Imagine the long days that feel like weeks; for nothing happens. You get up, and make of yourself a masterpiece; taking all morning, as you draw it out, minutes into hours as your portrait emerges in the mirror. You dress; to change again later, and once more for dinner; at least five times during the day. What else is there to do? No daytime TV, radio or the internet. There are no friends; the village is covered in minutes. Ah, but the neighbours you say. Would you speak to them? Imagine it, everyday the same. The boredom! It gets worse. Think of the dullest person you’ve ever met. Think about them now, and recall how they sent you into a coma… Now imagine spending every single day with them. The same stories every evening; and later a whole night in bed together; you only hope they don’t speak; their snores more interesting than their conversation. No humour, no interests, their sensitivities merely sentimental fumbling… Imagine it. Can you? I’m not sure you can. There is no escape to Manchester or London. They’re too far away, and you’re imprisoned in the countryside; one trip to Saffron Walden every six months. Imagine it all. Go on. And think about it, carefully; about how you would cope; and what you would do….
Charles’ conversation was as flat as a street pavement, on which everybody’s ideas trudged past, in their workaday dress, provoking no emotion, no laughter, no dreams. At Rouen, he said, he had never had any desire to go and see a Paris company at the theatre. He couldn’t swim, or fence, or fire a pistol, and was unable to explain a riding term she came across in a novel one day.
He is dull and stupid; more boring than the town you live in. Nothing excites you. Today is the same as yesterday; and there will be no surprises tomorrow. Sometimes there are compensations: riches to decorate large mansions; a title to attract the dignitaries (and nincompoops; how you can laugh at them!); or brains, to garner a reputation - the boredom redeemed in history’s pages. But what if he has no qualities; only the happiness you give him?
Whereas a man, surely, should know about everything; excel in a multitude of activities, introduce you to passion in all its force, to life in all its grace, initiate you into all mysteries! But this one had nothing to teach; knew nothing, wanted nothing. He thought she was happy; and she hated him for that placid immobility, that stolid serenity of his, for that very happiness which she herself had brought him.
You move to a small town. Even that is asleep,
…sprawled along the bank like a cowherd taking his siesta by the waterside.
You’d accept all of this quite easily? Complain a bit, moan possibly a lot; and take some pleasure from his monthly embraces, though he excites you not at all. You’d listen to his daily events tramping over the table; while you tire yourself knitting socks for the kids you produce in abundance. Is that what would you do? Accept it all; adapting yourself to the provincial realities; become boring too. Easy as that, is it? You’ve got no spunk! Is this what you are telling me? The two of you a perfect match; while you live comfortably inside your defeat. You want our approbation? Ha!
Think about it some more. You’re still young and beautiful and a poet falls in love with you. You reciprocate. Nothing happens, of course; it is the romance of knights and troubadours. But how exhausting, with all that emotion expressed only in words and long loving looks; if only you were not married; free like those deer in the woods. No! You wear the corset of provincial respectability; laced in tight you can only sigh with unhappiness. Eventually, the poet leaves with his verses. The boredom returns, and there is nothing to relieve it, until… a young lord seduces you. You are an innocent, and your days a municipal hall full of lifeless moments… Would you resist when he touches your cheek, your arm, puts his hand so gently on your thigh, tickling your ears with his sweet phrases; and he strokes you hair, touching your lips... You would? Would you now. The beautiful Madame Bovary could not. Should we simply condemn her? In another classic about a tragic decline there are some wise words from Goethe:
Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, den können wir erlösen.
Whosoever unceasingly strives upward… him can we save.
Under the Volcano is about a hero who does give up, and therefore cannot be saved. Emma Bovary has a lot more life; she doesn’t want to accept what the world has given her; she wants to be better than Firmin, the Mexican consul too weak to defeat his foes: fate and circumstance. So she rebels against her reality, but like Don Quixote chooses the wrong guides; taking the fanciful constructions of romances and novels for the real thing. But unlike the great Don she doesn’t have a faithful and streetwise servant; and her fantasies are not noble acts, to benefit humanity, or the Madonna of courtly love. Her desires are purely personal, more physical and sensuous. She doesn’t tilt at windmills, but mistakes a rogue for Byron. He opens the dam, and it floods the rest of her life. The emotions rule, all her ideals go, until lust is the only thing left. Sex for the sake of sex; and even the novels have changed. Orgies and death: love’s pornography; the body in control.
