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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a Childhood glance

Remember…

Do you remember a time when a tan sun speckled mound– barely high to you and I but a pyramid to them– stuck to the heat griddle sidewalk of mid-August and caught your eye? And when you kneeled to the ground without a care for your scarred kneecaps hitting the radiating heat, a line or maybe just a few black garden ants carried on with their duties, oblivious to you and your wondering eyes. Perhaps you let them be, or maybe you covered the hole that led to their queen, and later wondered, and then cried about how you could do such a thing to these creatures whom had no care as to whether you watched their duties or not.

You rode bikes, perhaps with a friend known from birth or older brothers, down the bumbling grass-filled hills and rolling fertile soil of the local park at deep summer when the sun simmered to a disk in twilight. And joyously running past you feeling the wet grass underneath their potato paw pads were dogs of all kinds: an aging beagle with a tunnel bark, prancing golden retriever pups, the neighborhood american bulldog with a single patch around its eye, and a lost but newly found terrier mix. You may have made up a story in your head about journeying in perilous Mayan jungles with guardian lion canines galloping alongside to freedom. The sounds of the penetrating caty-bugs zip-zip-zipping guided you home. The caty-bugs stuck their thrumming bodies to the screen door to let you in.

The same friend known from birth swore her stuffed animals came to life when she left the room. You believed her naturally, so you set Snowy the snow leopard on the kitchen counter top next to a bowl of water. You left for a few hours to play dolls and cars with the friend. Later on in the lazy heated afternoon when tossing back and forth Nips the beanie baby, you realized the stuffed animal was still alone. Both of you raced through the hallway and stopped abruptly before the kitchen. You peered around the corner to catch the first glimpse of real magic. Snowy’s face was dunked in the cool water. The rest of her long body rested still on the counter top.

You accidentally threw your dog’s favorite tennis ball over the white brick wall that seemed taller than the Great Wall of China. It landed, to your dismay, in the elusive neighbor’s backyard. The ball landed in that particular backyard because the universe has a knack to stir random acts into sorrowful, happy ends. Your dog must have penetrated you with the same adoring eyes from day one of her rescue, questioning where her most absolutely adored ball went. It is behind your back. Surely it is! She pleaded with her eyes. No. It was not behind your back, nor was it slyly resting in one of your palms. You considered jumping the wall, which was standard protocol back in the rough-n-tumble days. It seemed different then. As you grew up, the world appeared more daunting and regulated, thus influencing your decisions. So you told your dog you’d be right back, and sprinted out the front door. You slowed to a walking pace to not appear… odd… You approached the front porch step of the elusive neighbor, telling yourself it was worth it in the name of your dog’s most favorite tennis ball. He answered in his robe and hair pulled back in a pony tail. “Yes?” I said, “Hello, I accidentally threw my dog’s tennis ball in your backyard. Would you please get it for me?” He said, “Yeah, yeah.” and slammed the door. Your dog never got her most favorite tennis ball back.