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Meeting Emma Bovary in the Digital Age

December 6, 2010

“Emma, Meet iPad.”

How does one read Madame Bovary in the 21st century? She picks up an old translation from her local library or the used bookstore, the newest translation by Lydia Davis, or she reads it digitally. On the iPad, for instance.

I never expected to like digital reading. I’m a book girl. I like the smell of the pages; I like gazing at the titles and covers on my bookshelves. The problem is, I have a million books. They’re everywhere–the living room, porch, basement, my bedroom. I really shouldn’t buy anymore. We have nowhere to put them. I suppose I have a case of the book-stuffs, and I’d like to recover.

There are other inconveniences to books in print, mind you. Often, just when you get the most comfortable, you have to turn the page. Grrr. Or it’s hard to keep the book open while you’re eating your lunch. Digital reading does help with these disadvantages. With a touch of your finger, you turn the page. Your device is always flat, and your hand doesn’t cramp trying to hold it open.

I’ll never give up real books. But I did like reading Madame Bovary on the iPad, my first official E-read. There are many applications to choose from, and of course iBooks looks the best. (The graphics of real pages and bookshelves are impressive.) But for Madame, I chose Kobo. The text was free through Project Gutenberg (oh, the irony of what has happened to the printed press!), and I liked the availability of a table of contents on each page so I could check to see how close I was to the end of the chapter and novel, considering I didn’t have concrete pages at my disposal.

There are a couple of other great things about digital reading. By simply touching a word or phrase, I can highlight it, type up a brief notation, or look a word up in the dictionary. Do you know how many times I wanted to look up the meaning of a word but didn’t want to emerge from my comfy spot under a worn blanket? Countless. With the iPad, it took only a second, and I didn’t have to move my ass. I looked up a bunch of words, none of which I remember, but still. I also took full advantage of taking notes as well, since my typing is a bit better than my handwriting, and I could write as much as I wanted without worrying about margin space. Instead of attaching a booklight to my reader at night, I could switch to the “night reader” option to see the text on a black background. It was also really nice to know that if I finished a book–say, in the waiting room of a doctor’s office–I’d have another one quickly available to me. (It’s probably safe to say you have a mild addiction when you fret about what you will do if you finish your book and don’t have any reading material immediately on hand.)

Really, it was a fun experience, with the exception of the typographical errors scattered throughout my unnamed translation. But maybe Project Gutenberg hasn’t fully gotten their act together. They’re used to the printed word. And I can forgive them. After all, my copy of Madame Bovary was free.

Now, onto the good stuff.

Alert: Spoilers! If you don’t want to know major plot points from Madame Bovary, don’t dare read another word! If you don’t care much about plot points, and instead want the meat-and-potatoes of a festive discussion of cultural mores, past and present, read on.

The Woman Behind the “Madame”

I have often heard Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina referred to in the same sentence, as beacons of feminist stirrings in the 19th century. I read Anna Karenina last year, fully expecting to sympathize with the main character. I didn’t. While I enjoyed the book and am glad to have read it, I was quite horrified by what seemed to be her neglect of her son in exchange for romantic love. I was pregnant at the time. It’s possible my maternal hormones got the best of me, but I doubt it. And the man she was so passionate about? A total weenie.

Weirdly enough, I feel different about Emma Bovary. I understand her sense of boredom and depression about her bourgeois life, her desire for something magical and passionate, her need to thrive in a cold, artistically barren environment. (I’m a mom of two toddlers in the suburbs. Eh-hem.) What I understand less is how she lets her desire for fancy furniture, trinkets, and clothes lead to her demise. The adultery I can forgive, but not the financial indiscretions.

I told you I’m weird.

Perhaps it’s because Charles is so clueless and naive. Not only doesn’t he know or suspect that she is sneaking off for secret rendezvous each week, but from the beginning of their marriage, he never seems to detect her misery and dissatisfaction in this new life. He takes her, an innocent, sheltered girl from her father’s farm, almost as a sort of salvation, but what he doesn’t fully realize is that she’s smart and spirited, artistic, whimsical, even. She wants more from life, and expects marriage will deliver it. It doesn’t. Charles doesn’t know what she needs, and he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know, which could be the worst of it. In Chapter Seven, Emma laments:

“If Charles had but wished it, if he had guessed it, if his look had but once met her thought, it seemed to her that a sudden plenty would have gone out from her heart, as the fruit falls from a tree when shaken by a hand. But as the intimacy of their life became deeper, the greater became the gulf that separated her from him.”