Her first love affair with Léon was chaste.
She was in love with Léon; and she sought solitude that she might revel in his image undisturbed. It marred the pleasure of her daydreams to see him in the flesh… But her pride, her joy in saying ‘I am a virtuous woman’, and in contemplating her own attitudes of resignation in the mirror, brought her some solace for the sacrifice she believed herself to be making.
After the debacle of Rodolphe she meets Léon again. It is the closest she will come to the novels she reads. However, her fine sentiments are overcome by sexual pleasure.
She snatched off her dress and tore at the thin laces of her corsets, which whistled down over her hips like a slithering adder. She tiptoed to the door on bare feet to make quite sure it was locked; then made a single movement and all her clothes fell to the floor. Pale, silent, serious, she sank into his arms with a long shudder.
Words on a page. Aren’t they beautiful? And how safe and innocent! All that love - the sighs and passionate kisses, the soft comedy between the sheets – and yet it ends so quietly with the last full stop. But what happens when we step out of the book? Words are such poor protection! The ornate phrases, the patchwork of intricate metaphor, are easily discarded; they’re the chiffon nightgown your lover chucks on the floor. Words have turned flesh, and desire is free, and thus ravenous; and must be fully satiated. But what if that’s all you’ve got: this island of sexual ecstasy within a sea of boredom? Can the craving ever be satisfied? Emma’s story suggests not, for although she ends up feeling little for Léon, even though she loves him, she cannot live without their sexual congress. However, she buys her oblivion with credit bills; that increase with her desire’s need. Love and money fuse into one fateful urge: to consume herself within one loving moment. But no-one can stay in the hotel room forever… The bills are her emotional capital; and we quickly see how much she has spent; and how little she has left to give. As a person she is broke. All her hopes, her ideals, all the human personality, reduced to an animal craving; which robs her of her character. There is nothing left but for the bailiff to come, and to remove all her property. By rights he should remove herself.
Julian Barnes in a superb review of a new translation discusses the translator’s lack of sympathy for the heroine – she believes her to be heartless and unthinking. The most common view amongst book groups, apparently: nobody likes Madame Bovary. Barnes disagrees. For him Emma has too much wrong thinking and wrong feeling; and this is what destroys her. He’s right, of course, but I wonder how she could have acquired the right thoughts and the right feelings. Her character stands out from the crowd. She has a sense of style, some imagination; and there is her beauty, fatally. She recognises these qualities, and has a feel for her own importance; her difference from those around her. And it is a justified pride – others recognise her quality. She is almost haute bourgeois, but is surrounded by the lower middle classes and the peasantry; of which her husband could be one. She is out of place, and she can’t adapt; while escape doesn’t seem possible. Except in fantasy. She is too big for this world, yet cannot transcend it; she can only live an imaginary existence. But yes, you say, this may well be true, but you are too kind. Madame should have been stronger; a better, more loving mother and wife; and how her husband loved her. He was a saint, albeit a stupid one. But imagine it. Day after day you’re his doll he puts in his pocket; with the cigarette ash, the sweat of horses, the bad breath and the muddy roads. Can you imagine that; can you feel that, really? For this is the crux. She is bigger than her own world, but she is not big enough to overcome it; and this is her tragedy, and ultimate defeat. Even to have become ordinary, accepting the moral standards of Yonville-L’Abbaye, she would needs be greater than the rest of its citizenry. Why? She would have to sacrifice more: her class, her energy; and all the little things that makes her different. If only she had read Immanuel Kant, you say. Do you? Do you really?
