Madame Bovary: Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery (or grow old)

                        

I can sort of understand banning Madame Bovary. The shameless representation of an adulteress (the scandal!) and the melt down of upper class respectability that results, must indeed be disturbing to reading audiences. But the adulteress, regardless of how unsexy her relationships (no actual sex finds description, its all boring kisses and professions of love and adoration), dies PENNILESS and ruined. She is fully punished by the text, most by impending and inescapable poverty, but also – incidentally – by death. And so why ban this tale that reinforces the importance of wealth, dignity, respectability and “knowing ones station”? Well, it represents adultery and no reader could help but be corrupted by such a representation, whatever the consequences of the sin.

I wonder myself whether Emma isn’t punished more for growing old than she is for having affairs. I maintain that her punishments – poverty and shame – are not ill deserved (she does demonstrate a careless irresponsibility with respect to money, bills and interest, not to mention with open communication with her financial partner…), but I do wonder whether these punishments arise not because of her irresponsibility, but because of the failing persuasion of her good looks and charm.

I know my argument is undone by the eleventh hour proposition of the banker to solve her debt problems should she consent to a little back room rub down (yes, you heard it here, a rub down), and that her refusal to denigrate herself is supposed to show that while she may be penniless she is still respectable (even though she will not be for long once word gets out that she’s broke). I appreciate that in her death she still looks beautiful (with the exception of the bald patches effected by a poor barbering job of the corpse), but I can’t help that feel that all of Emma’s (limited) power comes to her by way of her beauty and that the diminishment of this power must in some way be a result of her growing old. I wish that I had the text to find a pertinent example by which to prove my case, but I listened to the book and so can only furnish my feeling, and I suppose Emma’s speech to Roldolf where she tells him off for abandoning her like some street hussy when he tired of her. And that’s the risk of the mistress isn’t it? That some inevitable day you will no longer be of use and will be/can be cast off like so much spoiled meat.

Other dissatisfactions? The frame narrative of Charles. If you let go of the idea that the book is meant to be about Emma and accept that the book is about the preservation of the upper classes against a growing middle/merchant class and the dangers of a decline in upper class values and respectability the frame devise of Charles young and old is appropriate. If, however, like me, you’d rather think of the book as about Emma and her vanity, stupidity, and irrepressible ennui you might find the ending unsatisfactory (or, as I did, entirely unnecessary. the book should have ended with Emma’s death).

The brilliance of the book comes in the descriptions of characters’ appearances and behaviours, the seemless shifts in points of view, and the reflection of societal concerns and doubts so wholly in the space of a narrow cast of characters. I did appreciate the attempt to understand Emma’s unhappiness and her yearning for something more from life, though I did hope that her misery might get further attention in the explaination of her “sins,” and her ultimate punishments.

Again, thanks to the HPL for books on tape. I listened to Emma all weekend and have a clean apartment and delicious date squares to show for it.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, British literature, Fiction, Prize Winner

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