Read-Along: Madame Bovary—Part II

2175From Goodreads: When Emma Rouault marries Charles Bovary she imagines she will pass into the life of luxury and passion that she reads about in sentimental novels and women’s magazines. But Charles is a dull country doctor, and provincial life is very different from the romantic excitement for which she yearns. In her quest to realize her dreams she takes a lover, and begins a devastating spiral into deceit and despair.

My review of Part I is here. Now on to Part II; there is a lot happening. It starts with the Bovary’s move from Tostes to a different city, Yonville-l’Abbaye. Charles thinks that a move would help his wife overcome her depression, but the opening description of their new home town doesn’t bode well. On top of it, Charles has by now spent most of Emma’s dowry on frivolous things she wanted and there is no money left to continue to indulge her.

Emma, meanwhile, looks at this move with great expectations. On the first night in their new house she reflects:

“This was the fourth time that she had slept in a strange place. The first was the day of her going to the convent; the second, of her arrival at Tostes; the third, at Vaubyessard; and this was the fourth. And each one had marked, as it were, the inauguration of a new phase in her life. She did not believe that things could present themselves in the same way in different places, and since the portion of her life lived had been bad, no doubt that which remained to be lived would be better.”

The reader knows that with expectations such as these, there can only be disappointment. Then Emma becomes pregnant, and again, it is clear how boxed in she feels:

“She hoped for a son; he would be strong and dark; she would call him George; and this idea of having a male child was like an expected revenge for all her impotence in the past.”

When her child is a girl, she turns away from her daughter and is once again bitterly disappointed in her life. Up until this point, Emma’s situation reminded me of Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper, where the protagonist is slowly driven insane by her doctor’s prescribed passivity. But shortly after this quote, I started to feel less charitable towards Emma.

She fancies herself in love with Leon, who shares similar interests and who also feels attracted to Emma. Emma is very severe in her denial of her attraction, and this is carried to an extreme that made me again wonder about her mental state.

“Her own gentleness to herself made her rebel against him. Domestic mediocrity drove her to lewd fancies, marriage tenderness to adulterous desires. She would have liked Charles to beat her, that she might have a better right to hate him, to revenge herself upon him. She was surprised sometimes at the atrocious conjectures that came into her thoughts, and she had to go on smiling, to hear repeated to her at all hours that she was happy, to pretend to be happy, to let it be believed.”

When I read the above quote, I couldn’t help but raise my eyebrows. Compared to what you can read and watch on TV today, it is nothing. But considering it in its historical context, I can see why there was such an outrage when the book was first published. And at this point, Emma hasn’t even been unfaithful yet. When Rodolphe Boulanger meets Emma and sets his sight on seducing her, the reader knows right away that she won’t stand a chance. He has her figured out in a second. It is not surprising that it only takes a few months for him to lose interest in Emma.

I no longer like Emma, but I certainly continue to enjoy reading the book and admire Flaubert’s skill. The scene where Emma and Rodolphe are in the council room while outside the townspeople listen to boring speeches is masterfully done. In a movie, it is relatively easy to play off two different settings against each other, but in a book, where you lack the visual aid, it is much harder. I was so impressed by how Flaubert managed to overlap the speeches outside and the slow seduction inside. On my Kindle, the scene makes up over two pages of direct speech without identifying who is speaking. Yet it is very easy to follow who is speaking.

I could go on and on, but I have already written quite a bit. I’ll be looking forward to reading what the other participants have to say about Part II of the novel.

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7 comments

  1. I can’t wait to finish the book too so that I could listen to podcasts I downloaded fro iTunes about Madame Bovary.

  2. I was also surprised by the passage: “She would have liked Charles to beat her, that she might have a better right to hate him, to revenge herself upon him”. It makes me so curious to know what was going on inside Flaubert’s head.

    Despite the fact the Emma is so unlikable, or maybe even because of it, I am having fun reading this book. When I was writing my post, there was so much I could have written about, but I didn’t want it to be too long, so it has ended up a bit rambling in some parts and choppy in others. It was hard to decide what to include and what to leave out. I like that you included the seduction scene- it was very well done.

    • I felt like my review was rambling too. There is so much happening, and I could have written much more. Once I am done reading the book, I want to look a little more into Flaubert’s statement that he is Madame Bovary. Since it’s such a well-known quote, there must be quite a bit of research available.

  3. I also thought it was interesting how Flaubert overlapped the scene where Rodolphe confesses his love to Emma with the awards and speeches of the agricultural fair. At first, I found it confusing but then I realized that Flaubert wanted to contrast the moment Emma gives herself over to the idea of being unfaithful in exchange for the passion she has been seeking with the councillor’s grand speech about hard work, duty and morality.

    • As I said in my review, I was very impressed with this scene. I could actually hear the different people speak in my mind. I don’t often enjoy books where the main character is unlikeable, but I am very glad that I am finally reading this book.

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