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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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