Madam Bovary enchants, grieves

We loved Emma. We fell into her eyes. We noted her silk slippers and the way she leans out the window watching the passing yokels. We admired the whispering curls on her nape below the black chignon, breathed the musky scent from the gossamer down of her forearms. We shared the tears of her imprisonment, we scintillated with the temptations of her lovers, both shared the impulse for her freedom and feared her downfall.

Emma had it all and lost it all, a female Icarus donning untested wings, lusting for the sun. Or, was she a cork bobbing on the sea of humanity? Was she merely a languid housewife dreaming of the romantic lives of the wealthy? Could her only sin have remained mere covetousness before forces of lust, avarice, and overweening nostalgia lured the little bird from her cage?

The fancy dress balls of counts and marquises with their iced champagne, gowns of pale saffron trimmed with tiny silver pomegranates, dancing quadrilles proved too much for her. The dowagers sitting calm and formidable with headdresses like turbans. Wealth and luxury bursting from every suede upholstered couch and fluttering painted fan. How could Emma’s heart not be ravished?

But when it was over, it was back to the little town; Emma to their two-story house and Charles to his patients all around Normandy. She returned her work with little more than memories, until some notable gentleman or dapper young clerk came through town and, with the bumbling influence of her clueless husband unwittingly encouraging more encounters, Emma was swept into the ultimately self-destructive pattern that has earned the term Bovarysme.

Athenaeum wanted to know, “What was Emma’s failure? Adultery? Materialism?”

“What is Flaubert’s message? What is he trying to tell us? Is there even a message? Or is he just dragging us through a moral quagmire, in effect mocking his readers by filling their heads with illicit thoughts? Does Flaubert harbor some disdain in his heart for the church? the government? the rich? the poor? for all humanity?”

“Does the book have a moral point? Is anyone a hero? Is the ‘moral point’ the telos of a novel at all??”

In this humble scribe’s opinion, the author was doing with his exquisite skill what most authors aspire to do—to give the reader a wonderful aesthetic literary experience. Draw your own conclusions, your messages. An author loves to tell stories that make a table of engineers, nearly 200 years later, jab fingers at the table, throw their hands in the air, and order fresh pitchers of IPA until we get to the bottom of the matter.

Beyond any moral or message or ‘take away’ (Walker Percy wrote, “Nothing would be worse than a so-called philosophical or religious novel that simply used the story and plot and characters in order to get over a certain idea”)—yes, beyond any such sermonizing, a fiction author primarily wants to give his readers a great ride, be it a swashbuckling tale like The Three Musketeers or Moby Dick, or something more cerebral like To The Lighthouse or Darkness at Noon. Or an infinite spectrum of points in between with labyrinthine sagas like The Former Hero. In every case, sane writers, writers who understand their calling, refrain from preaching.

In conclusion, I mention three passages all felt soared especially high.

  1. The amputation of Hippolyta’s leg – four pages of cringing
  2. Rodolphe’s seduction of Emma while at the town agricultural award ceremony
  3. The exceedingly long carriage ride around Rouen with Leon and Emma in the back


2 thoughts on “Madam Bovary enchants, grieves

  1. Wherr did Walker Percy say it write that? Are you telling me Walker Percy didn’t have a message for his readers? Of course he did!

  2. I would say that having a worldview or having ideas that you want to express in your writing is different than having a “message”. The difference as Percy expresses it is that he doesn’t write “to preach Catholicism, but a novel cannot help but be informed by a certain point of view…”

    I found this quote in “The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing”, Leland Ryken, editor. It’s taken from “Conversations with Walker Percy,” eds. Lewis A. Lawson and Victor A. Kramer, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985.

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