Perhaps Charles can’t meet her needs. Maybe no man can. She loves Rudolphe, but Rudolphe is unattainable, more like a mirage. She loves Leon, but quickly turns from him, too, when he must resort to other work or financial obligations.

It is easy to condemn Emma for having unrealistic expectations of love and marriage, for reading too many romance novels. Her idea of love is that of a teenager’s: “Love, she thought, must come suddenly, with great outbursts and lightnings–a hurricane of the skies, which falls upon life, revolutionises it, roots up the will like a leaf, and sweeps the whole heart into the abyss.” (Part Two, Chapter Four). She even recognizes the disconnect between her original vision of love and what has come of her life once she settles down into married life with Charles:

“Before marriage she thought herself in love; but the happiness that should have followed not having come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words felicity, passion, rapture, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.

While it might be easy to criticize Emma for her superficial ideas, it is important to ask whether she–women in the 19th century–have been offered anything different, better. So often throughout the 18th and 19th century, women are vilified by writers and satirists (usually ugly ones–yes, I’m talking to you, Alexander Pope) for their shallow behavior–their love of beautiful people and things rather than beauty of spirit. But what was their alternative? When a woman is given such limited options to feed her soul (and Emma does have a lot of soul to feed), such a lack of the independence men take for granted, there isn’t much more for her to focus on than romance novels and daydreams. It was her only means of escape in an oppressive society.

While Charles “loves” Emma, it also seems that to him, she is more like a beautiful doll than a human being. Again, in Chapter Five, “[Charles] could not keep from constantly touching her comb, her ring, her fichu; sometimes he gave her great sounding kisses with all his mouth on her cheeks…” In the end of the book, while mourning for her death, he asks one of the servants to cut off a piece of her hair. He is obsessed with his image of her, and he mourns for that instead of reality. In fact, Charles and Emma never really know each other at all (if there’s much to know of Charles. He’s pretty boring.) Was this indicative of 19th century French bourgeois marriages? Likely.

In her attempt to nourish her soul, Emma succumbs to the advances of two men. When the beauty of the convent doesn’t quite work, Rudolphe and Leon do. As men, they feel entitled to their passion, while typically, women do not. This–not the adultery itself–is why Emma is a representative of a growing women’s movement at the time. After a fair amount of resistance, Emma gives in and experiences not only the overwhelming love and lust she hoped for, but also the pain of heartbreak and separation.

The Monsieur

From another viewpoint, this story could be Flaubert’s warning to men of the dangers of marrying a beautiful young woman. Flaubert opens the novel with Charles’s moral and social education, and ends with his downfall. Despite being referenced in the title (albeit formally, impersonally), Emma is not the central character–Charles is. His flaw is that he trusts his wife, gives her love and devotion, does not regulate her whims and desires. He is too easily manipulated, and for that, loses everything, even his relationship with his mother. The neighborhood chemist, Homais, ends up succeeding in his career because he is not held back by his desire for a woman. He is free to think only of himself.

Charles and Emma are quite ill-suited. Their opposite natures reflect the main conflict that arises in the novel, a conflict that was explored thoroughly in the Enlightenment and French Revolution: reason vs. emotion. In addition, Flaubert’s story highlights issues of class status and wealth as well as science vs. religion. Emma Bovary is so concerned with the appearance of wealth that her debt causes the demise of her family.  Meanwhile, the druggist, doctor and chemist struggle to coexist and claim their importance in the face of mortality, something science cannot overcome.

The Rest

There are, of course, other issues to consider, including the lack of a parental role Emma has with her daughter, Berthe. While reminders of Berthe are sprinkled throughout the book, there is a significant lack of focus on Emma’s role as a parent, a mother, compared to today. The nurse takes care of and feeds her baby in an entirely different house, for godsakes! It seems that the moral education and connection of children gets much greater emphasis in today’s literature–or at least in the world of mom-blogs. (Wink, wink.)

So, what are your thoughts, maladjusted readers? I am eager to hear your responses.

*Don’t forget to subscribe to comments at the bottom of the comments section so we can have an active and thorough dialogue!

This post is part of the Maladjusted Book Club reading series.


Image: “Madame Rousseau et sa fille” by Djof via Flickr using a Creative Commons license.

