Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel, Madame Bovary, describes the sad fate of a young girl, who believes that her life will be just like the romanticized version of reality she gets from reading novels. She marries the local doctor, who is dull, boring, and incompetent. Still, he does love her, and wants to make her happy, even if he does not understand her.
To spruce up her banal existence—and the word “banal” appears in virtually every review of this work—she takes refuge in compulsive shopping and adultery, to the detriment of her reputation, her daughter, and her family’s finances. Desperate, and refused help by her lovers, she poisons herself with arsenic and dies an agonizing death. The technical beauty of the writing, notable even in translation from the French, with Flaubert always in pursuit of the mot juste, the “exact word,” intensifies the stark, ugly realism of the proceedings.
If Emma had only married a better man, if she had only lived in our enlightened feminist age, if only she had more money, if only she hadn’t been so stupid and superficial…
But Emma Bovary is alive and well all over America, some 160 years after the time of the novel.
It is hardly a brilliant observation to note that many Americans have become addicted to acquiring goods, and paying for them with an endless succession of credit cards. Monsieur Lheureux, the merchant who realized that he could make a fortune by exploiting Emma’s sick notion that she could buy herself happiness, may not have had the benefit of slick direct mail and Internet marketing campaigns to con people into using high interest credit cards, but he prospered nonetheless by exploiting human greed and superficiality.
Many commentators refer to Emma’s fate being exacerbated by the limited options a woman would have had in France in the 1840’s. For example, they make much of her eleventh hour approach to Maitre Guillaumin, the notary, who is well acquainted with her debt problems, and may have helped her—for horizontal favors. Perhaps, he really loves her. In any event, she refuses him. The reviewers’ argument is that absent sex, she has no recourse to better her situation.
While this point might have some merit, it is weakened by the consistent citation of the Guillaumin matter, which underscores sex for money, even as her extramarital affairs done to save her from banality are almost never mentioned in this context. Apparently, prostitution is deplorable as it would only provide her with the means to salvage her life (how boring) while the affairs appeal to a higher romantic sense. Thus, the commentators fall into the same trap as Emma herself: Preventing a suicide is so banal compared to romantic dreams.
Now, look at the present. To be sure, today’s women have infinitely greater options than poor Emma did, or do they? Yes, of course, there are female corporate officials, politicians, physicians, and military types, but how much of this is tokenism? And, how much of it is derived from simply being able to pay them less than men? Given all the options open to them, not to mention that they were already stars, why did Madonna, Britney Spears, and Jennifer Lopez decide to become downright tawdry in their heightened sexy image to further their careers?
Flaubert has little good to say about religion and science, and there are many who would agree with him today. Religion was supposed to comfort our souls, but instead, gave us pedophiles. Science was supposed to make our lives easier, but gave us nuclear waste, designer viruses, and the electronic means to work nonstop. My take is that his beef is actually with the destructive fads of the day, that can eclipse the enduring values of any spiritual or intellectual discipline. With that, he is right up to date.
Flaubert does have much to say about fate. Emma believes that her sad life has been decreed by fate, and her husband Charles doesn’t even resent Rodolphe Boulanger de la Huchette, a wealthy playboy who seduces Emma, claims he will elope with her but doesn’t, and refuses to help her in her final crisis. Encountering Rodolphe in the marketplace after Emma’s death, Charles says that, “It’s Fate must bear the blame!”
Given the tone of the novel, dripping with irony at times, we must conclude that Flaubert does not agree with this assessment, but rather believes that each of us is the architect of his own fate.
Some enduring 19th century advice for us moderns.