(image from stereototal.com)
I’ve finally finished Madame Bovary, just 2 months late for the Winter Classics Challenge. I have no idea why it took me so long to read this book, why I had so much trouble becoming engrossed in it, especially as I have read it before, perhaps 15 years ago, and I loved it then…so why don’t I love it now? Is it because I’m older now, and not as sympathetic to the youthful Emma Bovary? Or, as a married woman, I’m not as forgiving of a woman who strays from her marriage so readily? Or, maybe, I already know the story, and I’m out of touch with the writing style, so far removed from my days as a Comparative Literature major in grad school?
The answer, I suspect, is a combination of all of these…the writing is indeed beautiful, so well done, that it is a hard novel not to love. The subject was pretty racy in its time (It was considered obscene when it was first released), but for today’s audience it’s common enough. There are no flaws to be found in the writing, but poor Emma…given any situation, any decision to be made, and she unfailingly makes the wrong choice. Bored living on her father’s farm, dreaming of love and adventure? She falls for the first man who comes along, Charles Bovary, the doctor who comes to set her father’s broken leg. Faced with the disappointment of her marriage, she first looks for salvation in the church, and when that fails her, she seeks the love of another man. When he deserts her on the eve of their elopement, she seeks love and excitement in the arms of another man.
While this is distressing enough, it’s hard to see Emma failed by her clergy, her husband, and her lovers, the issue that seals her fate is her shopping habit. She has a taste for “the good life”, a taste which we all probably share at some level, but she doesn’t pay any attention to the debt that she is accumulating. She never considers the actual payment of the debt, just keeps putting it off further and further, for more and more interest. In today’s society, she would have a Kate Spade bag full of maxed out credit cards. When the piper comes calling, wanting payment on her debts, disaster strikes, unraveling several lives in the meantime.
This book serves as a cautionary tale to anyone with a shopping addiction….please, stop before you get in so far over your head that you’re selling property to pay for drapes, and then selling your furniture and the rugs beneath your feet, just to pay the interest on too many extravagances. Emma’s shopping addiction stems from the same source as her adultery and her initial marriage to a man who is not well matched to her…an innate dissatisfaction with what she has, and a continual desire for a better life.
Perhaps it is wrong of me to want to shake her, to tell her to look around and see the beauty to be found in her family, her village, her life. I want to tell her to stop looking elsewhere for satisfaction, and to try to find it within herself. And yet, if we were all satisfied with our lives, if none of us tried to make things better, to shake things up a bit, where would we be? No fire, no wheel, no immunizations or antibiotics. No progress. Of course, this progress comes at a price…our ecology is rapidly decaying around us, and our world becoming dangerously overpopulated. And while ruminating on ecology and overpopulation doesn’t seem to have anything whatsoever to do with Emma Bovary, I would argue that there is indeed a connection. Because, dear reader, Emma’s problem is that she wants the progress, wants a better life, but she doesn’t stop to consider the consequences. And the consequences she faces? They’re disastrous.