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Leslie @ Five to Nine December 6, 2010 at 12:44 pm

I think I could forgive Emma both her marital and financial indiscretions, to a point – say, if she’d found satisfaction and goodness in her early, smaller trinkets and luxuries – the ivory sewing box with the silver-gilt thimble, the new wallpaper and drapes. (Her husband did, after all, if in an oblivious sort of way: “The less Charles understood these refinements, the more captivating he found them. They added something to the pleasure of his senses and to the sweetness of his home. They were like gold dust sprinkled all along the little path of his life.” [Ch. 9]) Or even if her extramarital discovery of love and lust had inspired her to be happier in her comfortable home with her little daughter, grateful to be having her cake and eating it too. But instead she spent with wild abandon on her life on the side, becoming increasingly reckless in ways that jeopardized her husband’s and her child’s well-being and future. I understand the want for lovely little things – it’s why I love going to flea markets and visiting Etsy, Anthropologie, and Farmhouse Wares – but I find it really tough to sympathize with a gal who feels she should – and can – have it all, at any cost. Oh, the entitlement! It’s scary stuff, and very relevant. The young Madame Bovary and her balloon loans!


Jana December 6, 2010 at 8:28 pm

You’re right–it is hard to forgive her spending and her jeopardizing the family’s estate. But the same impulse toward adultery is the same impulse toward the material items, no? She wants to much of everything. She is Eve eating the apple. (And while enjoying it, eyeing the next from the tree.)


Becca December 6, 2010 at 9:35 pm

“But the same impulse toward adultery is the same impulse toward the material items, no?”

Yes. As you so aptly wrote, Jana, she needs to nourish her soul. And there’s no good way for her to do that…. which I think completely explains her never-ending desire to have *more,* both in material goods and in men. Like you wrote, she’s trying to fulfill a need– she wants to be inspired, uplifted, to connect at a higher level than she’s able to do at a house wife (something I am familiar with, aren’t we all? I LOVE my children, I was born to be a mom, and I was horrified at the complete lack of maternal instinct on the Emma’s part. Truly, being a mom is what makes me whole…. but…but… I am a much, much better mom when the rest of me is fulfilled through my job, through reading, through online book clubs, etc.). Emma, it seems to me, is doing what so many people in our society *still* do– she’s trying to fill that inner desire to find meaning in life but she’s going about it all wrong– she’s using material goods and men, but they are only temporary pleasures, so she wants more, and more, and more. But your point, Jana, is spot on: her options for fulfilling her soul are exceedingly limited. Here’s to living in a world where our options are endless. (Which does beg the question though– if our options today are so endless, why do we so *still* so easily fall prey to the acquisition of material goods in quick attempts to gain pleasure when we should really be trying to figure out how to nourish our souls?)


Vanessa December 6, 2010 at 4:13 pm

Madame Bovary (the character not the book) just irked me. As I was reading the more and more, I envisioned her as a spoiled, rotten brat! Her continued ongoing about her suffering and terrible life made me reread the part where her and Charles meant. I recalled their marriage as being amiable and somewhat affectionate, perhaps more so than occurred in the 19th century of often arranged marriages, though not passionate or anything of great romantic stirring so perhaps I had misread or recalled the details of their courtship incorrectly. But alas, I was correct in my recollection and was annoyed by her placing the blame for her unhappiness solely on Charles.

Knowing that Madame Bovary has been described as advancing the feminist movement is where my annoyance laid. Perhaps I don’t share the same idea of feminism as many others but I do not see any great advances made for it through Madame Bovary’s character except for the idea that she felt herself as worthy as her male counterparts to succumb to her desires. Her lack of financial savvy and self-control, emotional waiverings back and forth from lover to Charles to lover, running to men to save her, not taking responsibility and sharing the blame for what her life has become, and trying to use her feminine charms to get what she wants does more harm in the way of shedding positive light on females. Perhaps this is me reading it through my 21st century lens and not giving create to advancements in their time.

As for Charles, I did sympathize with him. Though his main fault does seem to come in trusting his wife, or in negative terms, being so stupid and naive not to realize she was cheating on him. Not to mention, he does appear quite boring. I believed he did truly love her in the way he knew how. Every time Emma verbalized her desires, he granted them. I think he had some inkling that she was discontent and was always trying to give her opportunities to find more happiness (ie. horse back riding, piano lessons). I even think Charles would have fulfilled her passionate and whimsical desires had she expressed them (perhaps a truly feminist maneuver) to him verbally. This is where Madame Bovary is to blame.

More than once the author wrote about Charles lustful desires for Emma, to grab her and kiss her, however Emma always resisted his advances. This is where I agree with Leslie’s comment that perhaps her adultery would have been more easily forgivable had it made her more comfortable at home. In taking Emma to the opera, I see the desire to fulfill Emma’s artistic and more whimsical natures, to give her that more luxurious and fanciful life she seemed to dream about.

