Msnowe's Blog

Hiatus Over — Time for "a little more love"

Posted in Flaubert, Madame Bovary by m.snowe on July 18, 2008
M.Snowe ends what seems like a long hiatus of many summer weeks to get down to business with some literary reflections.

“She had been warned she would be unhappy; and she ended by asking him for a dose of medicine and a little more love.” (15)

This is a quote in reference to the first Madame Bovary–not Emma, the protagonist of Flaubert’s precise and beautifully articulated tome. But it could apply to almost all the characters, who needed more love, and sought it, but ended up ultimately unsatisfied.

Flaubert has a distinct flair for two things (among others, to be sure): catching the absolute necessity and simultaneous ridiculousness of human desire, and the ability to set a scene like no other writer M.Snowe has read in a long time. Being a Flaubert neophyte, with a slightly pronounced literary obsession with writers such as Henry James, Edith Wharton and Charlotte Bronte, it was both refreshing and unnerving to read about a woman who actually “gets some”–nineteenth-century style. But what all the tales of Emma’s indiscretions show is that perhaps just maybe all those other sexually-frustrated/unfulfilled heroines from James and Bronte were lucky to stay out of the messiness of the carnal fray. But that’s a bit unreasonable…

Some of Flaubert’s images, the capsulizing of scenes was very similar to what others, like James, are known for executing. Flaubert apparently has a light/sun/fire fetish, and the effects of light on scenes and the people in them. The scene where Charles Bovary essentially “checks out” Emma, as she sits by the fire place in the kitchen, is , to pun, illuminating. But in direct juxtaposition to the light that shines and highlights certain features, the characters themselves are in a state of utter bewilderment by what they think they see, and how they interpret the scenes before them. We too as readers, observing the beauty of Flaubert’s descriptions, are fooled into thinking that the beauty of the scene will reveal truths. But what we get is a messy, soap-opera-like saga of one not-so-nice woman’s illicit trysts, and the men she bores of. One shouldn’t be too hard on Emma Bovary, but if you come away pitying her too much, that isn’t good either. Charles is perhaps the most tragic figure of the novel, in that at least his love, misguided as it was, never waned from it’s subject. Emma’s voracious need to feed her definition of love and desire controlls her entire being. She is a woman obsessed, forever “waiting for something to happen.” She, “like shipwrecked sailors, turned despairing eyes on the solitude of her life, seeking a far off some white sail in the mists of the horizon.” Well, Flaubert knew all too well that when someone strives for a far-off sail, they often come to meet an island of sirens, or other Homeric creatures of the deep leading them towards peril, when they would otherwise could have left well-enough alone. If M.Snowe was to summarize the novel in a sentence, it would be something about Emma’s inability to leave well-enough alone. Interestingly, in a James or Wharton novel, the opposite might be true: the characters left well-enough alone, and suffered dearly for it. So is there a happy-medium author, in which some desires are fulfilled, and some foregone but not torturous to let go of? And if there was/is such a writer writing such books, would they really be that entertaining?

For the life of her, M.Snowe has decided that although it’s nice to see a female protagonist of the 1800s actually engaging in some naughty behavior–because practically every novel of the time period has men doing the same–she’d rather read the books where the behavior is ardently striven for, but ultimately denied. Perhaps this allows the characters to have a more innocently tragic frame. But it’s more than that. Emma soon discovers amidst her trysts that she “detests commonplace heroes and moderate sentiments, as there are in nature.” Emma’s desirous thirst for fulfillment leads her from one lover to the next, from one money loan to the next, and all to her and her family’s destruction. Ambition is one thing, but blind pursuit of novelistically inspired happiness is quite another. The more you seek it, and the more you receive, the more you want. Your tolerance is expanded… and so you need more. The greatest “takeaway” of this story (if you’re one of those people searching for morals) isn’t that you shouldn’t have extra-marital affairs–it’s that you should understand the difference between what is possible in fiction and in reality–and be very weary when the lines are blurred. There’s no mistaking that Flaubert does not want you to imitate Emma–she is self-consumed, an unloving mother, and a completely blinded pleasure-seeker. In that way, we must applaud her as at least a unique, stand-out personality in the long list of memorable 19th women characters. But that is where we part ways, Madame–unless we too want to be “eaten up with desires, with rage, with hate.”

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