Madame Bovary: a fairytale gone bad.

madame bovary

If we had to come up with literature’s top 10 narcissistic female characters, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary would have probably topped the list (with Edith Wharton’s Undine Spragg following her close- from the novel “Custom of the Country”). Self-centered, conceited and ultimately self-destructive, Emma Bovary is still a character we keep returning to not only for the pleasure of indulging in Flaubert’s unparalleled prose but because once exposed to the unbearable lightness of her romanticism, there is no going back.

Below are some random musings after rereading the novel which after its scandalous publication (1856) would become the template for all literary depictions of adultery and female struggle with conventional family life.

The love scene in the carriage

Flaubert seems to be doing cinema here, long before it was invented. You almost see and hear the carriage with Emma and Leon (her lover) that wanders about Paris’ streets for hours condemning the coachman to physical exhaustion. With hardly a description of what is happening inside that carriage-cab, you can experience its urgency, extremity, gravity and inescapability. This is perhaps the most underdescribed and insinuated love scene in classic literature which is so felt that once read, it gets under your skin.

The protagonist in this love scene is… the cab’s coachman who is at a loss to understand “what furious desire for locomotion urged these individuals never to wish to stop. He tried to now and then, and at once exclamations of anger burst forth behind him“. Through the coachman’s physical weariness we realize the advent of time and the character of the emergency that has entrapped the two lovers inside the cab: “Then he lashed his perspiring jades afresh, but indifferent to their jolting, running up against things here and there, not caring if he did, demoralized, and almost weeping with thirst, fatigue and depression”.

Flaubert’s cinematic virtuosity is unique in lines such as “that sight of  a cab with blinds drawn, and which appeared thus constantly shut more closely than a tomb, and tossing about like a vessel” which “without any fixed plan or direction, wandered about at hazard“.

And then you have the last sentence of the chapter where the writer dispassionately, with an air of indifference, rings down the curtain on one of the most passionate private love scenes of literature: “At about six o’clock the carriage stopped in a back street of the Beauvoisine Quarter and a woman got out, who walked with her veil down and without turning her head.”

The compulsion behind the woman

Emma Bovary was a shopaholic. A romantic novels’ devourer. A boredom enthusiast. A passion addict. With all her larger than life characteristics, Emma Bovary makes for one of the most hard to forget, vivid characters in fiction.

New dresses, new hats, new gloves, new lingerie, new furniture and decoration of the house: her consumerism as a compulsive tick takes all over her, using up all her healthy qualities- if there were any. This nervous compulsion to shop in order to exist, so relevant today, gives her another essentially modern allure and it’s difficult not to recognize some of ourselves in her insatiable need to possess.

A bad reader

If Emma Bovary was alive today and not just a fictional character of the 1860’s, she would probably be an avid consumer of beach reads, though all year-long. She would rather even find Anna Karenina a tiresomely long story and would hate the Russian writers. She would love most of Edith Wharton’s female characters but would have to look up many of her novels’ words in the Merriam- Webster dictionary. She would have liked Fifty Shades of Grey, but would have been appalled at its graphic language. Her favorite movie would be “Pretty Woman”- and she would deplore not having the chance to read its printed version.

The first desperate housewife

It seems the original desperate housewives that haunted last decade’s TV screens weren’t so original after all. Emma Bovary seems to have been the authentic “desperate” housewife who never came in terms with the dream of domestic bliss and invented a parallel universe to enact her daydreaming. A woman who romanticized herself to the last detail and acted out her fantasies to such an extent that they didn’t have a chance but to take place.

But life doesn’t give you a red carpet treatment just because… it’s you. Emma had to find it out the painful way. Her escapism would soon collapse to reality’s confinements while her sense of entitlement would only bring forward her sense of failure. A recipe than never fails.

The “i have a lover” quote

“She repeated, “I have a lover! a lover!” delighting at the idea as if a second puberty had come to her. So at last she was to know those joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired. She was entering upon marvels where all would be passion, ecstasy, delirium. An azure infinity encompassed her, the heights of sentiment sparkled under her thought, and ordinary existence appeared only afar off, down below in the shade, through the interspaces of these heights.”

It’s easy to denounce Emma Bovary here as superficial, individualistic, self-righteous, insensitive to real love and only dragged to it for its cosmetic and external value. But still, there is a girlie essence in this delirium that enchants us and even makes us feel an affection for that woman who is lured to those feelings just because she must feel them no matter what – and because other women have felt them so why not her? Who can blame La Rochefoucauld who had the sharp eye to notice not so many years before Flaubert that People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.” Food for thought.