I guess I should address my comment that Emma was a spoiled, rotten brat a little more than what I have already implied. She always got what she wanted but it was never enough. She felt entitled to more and did not learn or even try to understand how to live with less than what she expected. Life and people will always disappoint and many times not live up to our expectations, this is when we need to look to something greater than ourselves. A great fault of Emma’s was that her greatest expectation was in the form of a man.


Jana December 6, 2010 at 7:36 pm

What great points you raise, Vanessa!

Emma is certainly not a good person. She has many flaws. I think it’s fair to say she’s a bit of a brat. And you’re right, Charles does try to satisfy her as much as possible, but nothing works.

The points you raise about feminism are interesting. You’re right–she is certainly not a feminist, certainly not independent, certainly not very “strong.” I think she can be looked at through a feminist lens, though, because she seems to be a product of a patriarchal culture. She has been taught that she will prosper spiritually through marriage, even more than she would in the convent, a place she holds in high regard. (Her devotion to the nuns and the church is very interesting and deserves more discussion than I’m giving it.) But she doesn’t. Fulfilling her “natural” role seems hazardous to her mental and physical health, as it might have been for many women. Unfortunately, she was fed ideas about happiness as a woman that didn’t hold water. This does not mean, in my eyes, that she is without serious fault. I see her more as a case study of what can happen to a woman in that society and situation. (Heck, even in this one.) Instead of just thinking about her desires and dreams, she actually acts. She is active rather than passive, an anomaly for the time. And let’s remember, too, that these men approach her. She does not seek them out.

Building on that point, it’s probably typical for people of that time and ours to apply a double standard to Emma. (Not that any of us are doing this.) There seems to be an overall idea that a woman having an affair or abandoning/neglecting her children is going “against nature.” Yet when a man does it, it is seen as part of his nature. By showing us Emma’s execution of the very things that might horrify people in her society, Flaubert wittingly or not levels the playing field. He allows us to see a woman seeking out passion and desire, not just being the object of others’ affections, the male gaze. She is the object of Charles’s adoration, and she despises him for it. It does not make her feel more loved or more special.

With that said, she definitely has a warped view of love. To her, love is romance and overwhelming emotion, not the day-to-day dogged commitment, the action of loving without physicality. I just don’t know that I’d blame her for this as much as her society. What do we still teach young girls today, for instance? Every pop-culture venue stresses attracting men, pleasing men, tailoring your body to men’s predilections. When a woman isn’t given respect beyond physical appearance, what may she resort to? (Stripteases, prostitution…the possibilities are endless.)

Again, I’m thinking of her character as a case study, not an actual person. I still think Emma should be held accountable for her actions, of course.


Becca December 6, 2010 at 9:47 pm

“By showing us Emma’s execution of the very things that might horrify people in her society, Flaubert wittingly or not levels the playing field. He allows us to see a woman seeking out passion and desire, not just being the object of others’ affections, the male gaze.

Ohhhh. I’m starting (starting!) to wrap my head around this book as “feminist” in nature. That comment really helped me start to see it (I think?). So you’re saying that just the mere fact that she HAS a voice, that she has her own desires and acts on them is important, right? It’s amazing, then, really how far we’ve come, far that I couldn’t (on my own) even understand how important of a detail that was. Can you imagine living in a time when you weren’t even seen as *having* desires? (Much less being allowed to act on them?) Woah.


Leslie @ Five to Nine December 7, 2010 at 12:04 am

I can’t imagine committing myself to a lifetime – shorter or not! – with someone I’d had few and limited opportunities to get to know. Considering that, I’m filled with wonder that among marriages that are arranged or based on something less than our concept of true familiarity, there are those that could grow into real love.
Neither can I imagine motherhood as Emma experienced it – the expectation that the infant child would go elsewhere to eat (and sleep?) until she outgrew nursing, that the mother would be no more involved in the child’s everyday life than hired members of the household. But if we were born into that time and place, would we be very different? Would we naturally feel as motherly as we do in this life, or would culture and context leave us more detached?
Again – I just can’t imagine. It’s a tricky thing, looking through our lenses at other people in other places and times.


Stacia December 6, 2010 at 9:50 pm

What struck me reading it this time around was how much more I empathized with Emma. It’s just as you say: I am a mom who stays home in the suburbs to raise her children. The parallels were startling. The key difference, I think, is that I have chosen this life.

