Read-Along: Madame Bovary—Part III

2175 From 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.

Today marks the end of the read-along of Madame Bovary. Thank you to CJ at ebookclassics and Juliana at Cedar Station for organizing the event. It was interesting to find out what other participants thought and what aspects of the book they focused on in their review. I think Emma can be a polarizing character, and reading everyone’s thoughts about her really made me think and look at her from different perspectives. I got more out of the book because of that, and that’s what made this read-along rewarding.

Personally, the little sympathy I had for Emma after reading Part II vanished in Part III. I felt that her behavior during her affair with Leon was outrageous. She lied and cheated and spent money she didn’t have without any concern for anyone else, least of all her daughter and husband. And it became clear that she had learned absolutely nothing from her affair with Rodolphe and its disastrous end. When her interactions with Leon start to lose some of their luster, she once again refuses to face reality:

Madame was in her room, which no one entered. She stayed there all day long, torpid, half dressed, and from time to time burning Turkish pastilles which she had bought at Rouen in an Algerian’s shop. In order not to have at night this sleeping man stretched at her side, by dint of maneuvering, she at last succeeded in banishing him to the second floor, while she read till morning extravagant books, full of orgies and thrilling situations.

Here it becomes obvious that there is no hope for Emma. She simply cannot face the fact that life can’t be like a romance novel. While reading Part II, I wondered if her suffering after her affair with Rodolphe might have been influenced by her romantic books, and likewise I wondered in Part III how she felt during her drawn-out suicide. No doubt it was much less dramatic than she had envisioned it. I found it agonizing to read about her suffering, but I could not bring myself to feel any sympathy towards her. I did not see anything redeeming in her, though I felt slightly bad for her when her shortcomings were so perfectly summed up:

Then he recited the Misereatur and the Indugentiam, dipped his right thumb into the oil, and began to give extreme unction. First upon the eyes, that had so coveted all worldly pomp; then upon the nostrils, that had been greedy of the warm breeze and amorous odours; then upon the mouth, that had uttered lies, that had curled with pride and cried out in lewdness; then upon the hands that had delighted in sensual touches; and finally upon the soles of the feet, so swift of yore, when she was running to satisfy her desires, and that would now walk no more.

I have to admit that I rushed through the pages after her death. I didn’t care about any of the remaining characters enough to take my time with them; I felt that the book fizzled out. And I wondered what exactly Flaubert was trying to say with his book. Supposedly, he criticized the middle class’s desire for upward mobility. I can see that, but I would argue that none of the characters are solely defined by the fact that they belong to the middle class. Emma’s desire for an exciting life and her boredom because of social restrictions are universal. The same can be said for Homais’s viciousness and underhandedness. Charles is weak with no true ambition, which can also be found in all walks of life. So I can’t fully buy into this explanation of Flaubert’s work.

But while I was left a little unsatisfied, I am glad that I finally read Madame Bovary.

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6 comments

  1. Ahhh all these comments have reminded why I couldn’t finish this book when I tried it a number of years ago. I felt no point of connection with anything she did and the style of writing kept me from feeling any sympathy for her.

  2. Thank so much for joining us! Emma really didn’t learn anything about herself in the book, did she? She just kept making the same mistakes. I felt the same about the end of the book. I just wanted the book to end after Emma died.

  3. It is true that she learnt absolutely nothing from her encounter with Rodolphe, which is devastating. Although I have a lot of sympathy for Emma, I wished she were more intelligent than to make the same mistake twice!

    It has been really interesting to read other people’s opinions on Emma Bovary!

  4. Almost all my sympathy for Emma was gone, but not quite all. I tried to imagine what she would have been like living now. She would have had more freedom, as well as access to medication for her depression. Would it have made her a better person? I don’t know, but I always like to give people the benefit of the doubt.

    Mostly, I felt awful for Berthe. What a life! I can only hope that she is better off on her own!

    • I had a very hard time sympathizing with her, since she was so selfish at the end. But like you, I felt awful for Berthe. Her life could have been so much better if her parents had looked out for her. Charles had such high hopes for her future…

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