Plus, the only one I have already bought: Jilly Cooper, Wicked.

How COULD I have said that about One Hundreds Years of Solitude, now a passionate top ten’er?! At least I knew my Jilly Cooper already. I’m happy to say I’ve now read all of the main list (excepting Crime and Punishment which I can live without), but “The Frenchies” continued to evade me. At long last, having missed out on a Flaubert reference-fest, I found time for arguably the father of C19th novels: Madame Bovary.

An intern at work has read this in the original which, she assures me, is too florid for words and almost impossible to get through. Not so the translation I tried, which was simple to a fault. To my surprise, I whipped through MB in a week. While I would argue to the death for the superiority of George Eliot over Flaubert, MB is a classic for a reason. I only wish I had studied it at Uni so I could have gotten more out of it, because it’s packed and could be analysed every which way.

The area I found most interesting, however, was the profound modernity of Emma’s psyche. A young woman obsessed with fantasy with a complete sense of entitlement to the most privileged lifestyles of her day, I found that Emma reminded me vividly of the new Sofia Coppola film The Bling Ring, which portrays a gang of Hollywood teenagers breaking into celebrities’ homes and stealing from them to get a taste of that most lofty of modern day society. Emma’s dreams of romance, carriages and fripperies are merely the precursor to this more modern story of envy and crime. Though the meaning of “high society” may have evolved, human obsession with it is as strong today as it ever was, and for me that makes Emma remarkably current and relevant as a character.


Another aspect of the story which resonates profoundly today is the financial difficulties into which Emma is inveigled through a mixture of confusion, encouragement, and that sense of entitlement again. The character of Lheureux – the tradesman who not only encourages Emma to buy, buy, buy, but also winds her into financial arrangements so complicated and detrimental that Emma cannot comprehend it – is similarly the precursor to modern society, with its payment-on-credit, pay-day-loan, you’re-worth-it bombardment. At one point, Flaubert writes that Emma is reassured by the very quantity of the sum she owes, as it is too vast to be taken seriously. In a world where (anecdotally) some people think that a high percentage of APR on a loan is a GOOD thing, and the knots and loops of personal finances are beyond the comprehension of most people, the ease with which Emma spins herself into life-changing poverty unawares is very relevant. I find it very interesting that Flaubert chose that the thing that ultimately brings Emma down was not her serial adultery, but the state of her finances.

The ease with which we can accommodate Emma into today’s society is testament to the emotional honesty and depth of her portrayal – she is a breathing living personality, not a stock character, stuck in the nineteenth century. As a result, MB is timeless.


2 thoughts on “Madame Bovary

  1. Pingback: Us | Room of Joy

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