When I was a teenager, I so badly wanted to be this classy, well-read, well-educated woman, and shed both the literal and metaphorical skin of an uncomfortable adolescence. I wanted to read intellectual novels and try to develop some deeper sense of understanding in the world.
It was all very dramatic.
So, at 15, when my Uncle Myrl recommended Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, I went to Barnes and Noble and grabbed a copy. As a high schooler, I thought the book was kind of boring, uncomfortable, and quite frankly… I didn’t understand a lot of the innuendo and context.
I was so grateful that my pal Rebecca suggested Madame Bovary for our #DepressingOncologyBookClub at work, after she happened upon it at a used bookstore. This was a great opportunity to revisit a classic, and I finished it much sooner than I thought I would.
Emma Bovary is tormented by a seemingly “boring” life in the country with her husband, to whom she grows almost violently resentful. She imagined things would be different, that marriage would promise passion and excitement (!). In an attempt to escape her boredom, she engages in two affairs, one originating from a somewhat-predatory ladies man, the other from a true French romantic.
Emma is also interested in projecting displays of wealth, which leads to a dramatic, ill-advised attempt to make her husband a famous physician, and engaging in so much over-spending that it leads to her family’s eviction and demise.
Upon rereading the book, I found it to be quite relevant to our “comparison culture” in 2018, and the need to be presentable (whether it’s in real life or via social media).
Madame Bovary is referenced in the 2006 film adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel (which I LOVED), Little Children. A scene where a suburban book club discusses the novel, Kate Winslet’s protagonist, Sarah, (who is having a Bovary-esque affair, herself), defends Emma Bovary in a monologue in the film. She posits that Emma Bovary is a feminist, that her actions indicate a desire for choice, for alternatives to her limited lifestyle. Emma Bovary has become, in some modern circles, a feminist icon (see here, here, and here).
Taking the modern angle a step further: What if Emma Bovary had an Instagram account in 2018? Would she be susceptible to the suggestions of influencers? Can you imagine her carefully crafted #selfies and navigating her way around online shopping and credit card debt? Would her pernicious shopping addiction and addictive nature be worse in this click-bait world?
But then again, she would have many waves of feminism by her side to propel her, perhaps, into the life of wealth that she wanted, on her own terms…maybe without marriage. Maybe she would’ve found mindfulness practice to be more present? If she had another natural outlet for her creativity, would she have been compelled to seek affairs when she had her spells of boredom?
While reading the book, the following Theodore Roosevelt quote was scrolling through my mind:
“Comparison is the thief of joy”
Though it may have been her downfall, Emma Bovary exposed a natural inclination for many of us to be yearning for more excitement, more material possessions, more passion in our lives.
Are we all that different from Emma? After all, Flaubert himself admitted “Madame Bovary c’est moi.”
May we all be a little more mindful, a little more frugal, a little more grateful for having more choices than Ms. Bovary did.
Source: Glen Ellyn Public Library, Everyman Library edition, ISBN: 978-0679420316
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