What you see, it’s a glad scented box of trash bags, a present from my friend Erin. Erin is a young christian woman. She teaches science at a high school. She also taught the first lesson for the year for our monthly ladies’ class. We are learning lessons from the book of Philippians. Her first class was on ‘joy’. I told the ladies that I try to find joy in little silly things, like the wonderful modern trash bags that smell so good, or the fact that where we live, we all have grinders in our kitchen sinks, so we don’t have to remove all the food from the plates before washing them, or worry about our sinks getting clogged.
And here you see Emma, unhappy, unsatisfied, always in search of something else, Emma. Emma is the wife of Charles Bovary. Even those who have not read this book know about it. Madame Bovary is a polarizing book. Its content is not palatable. It’s the tragic story of an adulterous woman. Many know much about the book, and maybe because of that, they don’t see any value in reading it. Others may have been forced to read it, and thus, they don’t care for it. Maybe you weren’t forced to read it and you still dislike it with a passion.
For those who need to relate or like at least one of the characters in the book, this is such a difficult title. They say that classics are those books able to speak to us in the current times. Regardless of the place (rural France), and the time of publication, ( December 15, 1856), that which is at stake in the book is current today. It’s not just that there’s adulterous men and women today, it’s many other questions posed in the book such as the pursue of happiness, the true meaning of love, our upbringings, our temperaments (and what happens to those whose passions and desires are let loose without any restrain), addictive tendencies (because to me, Emma’s need to escape her reality through adultery, looked terribly similar to the dependency of many to substances, pornography, gambling, etc.), important themes such as uncontrolled expenses, hypocrisy, ambition, medicine and its theories, power, ambition, motherhood…
And there’s the well known opinion of how wonderfully written this novel is, the praises of Flaubert’s language, and the analysis of the significance of his tale. It always seems to be that huge classics like this are said to be a critique of the society of the moment. I don’t think we, the readers, read motivated by the richness of language, or the social denounce and critique a book may offer. I think it’s more a connectivity that either happens or doesn’t. If we click with the classic, it just expands, and we keep seeing those concentric circles of added meaning.
Why did I read this book? It was totally unexpected. I always thought I’d loath it with a passion. As I was reading Frenzen’s essay entitled ‘Why Bother?’ (a writer asking himself and attempting an answer to the question why bother writing?), I heard him say that Emma Bovary was a femenine Quixote. That idea has come up in several reviews I’ve read, even in Spanish. That’s because Madame Bovary the book, has several allusions to Emma’s problem being that she read many books, (same as Don Quijote), but she read romances. And those left her with unrealistic expectations of what marriage or love look like. Those around her (mother in law, clergy, Homais -the pharmacist-, debate the value of books in our life. Her mother in law attempts to stop her from buying more books. But truth is that Emma forged that idea of what her life ‘should’ be, and books or not, she was determined to get what she wanted. Such a weak will and strong will. Weak will, because she was completely at the mercy of her narrow and flawed ideas of life, and strong, because when she had made up her mind about something, she went into it headlong.
Emma will irritate you if you expect someone to act with an ounce of common sense or thinking about others for a second. My experience reading Madame Bovary was sad and intense. I thank her for teaching me with her reckless life, what a blessing my life is. At the same time, I was constantly thinking about how this could have been such a different novel. I definitely need something on the other end of the scales after this book, to bring some balance. It doesn’t need to be something silly or light, only different, but that’s not a problem, 🙂
What did shock me most about the book? How Emma’s fall was related to her careless expending. If she infuriated me with her behavior, Lheureux, the money lender, won the prize of the most despicable person. If Emma’s escalating behavior and ruin makes you want to pull your hair, the fact that this individual profited from others’ ruin was to me hard to swallow. The saddest malady of the bourgeois, was that they were a class defined by money. There’s no defined values in that group, or I did not see them. They are not aristocracy (which did not show much moral bone either, but who seem to be isolated in their palaces and property), and the laboring peasants, too busy working to just live, deprived of the luxury of thinking what they want to do with their life. The dynamics of rural France, (jealousies, stabbing in the back), reminded me of other books which take place in rural Spain, such as Doña Regenta by Galdós.
What did I like the most? I don’t read a book because it’s beautifully written, or not only, but the descriptions that many complain about, were my most treasured part of the book. I felt what many say, that Flaubert is a master at painting scenarios. It simply feels like we are in the many places that the characters in the book are. I believe Flaubert loved his country. I was disappointed to see Emma being so blind to the beauty in the places she lived. It may be we idealize the farm where she was with her father, but I think about the saying that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and with such a lack of appreciation, she missed everything that could have done her life, this novel, a very different one.
Flaubert said this:
‘Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.’
I believe he wrote a cautionary tale. In it, those who share any of those feelings Emma took to heart to live by (which I believe it’s us all in less or more degree), those of us who decided to read and experience this despair firsthand, I say, don’t think this vain or a waste of your time, I find it an acute reminder of how blessed a life I live.
And the last picture is another of those little things that makes me happy. This brand of milk, Promised Land, puts a smile on my face every time I see it or drink from it.