The Idiot Learns to Read #13: Madame Bovary

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.

This is a sad tale of what happens to people who marry who are not equally yoked.  There are some who are brilliant enough to pass it off, but for the most part, people coming from the opposite ends of life never do well together.  Madame Bovary highlights all the problems of a couple who were entirely ill-suited.

The story starts with a young Charles Bovary finally attending school for the first time.  He’s had an unorthodox childhood, but his mother is determined to see him distinguished in any fashion.  She goes to such great lengths to ensure his education.  He is a young man without much ambition, but because of her machinations he manages to finish school as a mediocre doctor.  He was content to live out his days like that but his mother also wanted him to have an excellent marriage.  She arranges for him to marry a widow.  It would be quite a boring story, the lives of Charles Bovary and his new wife for they are not all interesting, but this wife is not the Madame Bovary we are interested in.

Charles becomes infatuated with the daughter of one of his patients.  The girl is beautiful, unlike anything he has ever seen.  His wife, of course, is jealous, even though she never lays eyes on the girl.  She just knows that her husband is spending all his time on this one patient.  Charles is so middle of the road that he would never dream of stepping out on his wife.  Instead, she becomes ill and dies, leaving Charles free.  Of course, he’s so stodgy and boring that he does wait the suitable mourning period before he begins courting young Emma, a girl who has been educated in a convent. 

When they get married, Emma becomes the Madame Bovary that will captivate you, and eventually disillusion you.  At first, Emma is quite excited to be married and Charles is a devoted husband.  Eventually, however, the days of her marriage seem to run together.  She becomes immediatley unhappy and Charles has no idea why.  She is bored and listless though Charles does everything in his power to amuse her.  She becomes so caught up in her boredom and unhappiness that she makes herself ill.  Charles, who is barely competent as a doctor, hires on another doctor to look after her.  This doctor says the air is what is making Madame Bovary ill and that she should be moved to someplace with more affable air.  Upon hearing this, Emma drinks vinegar to make herself more ill, to persuade Charles to move away from the sleepy little village in which they currently reside.

This is the first evidence you see that points to Emma as a spoiled and wilful woman, uncaring of other people’s feelings  Charles becomes so alarmed that he immediately packs everything up and they move to another town that is more modern. 

That very first day theya rrive in the new town, Emma meets Monsieur Leon.  The two have much in common and it’s evident that they are immediately attracted to one another.  Charles is completely oblivious to all of this.  He thinks Leon is just a polite gentleman to be so kind to his wife. 

Shortly after their arrival in town, Emma and Charles have a baby but you can tell that Emma is not really into the whole pregnancy and motherhood thing.  Charles was quite excited, but Emma seemed distant.  When she was alone, she prayed for a boy because a boy wouldn’t be stuck in the dreary life she was in.  She was extremely disappointed when the child was born female.  To further highlight her disinterest in the child, she took forever in naming the child.  Eventually, they settle on Berthe.

After Berthe’s birth, Emma goes back to her regular mundane life, but slowly realising that she is in love with Leon.  Heretofore, they were merely polite with one another, but she ends up kind of stalking him in a way.  She hangs out her window every time he goes past, trying to figure out where he is going.  She would show up randomly at the house he’s staying at.  Emma would visit the wife of the household in a barely concealed attempt to see Leon.  The more she realises she is in love with Leon the more she realises she hates Charles.  She becomes even more depressed, growing thin and pale.  Charles doesn’t seem to see any of this.  He thinks she is finally settled down and happy now they have a baby.  He doesn’t even notice that Emma is not really that into the baby; in fact, she doesn’t even see the kid.  Emma’s hatred for Charles grows because he doesn’t seem to pay attention to her needs. 

Leon doesn’t make things any better because he also decides that he is in love with Emma.  He sees no point in confessing his love, howeve, because she is married.  It first, it does not enter into his mind to have an affair.  Instead of dealing with his emotions, he decides to pack up for Paris.  When Emma finds out that he is leaving, she sinks into a black depression, leaving Charles completely baffled as to what is wrong with her.

Enter Rodolphe Boulanger.  He is an older man witha large estate near town.  He’s very self-important and arrogant.  In modern times, he’d be called a player.  He has lots of women all over the place and the moment he sees Emma, he decides that she needs to be his next conquest.  He does whatever he can to put himself in her line of sight, and eventually she does take notice of him.  She likes him because he is interesting and worldly, everything Charles is not.  She falls so easily into his trap.  Charles is so stupid that he doesn’t even see what is going on.  Rodolphe basically courts her right under his nose.  Charles even condones some of Rodolphe’s activities.  Rodolphe randomly shows up one day asking if Emma would like to go horeseback riding.  Oh, Emma doesn’t have a horse.  Oh, I just happen to have one right here.  Oh, you go on, honey.  You have a great time.  I feel sorry for Charles.  He doesn’t even know he’s stupid. 

They day they are out riding, Rodolphe and Emma sleep together.  Now Emma is in love.  She is sneaking out everyday to be with him.  She doesn’t care who sees her.  She doesn’t care about the consquences.  She becomes so bold and reckless that Rodolphe has to tell her to slow down.  She’s getting out of control and she could damage both their reputations.  This is at a time when affairs were carried on in the most discreet fashion and the slightest smudge against a lady’s name could ruin her forever.  It’s like she doesn’t even care though. 

