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Thoughts on Madame Bovary March 12, 2013

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Books, Responses.
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Spoiler alert, of course.

Madame BlueberrySo, continuing my project of listening to classic books on CD during my commute, I’ve just finished Madame Bovary.  And I’m glad to be done with it, actually.  I found this one of those annoying books where I just want to shake the main character and yell “stop it!”  Kind of like most of the Anne Tyler books that I’ve read.

Actually, the Veggie version, Madame Blueberry, isn’t all that far off.  It needs just a few small additions  to match perfectly.  So add in that Madame Blueberry was having an affair with Archibald Asparagus and also Scallion #2, the lawyers from the Stuff Mart show up to repossess all her stuff, and then finally she throws herself in a juicer, and it would be pretty much the same.

Emma Bovary is selfish, useless, oblivious, and did I mention selfish?  Yet I think I see the deeper levels that the author was getting at.  Emma gets into such trouble because she’s bored.  Bored, bored, BORED!  And why is she bored?  Because she literally has nothing useful to do, no responsibilities, no way to establish a purpose for her life.

She’s the wife of a country doctor in the middle of the 1800’s.  As such, she’s socially not lower class.  As such the expectation is that she will have a reasonably nice house, a housemaid to take care of all the cooking and chores, and a nurse to take care of raising her daughter. But as her husband is not a landowner or merchant or other wealthy man, she has only just enough money to support this lifestyle, with nothing left over.  She’s been raised with the education expected of someone of this social standing – piano, embroidery, drawing.  But since she’s reasonably intelligent, just sitting around the house all day looking decorative, and doing the things available to fill her time leaves her bored out of her mind.  So she takes up reading romance novels, and longs for the life of excitement and adventure they hold, and moons around the house all day feeling sorry for herself.

Her husband adores her, and sees none of her faults, but is probably the least exciting man in the world.  (He reminds me of Roxie’s long-suffering husband in Chicago.)  He’d do anything he could to improve her life, but she won’t ever tell him what’s wrong (which is why I wanted to grab her and yell “snap out of it!”).  So, worried about her nerves, he moves her to a quieter village because he thinks it will make her feel better. Wrong answer!  She winds up having a couple of affairs, spending far too much money on luxury furnishings, racking up enormous debts, hiding  it all from her husband, and then taking poison when she can no longer hide what she’s done.

She’s so self-centered that I was pleased when the author got around to polishing her off.  But she was also trapped, with almost no options available to her that would befit a “respectable lady”.  If she were lower class, she would not have been able to have servants, and would have been keeping house and raising her child herself, which would have eliminated at least some of the boredom.  With her actual income, but minus the social expectation that fine ladies must have servants, she could have taken on more of the household work herself (if she could figure out how), spent less on servants, and used the money saved to go to the theater, buy a little of the nice “stuff” she coveted, and generally add a little more excitement to her life.   More money would have allowed her to throw fancy parties, travel, and generally live the life of excitement she wanted, but there was no prospect that her husband would ever produce that kind of income.  She had no useful skills such that she could pursue a career to generate her own income, and even if she had it would probably have been just as scandalous for her to do that.

So I see this book as an indictment of a social system that relegates women of Emma’s social status into being ornamental and idle and completely useless.  I’m glad to have read it, but I can’t say I really enjoyed reading it.

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Comments»

1. the chaplain - March 15, 2013

There are some interesting commonalities between this book and Anna Karenina, which I finally finished last night. In Karenina, Tolstoy also exposed the hypocrisy of patriarchy that allows men to behave however they want without consequence, while women bear the blame for both their own and their lovers’ (real or imagined, it doesn’t matter) sins.

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2. A Book The Nonbelieving Literati Would Have Loved Hating | An Apostate's Chapel - March 15, 2013

[…] that got me thinking about the literati was a recent post by ubi dubium, in which she shared her thoughts about Madame Bovary. I found it intriguing that she had just finished reading (or, rather, listening to) that book at […]

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