If I decide I am feeling stifled, I have an outlet (a night out with friends; a solo outing somewhere, anywhere; a husband who will take over while I sneak a nap; etc.). Emma did not. If I decide this is no longer the life for me, I can go out and get a job and send my kids to daycare. Emma could not. The point is, I have options. I have choices. Emma did not.

When Emma lost control of the two things previously in her power (her sexuality and her spending), she had nothing else. Except arsenic, which ironically she procured through seduction. Even then, the romantic death she envisions goes terribly wrong. It’s tragic, particularly when juxtaposed so effectively with the lives of the novel’s male characters (e.g., Rudolphe, Leon, Homais).

I wonder, though, if even if Emma had had more choices, would she have been satisfied? I see parallels to our own society’s (over)spending habits, to our (over)consumption of resources, to the bad mortgage epidemic, to repeated infidelities by both genders … and on and on. I bet we all know an Emma and a Charles.

PS: I’ve never read an e-book. I loved hearing your thoughts on it!


Becca December 6, 2010 at 10:12 pm

Totally saw the parallels to today’s society, too! (Just commented on that above). Not only do we all know an “Emma,” we all *are* Emmas to some degree or another…seeking to nurture our souls by indulging in temporary material pleasures. So the question is– with all of the options that exists to women (and men) in today’s society, why do we still seek material pleasures in the belief that they will fill our souls?


Leslie @ Five to Nine December 6, 2010 at 11:36 pm

I relate to the way Charles felt about the pretty luxuries Emma splurged on and showed off – that they added “to the pleasure of his senses and to the sweetness of his home.” Today in my own home, I know that a lot of what I want and have packed away is just stuff – but it feels special to have a few exquisite little things. They sure don’t fill my soul – they just mark my home in a way I like – and I know the difference, because for me, the “gold dust sprinkled along the path” of my life are moments I’ve shared, not things I’ve come to own. Who knows what I might value most, though, if I didn’t have moments of joy for context?
I wrote that it was hard for me to sympathize with Emma’s decisions, particularly as they became more reckless and thoughtless. But I did sympathize – and empathize – from the beginning. In places I admired her resolve to keep up duties and appearances and her resistance to pursuing what she really wanted. By the time she gave herself up to her desires, time and experience (and lack of experience!) had turned her both wild and self-conscious. It made me wish she surrendered and experienced freedom earlier, when perhaps it could have changed or even saved her life.


Vanessa December 6, 2010 at 11:48 pm

Probably because that is the only option society gives us. We’ve stated that Emma had few options and that we have so many more, but how true of a statement is this? We have more stuff available to us because of the industrial age, we have more legal rights because of the civil rights era and women’s movements, we even have more religious freedoms as America expands it’s cultural doors, but does our mindsets, prejudices, bias and societal pressures handed down from generation to generation really leave us with that many more options then finding bliss in these worldly pleasures? Or are we still shackled to the very same underlying ideas that Emma was (ie. bliss in marriage, happiness found in things, daydreams of a luxurious life)?

It takes extreme courage to break away from the things you’ve been taught, the things that have influenced you. It takes a willingness to be unlike anyone else, to often be ridiculed or even deemed out of our minds. I think so much so that we often fall prey to just living life and going with the flow…it’s definitely and infinitely easier.

Of course, I see this as perhaps an argument for a life with religious convictions. Jana, alluded to Emma’s devotion to the nuns and the church and I think this may be a less obvious theme of the book. However, I don’t know much about the author to make a good assumption of his intention with this subject matter. Any insights on this Jana? Could he be making a statement about a life without God versus a life devoted to God just as he might have about marrying a beautiful women?


Jana December 7, 2010 at 8:06 am

Vanessa, I think we are shackled to our belongings. I’d like to get over that! It’s not healthy! So in that way, Flaubert’s exploration of these issues of status and materialism are certainly timeless.


Jana December 8, 2010 at 7:31 am

I forgot to answer your question, Vanessa, about Flaubert’s intentions. I’ve been taught by English professors not to think about the author’s intentions, but how can we not? I do think that Emma’s wavering devotion to the church/convent is important with regard to her desire to feed her soul. As Kerri says below, it’s another one of those places we look to nourish ourselves, and in Emma’s case, she loves the beauty of the convent, the simplicity, the time for contemplation. I think there are three places Flaubert suggests we look to nourish our souls: material items, love and romance, and religion. They don’t seem to help us out at the same time, though.


Jana December 7, 2010 at 8:08 am

What an interesting point about her death. She had romantic visions of how she’d pass into the next world, and yet she was puking up black bile. Do you think Flaubert wanted to punish her? What is his attitude toward Emma, I wonder. I can’t quite tell whether he likes her or not. (Not that it matters.)