It’s sad because Emma is so head over heels in love with Rodolphe but he’s like whatever about her.  To him, she’s just another chick.  She’s got it into her head that they were meant to be together, and she wants to run off with him, leave Charles.  Rodolphe doesn’t like the sound of that.  In order to reason with her, he asks her, “What about your kid?”  Oh, we’ll take her with us.  The thought of taking care of a woman and her baby is sickening to Rodolphe but he doesn’t say anything to Emma quite yet.  Emma concocts this wild plan that Rodolphe only half-heartedly agrees to.  After she leaves their love next, Rodolphe decides that he’s had quite enough of this whole affair and it’s time for him to move on.  He writes Emma a very long letter basically explaining to her that running away together is not really that great an idea.  He ends it with a “let’s just be friends.”  He thinks the letter will make her see sense and reason, but it’s the type of letter that would drive a woman crazy, especially since she is butt-crazy in love with him. 

Instead of bringing the letter himself, he sends his servant along with a basket of apricots.  Naturally, when Emma reads the letter she goes practically insane.  She starts crying and carrying on.  Charles has no idea what’s going on with her.  He is so stupid that he thinks the apricots have made her ill.  She carries on so much that she falls into a feverish delerium for months.  It takes her months to recover and Charles becomes more doting than ever.  They have begun to fall into financial troubles but he says nothing of this to her. 

She does get better, and Charles takes her into town to see a show.  While there, she runs into Leon.  Their loves is immediatley renewed upon seeing one another and eventually they do begin a real love affair.  Emma lies to Charles and tells him that she is taking piano lessons.  But like all things, this also plays itself out.  Emma wants to spend more and more time with Leon.  He thinks she’s being reckless.  People are starting to notice things.  She is staying out all night, and one night she doesn’t even come home.  This is a thing unheard of.  Charles just doesn’t have a clue what is happening.  Even Leon’s boss says something.  Someone writes to his mother and she warns him about taking up with a married woman in this fashion.

Leon has to break it off, but before he can do this the financial troubles of the Bovarys catch up with them.  All this time, Emma has been spending wildly.  Borrowing money from one person to pay another.  She has to have the most fashionable hats and gowns.  She has to have silver and Chinese fans.  She has to have everything because she thinks these things will make her happy.  Charles had always told her that she had to be a little less free with the money but she never paid any attention to this.  One day, one of her debtors finally comes to her and says he wants his money:  8000 francs.  Back then, that’s a lot of money.  Emma tries desperately to get the money from anybody she can but she has borrowed so much that no one will lend her anything.  She asks Leon and he just doesn’t have that kind of money. 

She accuses him of not loving her.  They quarrel badly and this is pretty much the last time they see each other.  In a final act of desperation, Emma runs into Rodolphe and asks him for the money.  If he would have had it, he would have given it to her but he doesn’t.  She also tells him that he never loved her.  Meanwhile, Charles is still clueless about what is happening.  He has his own debts but knows nothing of Emma’s serious debt.  He doesn’t even know about the affairs with Leon and Charles. 

One night, Emma comes home, looking wild and crazy.  She has swallowed arsenic.  Charles does whatever he can, calling all the doctors but nothing can be done.  Emma has killed herself.  It was really quite sad because Charles just didn’t know what had tormented her so.  He didn’t know why he could never make her happy.  Even after her death he tries to please her.  He has an extravagant funeral arranged for her that everyone tries to talk him out of.  Emma’s debtors wait a suitable period but they come around for the money once more.  Charles ends up completely destitute, still madly in love with Emma and blind to all of her faults.

One day, he finds a letter that Rodolphe had written to Emma.  Even then Charles refused to believe it.  He tells himself that it must have been a platonic love.  After all, he loved her so, everybody else should love her just like he did.  He also learns of Leon’s marriage shortly after Emma’s death.  Charles says to himself, “How happy Emma would be to know this.”  It’s like he purposely refused to see what was in front of his own nose this whole time.  It’s just so depressing.  You just want to shake some sense into him.  You want to slap Emma. 

Charles does what he can to pay off all his debts but he has become reclusive from society.  He just cannot get over Emma’s death.  By the time everything is paid he has very little money left.  He still has his daughter to take care of but in his selfishness and grief, he doesn’t do what he should have done until it was too late.  Charles dies and Berthe goes to live with his mother, but she died the same year.  Berthe goes to live with an aunt but the aunt is too poor to take care of Berthe, so she sends the little girl to work in a cotton factory. 

This is the last you hear of the Bovarys.

The story was utterly depressing, but not in a way that I felt sad for myself.  I felt sorry for these people.  Emma was so childish, so immature, so petty.  Charles treated her like a princess but she treated him like dirt.  She even treated her lovers like garbage.  She was clingy and needy, reviling them with her stalkerish behaviour.  Rodolphe was a player but Leon loved her until he couldn’t give her what she needed:  money.  In the end, I didn’t feel sorry for her.  I felt sorry for Charles because he just wanted to be an average middle-of-the-road guy.  He didn’t desire for things beyond his reach.  He thought he had everything:  a career, a beautiful wife, a lovely daughter.  But he was so blind to everything around him.  Maybe he didn’t want open his eyes and see that he really had nothing.  In the end, I couldn’t feel sorry for him either.  Once Emma was gone, he had one responsibility and that was Berthe.  That’s who we should all feel sorry for.  Even though she is a minor character in the story, she’s the one who suffered from stupidity of her parents.

I give Mr. Flaubert an A for this story.  It was a little wordy in parts, but it was a fast read.  I could have gone through it much faster had I not been so busy at work. 

Next I will read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.


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