We are Emma Bovary

“At the bottom of her heart, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know what this chance would be, what wind would bring it her, towards what shore it would drive her, if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, laden with anguish or full of bliss to the portholes. But each morning, as she awoke, she hoped it would come that day; she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, wondered that it did not come; then at sunset, always more saddened, she longed for the morrow.”

Madame Bovary: sexy, passionate tale of love affairs gone awry… or is it?

Gustave Flaubert’s perhaps most famous novel– and quite possibly the work he detested writing the most– is a paradox. Despite the French government convicting Flaubert of immorality regarding Bovary (Flaubert escaped such conviction in the mid 1850’s), this frustrating and brilliant novel is not centered on passion and sex. Scandalous? Yes, but in ways dependent on society in 1856, or society in 2018. In 1856, this novel was scandalous by the fact that a woman cheated on her husband multiple times sexually and emotionally. In 2018, this novel is scandalous by the way Flaubert calls out our human flaws.

Often before reading well-known literature, an opinion is formed before page one is turned. Before delving into this piece, mine was more of an expectation; that I would be transported to a world of rich parties, extravagant love affairs, and tantalizing climatic desire… think Anna Karenina. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Yes, there are parties, there are love affairs, and there is desire, but it is not what one would expect, which is one reason I find this novel brilliant and unique.

One side of the mirror displays Flaubert’s poetic care for Emma Bovary, primarily in a physical sense. When the other side of the mirror is flipped, a more clinical, cynical Flaubert emerges: He jabs at high society, drab husband Charles Bovary, the shallow lovers, and most often, his central character, Emma.

Externally, he explores and comments on human faults found in all, but particularly of this time period, the bourgeoisie, and the drudgery of like-mindedness. The core of the novel reveals a universal flaw found only in humans: the desire for something else than what is found in this very moment, and a desire for something more than the basic needs (see Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). This is why I chose the quote at the top from Madame Bovary… it sums up the existential crisis of Emma, her primary desire, and motivation for all of her actions and thoughts.

This story is the least romantic, perhaps because Flaubert had an aversion for clichés, which Emma is the epitome of a cliché. You will not read Fifty Shades of Grey plots or clichéd writing in this novel. Clichés, however, do not tag solely along with romances, passion, desire, and thoughtless writing; they are simply the outcome of similar thoughts.

Unless you have attained enlightenment– the peace of mind that this very moment is perfect and the way it should be and nothing more– you, me, and Flaubert are Emma.

“Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” –Gustave Flaubert

 

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