For the Love of Emma Bovary
I’ve recently gotten into the habit of tuning into AM radio while getting ready in the morning — sometimes listening specifically for the news; other times just enjoying the voices and occasional musical interludes that make for relaxing background noise. The other day, to my initial delight, I heard a guy mention one of my favorite literary protagonists: Emma Bovary, the passionate and tempestuous heroine in Gustave Flaubert’s mid-19th century classic, Madame Bovary. But as the young man on the radio continued, it appeared that he didn’t share my admiration–instead calling Emma Bovary a “heartless, superficial (_insert your favorite expletive_),” who deserved to “burn in hell for her selfishness.” Zoinks! Now, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but this guy seemed a little too riled up. Let’s be honest, Emma was no angel, but the woman had her reasons.
As it turned out, the guy was a Senior Literature major at Cornell, and although I didn’t catch the beginning of his heated commentary, the reason for his malice became clear–as he’d recently gotten burned by a girl in his Senior English seminar named Linda, while coincidentally, reading Flaubert’s novel in their class. (Apparently, after six weeks, the radio caller was smitten with Linda and was already picturing their wedding day. Linda, on the other hand, was bored to tears–having moved on to another relationship without giving this radio caller guy any formal notification.) I felt kind of badly for him. Clearly, he was hurt and emotional, and at one point, I heard his voice quaver as he talked about how Linda suddenly stopped returning his calls and emails, and then showed up at a house party with her new man. But I was still a little irked by the fact that the caller’s six-week infatuation lead to such a vicious character attack of the unsuspecting Emma Bovary, a woman of great literary fortitude who’s just been minding her own damn business for the last 150 years.
As I listened to the caller go on and on, I remembered that I actually wrote about Emma in an essay I had to do for school… so I thought I’d excerpt it and send it into the radio station. I haven’t heard anything back as of yet, but I thought I’d also share it with you, as well:
* In his book of essays titled Burning Down the House, author Charles Baxter says it himself: “Emma Bovary is making a damn fool of herself.” From story’s open, Emma is a selfish, self-obsessed wretch. She takes multiple lovers despite having the unconditional love of her husband Charles, she spends a catastrophic amount of money on useless, fancy wares, and is stupidly blinded by both lust and greed. As a person, she is seemingly unforgiveable. But oh, how I love Emma Bovary! I admire her insatiable desire for life, which we learn is the result of her limitless imagination and capacity for dreaming. A voracious reader, her head is filled with romantic literary riches: “At the age of fifteen, Emma soiled her hands with the dust from the old lending libraries…she developed a passion for things historical and dreamed of wooden chests, palace guards, and wandering minstrels” (Flaubert, 32).
To further her defense, I believe Flaubert cleverly creates the perfect foil for her Emma’s character: her husband and famed literary imbecile, Dr. Charles Bovary. I don’t believe Emma to be adulterous by nature or unfaithful for the sake of being unfaithful. With Charles, Emma longs to share all the wonders of the world, but it seems that the immovable boundaries of Charles’ mind make this impossible: “…if Charles had made the slightest effort, if he had been at all perceptive, if his glance had only once penetrated her thoughts, an abundance of feeling would suddenly have been released from her heart, like ripe fruit falling from a tree at the touch of a hand. As their daily life became more and more intimate, she was separated from him by a growing feeling of inner detachment …This man taught nothing, knew nothing, wanted nothing….she resented his steadfast calm, his serene dullness” (Flaubert, 35).
Although Charles seems well-meaning enough, his stupidity and lack of personal integrity reaches dangerous levels as it bleeds into his professional life. After basically folding to pressure from his wife, he manages to make the character of young Hippolyte, already stricken with disabling club foot, even worse off through a terribly misguided surgical procedure: “…Charles and the pharmacist took off the box and saw a horrible sight: the foot was a shapeless mass, so swollen that the entire skin seemed ready to burst… a livid tumescence ran up the leg, and scattered over it were pustules from which a black liquid was oozing,” (Flaubert, 154-155.)
In the book’s final scenes, when Charles discovers the strongly suggestive letters that Rodolphe had sent to Emma, I waited for the emotional backlash—the moment when Charles Bovary’s eyes would finally be opened to his wife’s affairs. But instead, Charles replies, “Maybe they loved each other platonically,” (Flaubert, 296). I folded the book over my face. Enough was enough! No level of Madame Bovary’s misbehavior could top the dimwittedness of her husband, and in the end, I might argue that Emma’s worse offense—over shopping her family into the poorhouse, over many an adulterous affair—is that she marries a moron. As a character, she is enthralling and unpredictable—the vivid driving force of a dark and memorable tale.
So basically, Cornell University Senior, if you’re reading this… I really am sorry for your hurt feelings. Nobody likes to be at the sharp end of the Unrequited Love Stick. Maybe this Linda girl is totally callous and unfeeling…. Maybe you’re a dull dud and you have no idea. But one thing I’m sure of is that Emma Bovary didn’t stop calling, and she definitely didn’t show up at a Cornell frat party on another guy’s arm … so let’s keep her out of it.