Flaubert’s lists

Flaubert, to a letter to his friend and French poet Louise Colet, mentioned that he wanted the reader to feel his universe “almost physically”. That’s a key word to get a glimpse of his craftsmanship, his fixation on detail, his almost listing of things on so many levels and in such a natural way that the reader gets the feeling first of the verisimilitude of the description and then of its uniqueness. It takes a literary master to produce such a result without letting the reader realize the struggle behind the sentences.

Fabrics, textures, upholstery, cosmetics, foods and colors of pantone-like accuracy are all rendered to their last details so that you feel it couldn’t have been otherwise. The material world in Flaubert is a key character in the novel surrounding Emma Bovary with its firmness and rooting her deeply by its voracious capacity.

The deathbed splatter

Flaubert doesn’t spare you the details of Emma’s slipping to death, granting her with one of the most blunt and certainly not romantic deaths in fiction (especially of that era). Irony at its best here for the woman who spent most part of her life living as the heroine of her own romantic novel.

“Her chest soon began panting rapidly; the whole of her tongue protruded from her mouth;  her eyes, as they rolled, grew paler, like the two globes of a lamp that is going out, so that one might have thought her already dead but for the fearful labouring of her ribs, shaken by violent breathing, as if the soul were struggling to free itself { …}As the death-rattle became stronger the priest prayed faster; his prayers mingled with the stifled sobs of Bovary and sometimes all seemed lost in  the muffled murmur of the Latin syllables that tolled like a passing bell {… }They had to raise the head a little and a rush of black liquid issued, as if she were vomiting, from her mouth.”

A naturalistic prose that throws you right in the middle of the scene, exposing the dramatic effect of realism in literature. Flaubert’s lens frames only the “technicalities” that result in a heartbreaking but not sentimental scene. He handpicks the details that highlight the tragic weight of the moment through blunt realism- always stronger than its romantic counterpart.

Charles, the husband: a good man is hard to find

He never lived to his wife’s expectations. Even from their honeymoon he let down his wife who wished they had never visited Tostes but a romantic chalet in Switzerland (Though he was fighting a lost battle here, how difficult it was not to fail Emma Bovary?) Emma was practically disgusted at the man who had idealized her to the extent of believing that her skin was giving its fragrance to her clothes and not the other way around, was shattered due to her loss and didn’t even believe his eyes when he read one of her love letters he found in the attic after her death. His transparent soul and his worship for her misread it to an innocent, platonic letter of no importance, incapable of altering his love for her.

Too prosaic for his woman’s refined tastes, he would have been the ideal husband for her, if only she was cut out to be a housewife.

Coining a term after her: bovarism

I quote from Merriam-Webster: Bovarism = domination by such an idealized, glamorized, glorified, or otherwise unreal conception of oneself that it results in dramatic personal conflict (as in tragedy), in markedly unusual behavior (as in paranoia), or in great achievement.

Too bad our girl, the authentic Emma Bovary after whom the term was coined, resulted in tragedy and not in great achievement.


My 30 reasons for always returning to Chekhov’s stories.

ckekhov short stories

Lists may not be everyone’s favorite form of argumentative thought but sometimes thinking disconnectedly –but not incoherently- is the only way to think at all. My 30 reasons is an arbitrary number to signal my love for Chekhov. It could very well be 40, 60 or just one: his talent for humanity.

