by Gustave Flaubert
I read this Lydia Davis translation of Madame Bovary as part of the read-along hosted by Nonsuch Book.
Let me begin with saying sometimes it’s hard to read classics because there are so many references to their plots mentioned in other books and movies, that when you finally read them you find out that you already know too much.
I started Madame Bovary already knowing the ending and much of the plot, which is unfortunate. I can only imagine how powerful this novel was for people who had no idea what was going to happen, especially when it first came out. That being said, I knew very little about the first half of the book and was surprised by quite a bit of the plot.
At the beginning we meet a sweet farm girl, Emma. Charles Bovary is married to a horrible woman and he falls for the lovely girl. After his wife passes away, Charles marries Emma, making her the title Madame Bovary (not to be confused with his first wife or his mother, both of which are frequently referred to as Madame Bovary).
Emma is infatuated with the idea of love, but neither she, nor her husband, actually understand what real love is. Emma expects something like the passionate affairs she’s read about in books. Charles’ version of a marriage is a simple relationship with little interaction beyond basic marital relations and discord. He expects very little from his wife and in return he gives her very little.
Soon Emma is completely disenchanted with married life. As a newlywed she wonders what will happen to her bridal bouquet when she dies. Later, feeling completely numb and emotionally dead, she burns the bouquet herself, demonstrating just how detached she’s become.
SPOILERS: The following comments discuss aspects in the Part II and III of the novel.
Emma is searching for something to save her from her boredom and she falls for a young man, Leon, with whom she has wonderful discussions. Soon he leaves, because she’s married, and she sets her sights on Roldolphe, a local bachelor, instead. He has decided he’ll take her as a mistress and sees their relationship as a casual one. She, on the other hand, sees him as her salvation. She’s miserable and hangs all of her hopes on him. When they decide to run away together she thinks of her daughter as a mere afterthought, she’s so wrapped up in her affair. She becomes more desperate and reckless as she feels her lover slipping away from her.
The scene at the opera was incredibly poignant to me. Emma watches the love affair unfold on the stage just as her own did, while her husband sits next to her, never comprehending what his wife is thinking.
The book begins and ends with Charles, which is fitting. He is completely oblivious to most of what happens in his wife’s life and she passes in and out of his life before he even knows what happened. He only lets himself see what he wants to see. He pictures Emma as an innocent doll, incapable of intentionally doing anyone harm. He’s both a victim and enabler in this tragic story. He does love his wife, or at least the idea of her, but he never really gets to know her, which just increases her isolation.
The real victims in the story are all of the people left behind when Emma is gone. Her daughter’s story was particularly sad. She’s no more than a footnote in most of the book and then at the end, she’s orphaned and alone in the world. Her selfish mother was never willing to put her daughter’s happiness before her own.
Even though, in the end, Emma proves herself to be self-absorbed and immature, I still loved the book. It was a wonderful portrait of a woman who begins with a romantic vision of love in her mind and is heartbroken by its realities. Instead of choosing to find meaning in her relationships and give them depth, she flits to other lovers hoping to find that illusive “romance.” She looks to wealth, spending money like she can buy happiness. She thrives on lies and the thrill of getting caught. She seeks only momentary pleasure and in doing so she ruins not only herself, but her whole family. Flaubert’s talent is obvious, because despite all of those things, we still care what happens to her.
One note on the translation:
I can't compare all of Lydia Davis' new translation to previous ones as this is my first time reading Madame Bovary. I did read a few of the same passages I’d highlighted in Davis’ translation in another copy of the book and found them to be very similar. But Davis certainly has an elegant way with words, which enhanced my experience with the book.
She will post on Part 2 on Thursday, Oct. 21 and on the final section on Thursday, Oct. 28.