Jana December 7, 2010 at 8:09 am

That comment I just made was directed at Stacia. These threaded comments are getting confusing! Aaah!


Kerri December 6, 2010 at 9:50 pm

I have to begin by admitting that I’m only about eighty pages into the book and that years have passed since I read it the first time. However, I’m finding Madame Bovary to be absolutely relevant today. The idea that Emma believes she can have it all speaks to me, and I believe it probably would to many women (and even men) today. Romanticized notions of love, marriage, life, work, and parenting abound. Turn on the TV and you’ll be persuaded that you too can have it all. A victim of the distractions of her own era (such as novels and magazines), she believes she is destined for a particular kind of life, one that if it exists at all will never fully satisfy her anyway. Jana, I especially like the quote you mention about Emma’s idealized notions of marriage before she actually experiences it for herself. I too made a note of that.

I wonder if her view of life at the convent is similar to her view of marriage. “Living thus, without ever leaving the warm atmosphere of the class-rooms, and amid these pale-faced women wearing rosaries with brass crosses, she was softly lulled by the mystic languor exhaled in the perfumes of the altar, the freshness of the holy water, and the lights of the tapers.” While a disciplined existence, convent life offers simplicity, purity, holiness and beauty among like-minded women. However, we are told that Emma’s nature, “positive in the midst of its enthusiasms, that had loved the church for the sake of the flowers, and music for the words of the songs, and literature for its passional stimulus, rebelled against the mysteries of faith as it grew irritated by discipline, a thing antiseptic to her constitution.” Emma does not find a home in this realm of the spirit. Furthermore, she does not feel at home with her husband in his world of science, logic and reason. Oh, Emma, where do you belong?

Does anyone else find the imagery and symbolism a little heavy-handed? I guess that’s pretty typical for 19th century literature, but I’m thinking specifically of the following passage in Part One: “One day when, in view of her departure, she was tidying a drawer, something pricked her finger. It was a wire of her wedding-bouquet. The orange blossoms were yellow with dust and the silver-bordered satin ribbons frayed at the edges. She threw it into the fire. It flared up more quickly than dry straw. Then it was, like a red bush in the cinders, slowly devoured. She watched it burn.”

I’m going to keep reading the book even though I’m massively behind the deadline, so I may change my mind as I move into Part Two and beyond.


Jana December 7, 2010 at 8:04 am

I did notice a lot of imagery of sex when Charles and Emma were courting. I don’t have the book with me right now, but her face was so full of blushes and stuff. I don’t know how much is lost in translation, but those innuendos were not lost on me!

I do wonder what you’ll think as you read more. Glad you’ve joined the discussion!


Jana December 8, 2010 at 7:33 am

This is a really important line, especially with regard to Flaubert’s use of the church: “Discipline is antiseptic to her constitution.” So perhaps we can save ourselves from Emma’s fate if we are more disciplined! (Phew. Was getting worried.)


Becca December 6, 2010 at 10:06 pm

And on a random note…

Loved some of the insights in the book… while much of the book hurt my head to read (says the girl who usually spends her book time perusing Jodi Picoult novels which require a bit less, um, intellectual discipline if you will), there were some truly beautiful passages. A couple of my favorites:

“…As if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest metaphors, since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, nor of his conception, nor of his sorrows; and since human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tuns to make bears dance when we long to move the stars.”

Makes me thing of all the blogs, all the books,all the movies, all the songs that try to tap into the beauty that surrounds us, but we can’t ever get perfectly right because in the end, language is just too human to tap into something that is moves beyond the realm of humanity.

“Well, quite softly, one day following another, a spring on a winter an an autumn after a summer, this wore away, piece by piece, crumb by crumb, it passed away, it is gone, I should say it is sunk; for something always remains at the bottom as one would say–a weight here, at one’s heart. But since it is the lot of all of us, one must not give way altogether, and because others have died, want to die too.”

What a beautiful and apt description of loss, and of moving on, even as you take a piece of your loss with you. Amazing that loss is loss is loss, even in France in the 1800s.


Jana December 7, 2010 at 8:02 am

Oh, my reading ladies. You never disappoint. I hope you’ve all subscribed to the comments, because usually I respond via email, but it’s too hard to see the overall discussion that way, so I’m going to respond right on the blog.