Why i love Chekhov

  1. For his clarity of description and the realism in depicting his characters’ inner thoughts, motives and sentiments. Should you try hard, you wouldn’t find a vague and redundant paragraph in his stories.
  2. For making page turners out of plotless stories.
  3. For the undercurrents that undermine even most of his straightforward narratives.
  4. For who else has so entertainingly minuted the lasting fragrances of a random kiss (The Kiss), the restlessness of insomnia (A dull story), the sinister weight of sleepiness (The darling), the longing of a person in love to write a letter and send it to the PO (Love), the unbearable loneliness of bereavement (The Misery, The Enemies), the banality of University life (A dull Story), the uninspiring promiscuity of prostitution (The Chorus Girl, A nervous Breakdown aka An attack of Nerves), the spiritual agony of a nervous breakdown (A nervous breakdown), the dreariness and ordinariness of mental illness (Ward No.6), the uselessness of rank and wealth (A lady’s story)…
  5. For his trademark non-endings. An inconclusiveness ascribed to his desire to make a new era for the story (and the play). One to break free from the unrealistic fixed endings of the past which by giving  answers to the readers, were sparing them the need to think for themselves. No comfort zones here. Just awkward helplessness facing the human predicament.
  6. For his testing of our own fitness as readers. (Virgina Wolf on “The Russian point of view”.)
  7. Especially for the unlikely ending of “The Lady with the dog”: And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning. For the familiarity of those unfamiliar long roads we all eventually take in our lives. And the relief to find other people there.
  8. For being moral without raising a finger. Predisposed to try to understand his characters rather than judge them. For his stories being a masterclass on empathy.
  9. For his rendering dull characters interesting through evoking a special characteristic that makes them unique. (One of his liveliest dull characters is Ippolit Ippolititch, in the “Teacher of literature”: “He considered that the most important and necessary part of the study of geography was the drawing of maps, and of the study of history the learning of dates: he would sit for nights together correcting in blue pencil the maps {…} not a talkative person; he either remained silent or talked of things which everybody knew already.”) For his supporting characters playing a key role in the story. That of blowing an air of physical reality to it.
  10. For his characters struggling with life. Even in the “Dreary Story” (aka A dull or A Boring Story) the teacher who has only 6 months to live, facing his death, it is with life he is struggling. Trying to come in terms with what he has lived and not with the fact that he is dying.
  11. For his sharp anatomy of marriage. Marriages rarely “work” in his stories. Either doomed to failure from their very start due to incompatibility of the spouses or insincerity of their motives (bail out marriages) or starting with the best of intentions (love, admiration), they often lead to the estrangement -even hatred- of the couple.  (A wife, The teacher of literature). Unhappily married wives and wasted husbands constantly draw our attention to the voracious nature of marriage- one of the major subjects of modern theater (Ibsen, Strindberg, Albee).
  12. For his quote “Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.” More or less the bottom line of all his short stories: a plan for surviving the day.
  13. Long before Eudora Welty’s “listening for stories” (“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on), Chekhov had been programmed to listen for people and unearth characters. For he knew they could be found everywhere.
  14. For the ambiguity of evil and good in his characters. The impossibility for the modern man to be an either/or character. And its soothing effect on our conscience.
  15. For his democratization of suffering. The universality of the human condition that knows no classes, ranks, genders and other borderlines. Everybody hurts and Chekhov made that vividly clear.
  16. For his being existential before it was cool.
  17. For giving  boredom, this intrinsically modern emotional, mental and for Chekhov physical state, its literary expression. Many chekhovian characters are paralysed by ennui that renders them apathetic or prone to evil thoughts and deeds.
  18. For the character of urgency even in the most uneventful of his stories that compels us to follow them to the last -but not final- word.
  19. For the mockery of rank positions and lebels. For his debunking hypocrisy, uncovering shallowness, exposing the pettiness of status stemming only form wealth when not followed by education and humane values.
  20. For his being the russian equivalent of Henry James’ and Edith Wharton’s critique on pretentiousness on people becoming the brand of their status.
  21. For his characters being resilient enough to persevere. Even with broken wings, they fly. If the can’t fly, they walk. But still, they go on- a beckettian mindset here: You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.  (The Unnamable)
  22. For his being essentially modern. A timelessness pertaining to the Greek tragedy or Shakespeare in their treatment of free will struggling with fate.
  23. For his content dictating the form and not the other way around. For being essentially anti-postmodern.
  24. For providing you with the words and the sentiments to channel you raw emotional material.
  25. For dismissing the creative courses’ guidelines that for a short story to matter there must be a conflict and a change of its character. Chekhovian characters ponder for a while only to recoil to their familiarly vulgar self.
  26. For reminding us what foolish lives we live. The predecessor of Kafka, Camus, Beckett and Ionesco in framing the absurdity of human existence, before the two world wars  would make it one of the most resonant literary movements of the last century.
  27. For his characters not getting what they were after, or getting what they were after, outliving their happiness (“The teacher of literature”).
  28. For blurring the line between the story and the treatise on the elusive nature of happiness (“The Gooseberries”). For being an essayist through his characters’ lives, suggesting that the condition for one to be happy is for the unhappy to remain silent: “It’s obvious that the happy man feels contented only because the unhappy ones bear their burden without saying a word: if it weren’t for their silence, happiness would be quite impossible. It’s a kind of mass hypnosis. Someone ought to stand with a hammer at the door of every contented man, continually banging on it to remind him that there are unhappy people around and that however happy he may be at that time, sooner or later life will show him its claws and disaster will overtake him in the form of illness, poverty, bereavement and there will be no one to hear or see him.”
  29. For resorting to weather to mirror moods, with almost chemical precision and accuracy. The descriptions of weather conditions are never redundant in his stories with snow and rain being organic characters.
  30.  For his talent for humanity. (An expression he uses to describe the main character of his short story “A nervous breakdown”. A perfect fit for the writer.) Because just his unparalleled gift for writing stories would have only gotten him so far.