Lydgate in Middlemarch. He had a chance to be a great man. He had all the talents; but also one small flaw, that caused him to love a beautiful woman, who stupid and vain scuppered his fine prospects. If only he had married Dorothea! He didn’t. Fate and the author decided otherwise. Now think about it. If someone as strong-willed as Lydgate, and with all his immense talent and intelligence, is defeated by provincial society, what hopes for Emma Bovary? Oh, I see: she should only be a wife, a mother, and a loving friend; a passive recipient, grateful for the gifts that others give her. She must be good, and kind, and wave goodbye to the rest of her personality. Madame Bovary wanted more than this. She had many faults of course, who hasn’t? and in the final analysis she didn’t have the class or the talents to rise above her petty surroundings; but is it so wrong to strive beyond our mundane realities? Her background, the communities in which she lived; the poor education that she had received, all ensured her defeat. Alma Mahler has an incendiary affair with Kokoschka; it is celebrated in words and pictures. Today she could have divorced, and moved to Paris… Her environment was an iron cage, and she killed herself banging against its bars. Goethe was right, but when he says we can save them, who does he mean? Leon, Rodolphe and the authors that she reads have all led her astray. But how would she acquired the right books and the right teachers? The petty realities are stronger than their look, all towns have their monsters, and goals are hard to find, if they are not sold on the High Street. To be worth striving for the goal has to allow transcendence; the person must be able to escape themselves; into a wider more impersonal world. She needed a Woman’s Movement! But there were no suffragettes in Yonville-L’Abbaye…
What Emma learned too late was that desires centred on a particular person are ultimately destructive if they cannot grow into something else; a settled and loving relationship, for example. Desire creates desire only; until it burns the person out. However, if like Don Quixote she had some windmills to fight she may have been saved; for she would have strove after ideals that were above herself; even if it was all illusion, her desires would have been more than a simple animal craving; she could have been redeemed by her crusade. To strive for the right thing! So easy to say; but you need the world around you to make this possible. The novel’s subtitle is A Story of Provincial Life. This is the real villain, of course; who needs to be locked up and re-educated…
Towards the end of the novel Charles meets Emma’s first love
Rodolphe sat silent, and Charles, his head in his hands, repeated in a whisper, with the resigned accent of an infinite sorrow: ‘No, I’m not angry with you any more.’ And then he delivered himself of the one large utterance he ever made: ‘It is the fault of Fate.’
Rodolphe, who had directed ‘Fate’ in this instance, thought him pretty easy-going for a man in his position, rather comic, in fact, and a bit abject.
Is to believe in fate so wrong? Today we call it social class, a bad childhood; or genetic inheritance. Charles is mistaken because he cannot see his limitations; the poverty of his own personality, the poor earth out of which his wife’s desires, those deadly weeds, would grow. He never understood her: she was simply a pretty statuette on his mantelpiece, and thus he has no idea of the choices she could have made. Charles’ failure is one of limitation: he is too stupid to see what caused the tragedy; and the ways it could have been averted; he thus blames something that is both invisible and unknown. But his narrowness gives him a moment of insight: it was fate! The forces acting on Emma were too great, and her character just a little too ordinary, and this placed limits on her chances; and so her choices were few. The outcome was pre-determined, after all. For she had to struggle; but she also had to fail.
Rodolphe is mistaken because he only considers the immediate causes – himself. He doesn’t look beyond their affair to see either Emma’s personality, or the social life in which she lived. Earlier Flaubert captured this well;
He had listened to so many speeches of this kind that they no longer made any impression on him. Emma was like any other mistress; and the charm of novelty, gradually slipping away like a garment, laid bare the eternal monotony of passion, whose forms and phrases are for ever the same. Any difference of feeling underlying a similarity in the words escaped the notice of that man of much experience. Because wanton or mercenary lips had murmured like phrases in his ear, he had but scant belief in the sincerity of these. High-flown language concealing tepid affection must be discounted, thought he; as though the full heart may not sometimes overflow in the emptiest metaphors, since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, his thoughts or his sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we strum out tunes to make a bear dance, when we would move the stars to pity.
He cannot see beyond himself and his own experiences. Emma only exists as one more woman he must conquer, humour and eventually discard; no matter how painful. Like Charles, but in a different way, she is an object; but instead of being an icon to worship; she is a plaything to enjoy and manipulate. She is a toy canary in a wooden cage, where he selects the tunes. He is not interested in the special quality of this object. It exists simply to excite his senses. He doesn’t see her inner world of exalted feelings, or appreciate her exquisite sensitivities. No! They are simply the epiphenomena of passion; the songs the canary sings when he turns the key. The supreme egoist he imprisons Emma inside his personality, and reduces Charles to a fool. How unfair, and also how true! Though even fools sometimes utter profound truths. The tragedy of Madame Bovary is that she fell for a person who could never feel or see that truth. Ultimately it is Rodolphe, not Homais the chemist, or Lheureux the retailer, who is the archetypical provincial. A bourgeois who cannot see beyond their own self interest, no matter how clever or sophisticated they may be.