I think Vanessa raises a good point that’s similar to Becca’s. Am I (or we) being too easy on Emma, seeing her just as a product of her time? It’s funny–in some ways, we all are a product of our time, our society and culture, and in others, we are individuals, unique as anyone who has lived throughout the centuries. Sometimes, my teacher’s reliance on a time period and cultural mores gets old. But.

It does matter. The time we live in does have an effect on us, and I do think it affected Emma. Still, as Kerri, Leslie, and Stacia mentioned, Emma is not so different from people today. Does she just want too much?

Perhaps she does. And I think she knows this. It’s why after Rudolphe leaves her and she has a nervous breakdown, she turns to the church. She becomes devout, her resolve heightened to be a good person and make the best of her situation.

Like all people, though, her faith waivers. Leon is just too young and handsome to pass up, and he wants her. After all those years, he still has feelings for her, and her passions are revived for him. I think it’s significant that her affair begins with him after a night at the opera–these artistic expressions have a very powerful effect on her.

I understand your point, Vanessa, that she needs faith in something bigger. I think she has that, though it comes and goes; she struggles with her faith. And while I agree that blaming society for a person’s flaws can sometimes be too much, I don’t think we should disregard it and say that faith is the sole answer. Faith also leads people astray, to do bad things. People may think they are following their faith when they make bad decisions. (Look at past churches’ justification of slavery, of segregation, of treating women as inferior, or even, in extreme cases, of genocide.) I fear that too much dependence on a greater power to have all of the answers can keep people sedate, can make them fail to act in larger ways. We can help one person here and there, even a large group, but if we don’t make the people in power change things (or take the reigns ourselves), not much is changed, in the grand scheme of things. I think we need to read these novels, at least in part, historically. Because while we are all innately human, our times have changed. Now, are problems and issues are just different. Life is not necessarily easier, unfortunately.

Something funny–I caught the end of Jonathan Franzen on Oprah yesterday. He said about Freedom, that part of what he was exploring was that while we have all of these freedoms and opportunities, people are still unhappy and “p.o.’d” all the time. (As he so beautifully put it.)

Hey, was Patty Berglund a freakin’ Emma Bovary? OH MY GOD, I’M A GENIUS!


Becca December 7, 2010 at 8:32 am

Totally agree with your comments about faith. Faith can be a beautiful thing if it fills your soul in a way that is meaningful to you. Spirituality especially. But *religion* can also be oppressive and full of disappointment, as the people who lead are only human, too. Emma’s views of religion are just as full of exuberant expectations as are her views of marriage and men. She’s a restless soul, for sure. I can see why faith wasn’t the answer for her either.

Totally understand the comments about the time period. Leslie, your comments about the expectations placed on mothers at that time are well taken– I shouldn’t be so quick to judge Emma for her lack of involvement with her child when it is *expected* that her daughter would be taken away from her and nursed by another woman. I can’t imagine what what that would be and you’re right, it’s very hard to imagine what our actions would be like given those circumstances. And Jana, I totally see your points about her lack of options to fulfill herself. And totally see how her attempts to actually fulfill herself are a huge break for the times.

So here’s a question… is today’s focus on keeping the perfect house/being a perfect mom/having the perfect stuff a hangover from past times? As in, for a long time, that’s all women were given to make themselves happy? That *this* brought them purpose (or if it didn’t, at least it kept them distracted) in times when they weren’t allowed to do anything else? And although we now have the options as women to work, to play, to choose our religion, to explore a wide variety of options for truly filling our souls, there is still that lingering expectation that what will “really” make us happy is running the perfect household?

Okay I don’t even know if that makes sense. But I’ve got a toddler climbing on a chair and throwing things off the table while the 5 year old loudly describes each and every thing that hits the floor, so I’m a little distracted. I’m just going to hit “post” and hope that there was something in this comment that made a little sense.


Jana December 8, 2010 at 7:42 am

Becca, I’m thinking of Judith Warner’s book, A Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. (Kristen from Motherese, are you there? I know this is your favorite book.) Our anxiety about doing it all has to do in part with the past expectations to keep a proper house, I suppose, and also, being women. I know that current academic would shake their fingers at me, but there are still some remnants of our nature. I think men think in a more linear way–they focus and home in on something (the hunters). Women see every single detail, every particle of dust–our scope is a little broader and more wide-ranging. We just don’t have the time or support to tackle it all. If we lived in a hut, it would be a different story!

(While social constructions can be a problem, I do think there are biological differences in men and women. It makes sense. How else would we have lasted this long?)

But this is a fairly low-brow response to your question, Becca. I don’t have a toddler on my lap, but she is making fish faces and throwing her banana.


