Tag Archives: Madame Bovary

The Girl With the Pearl Earring & Madam Bovary: What happens when I drink too much.

I didn’t set out to read Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring in combination with Gustave Flaubert’s Madam Bovary (WHICH as it turns out, I read already  but didn’t realize it until like page 200 both because of a terrible memory and because the book isn’t that memorable). And sure, Pearl Earring is set in the 17th century, and Bovary in the 19th, so not a direct historical overlap, but the books share some of the same concerns with Honour and Fallen Women and how to preserve morality by shaming women and their sexuality.

Because I read them in sequence (and Flabuert, obvs, in translation) I couldn’t help but draw comparisons (btw: why do we draw comparisons? It’s a strange verb choice and I’d like it explained. Maybe it has roots in tracing paper?). Similar plot set up: respectable woman (in the case of Pearl, respectable maid, but still) catches the eye of powerful man, powerful man proves enticing. Then the books diverge in their responses. While our maid protagonist, Greit, totally wants to sleep with Vermeer (the painter), she resists – or they resist – and instead marries the butcher (like how much more of a contrast to romance do you need than fancy painter versus Butcher) and prospers because of it (like she gets to eat meat for the rest of her life). Emma as we know, dies penniless and alone because of her adulterous and lavish ways. Differences aside, both are unhappy and feel cheated out of their true desires because of restrictive expectations for women’s behaviour.

And I’m sure there’s some great and lasting moral lesson in both tales that has startling resonance in 2019 – something about how women continue to have their bodies, sexual desires and aspirations policed by a misogynistic state – but yawn. I wasn’t into the morality tale of either and mostly felt frustrated and annoyed for both characters, but also for the enduring ‘present’ of both ‘historical’ tales (knowing of course that Flaubert isn’t historical fiction!).

Maybe it’s a sign I need to be reading more speculative fiction where gender is exploded or women all have tails and use these tails to strangle things/people that get in their way. I don’t know. It could also be the three cups of coffee.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Club, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction

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.

1 Comment

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