Vanessa December 7, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Let me clarify, I do partially blame Emma’s society and our own for influencing us. It is naive to think we are not or cannot be influenced by the world around us. We are human, and as so, we all have faults. Also, my definition of faith tends to be greatly different than so many others’ definition. In fact, I don’t really see much of a connection anymore with faith and a church as our society defines it. Faith is a personal endeavor and cannot correctly be latched to a group of people. Church has become more about business and less about faith. That is how the lines of church and state have unjustly become blurred. So when I say that Emma needs faith in something greater, something outside of herself…I in no way imply faith in a church because we already see that that doesn’t work for Emma either.


Jana December 8, 2010 at 7:17 am

Yes, I see what you mean. After writing some responses yesterday, I did think that it would be helpful for Emma to see the bigger picture, get a broader perspective of her life. I think what Flaubert is showing, though, is how hard that is for the bourgeois. Just like it is for the upper-middle-class in this country. We are consumed with so many mundane problems that sometimes we lose sight of what we really have. We have to remind ourselves to be grateful. What then, would we encourage Emma to do? What do we do for ourselves, so we don’t end up like Emma? Or Patty Berglund? (Though obviously, she’s an extreme case.)


Jana December 7, 2010 at 8:10 am

I figured out the solution. Emma needed a book club.


Stacia December 7, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Yes! Or a blog. =>


Ameena December 8, 2010 at 1:03 pm

I am absolutely a book lover and could never give them up in their original form. You do make good points about reducing clutter though. And I find myself reading more work stuff on my iPad lately.

I haven’t read Madame Bovary yet but now I am very intrigued. I wish I had more time so I could join your book club. But alas, work and my child leave me with very little. Don’t give up on me though!! Maya will eventually grow up – or so I hear.


Sarah December 11, 2010 at 9:04 am

So I find myself a bit hesitant to reply after everyone’s well worded and insightful replies.
My question is about Justin. Did he and Emma have a fling as well? The book never really went into details, but I thought there was mention of Emma letting Justin watch her get dressed, and what’s up with his crying over hergrave? Just feeling guilty over getting her the poison or was he mourning his love for her? Why did he use the key to let her in to the back room with the poison anyway? Because Emma was too pushy or cuz he couldn’t refuse her due to his love?


Amber December 12, 2010 at 12:45 am

I want to let you know that I actually read this. I am composing my own response which I will soon post to my blog. This means that it will take at least 5 years before it is published. But, in case you are wondering about your fellow book club members, I was diligent even if I couldn’t make it to the party. : )


Jana December 12, 2010 at 9:32 am

Amber, it is an ongoing party. Don’t feel lime you missed anything. Join in here, if you like. I hope that anyone who eventually reads or has read the book can share her or his thoughts.


Jinnayah January 9, 2011 at 4:59 pm

I really missed out by not checking in on the Book Club earlier this winter so I could get in on the _Bovary_ discussion at the same time as the rest of you! I’ve read _Madame Bovary_ once, over a decade ago–but it was *well* *taught* to me in a literature class, so I think I remember more about its overall feeling and meaning than I otherwise possibly could have.

But first about eBooks … I was an “early adopter” of the Kindle three years ago, and the technology suits my already-crystallized reading habits EXCELLENTLY. At all times I want 4-6 books handy, because I can never be sure what experience I’ll next want when I finish a given chapter in one book.

And, yes, I too enjoy the physicality of a printed volume: in fact, I considered bookbinding and library conservation as a career. For some books I would NEVER give up the sensory experience of my edition of Wuthering Heights, featuring woodcuts from Fritz Eichenberg. But for many other books, the loss is less obvious; and it actually intensified my identification with the main character of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age that I, like she, was experiencing her story through a new technology.

So yeah, use eBook technology when you really, *really* need MORE TEXT. And don’t be snobbish about using it LOTS if you have a lot of times like that. But the technology complements rather than replaces a printed book.

P.S. re: Project Gutenberg: many of their texts are put together by Distributed Proofreaders, an astonishing online community comprising thousands of volunteers who scan volumes, run OCR software, and then put the text through FIVE rounds of each page being eyeballed by an actual human being to correct the OCR’s awfulness of character recognition and re-format into the simplest electronic formats available. The eyeballing is done on a page-by-page basis, so you can do it in very short or very long stints. The BEST PART: this is a place where you can contribute to the preservation of human culture WHILE PROCRASTINATING! I *love* it.

I guess I’ll have to write back later about my actual _Bovary_ impressions.


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