Thursday, October 21, 2010

Emma and Léon and Rodolphe

Part 2 of Madame Bovary elicited the following reactions.

The subtitle of Madame Bovary is "Provincial Ways," and after this was discussed last week, I was reminded that Middlemarch is subtitled "A Study of Provincial Life." Madame Bovary was published in 1856 and Middlemarch in 1871-72 (both first in serial form). I wonder how familiar George Eliot was with the former. They bear some striking similarities of theme. I'd say Madame Bovary is more a psychological novel and Middlemarch a sociological one, but each of them provides commentary on both levels. Dr Lydgate's wife, like Charles's, has social aspirations and contributes to their financial difficulties (although, Lydgate is a fully competent doctor). Mr Brooke is blustery like our pharmacist Homais is, but with a more political bent to his philosophizing. Then there's Dorothea's "scandalous" behaviour. (This off the top of my head; but I wonder if their similarities have been more fully assessed.) I'd love to know if Eliot ever wrote about Madame Bovary or acknowledged it as an influence.


This description (p 63) strikes me as very odd: "a small statue of the Virgin wearing a satin gown, coiffed in a tulle veil spangled with silver stars, and colored crimson on the cheeks like an idol from the Sandwich Islands." Not only is it, in my view, an odd way to dress the Virgin, it made me turn to look at the cover. Can I say? I really hate the cover of this book. The photo is creepy. (I like the font, though.)

So, Charles and Emma move to Yonville, and they bring a wet nurse, but there's no mention of a baby. Did she have the baby already? How much time has passed? Is she still pregnant? How pregnant? There's no mention of it, for pages and pages and pages, like it's a fairly insignificant event.

She wanted a son; he would be strong and dark, she would call him Georges; and this idea of having a male child was a sort of hoped-for compensation for all her past helplessness. A man, at least, is free; he can explore every passion, every land, overcome obstacles, taste the most distant pleasures. But a woman is continually thwarted. Inert and pliant at the same time, she must struggle against both the softness of her flesh and subjection to the law. Her will, like the veil tied to her hat by a string, flutters with every breeze; there is always some desire luring her on, some convention holding her back.

I'm still finding Emma sympathetic. Not very motherly, but I don't think it's unusual for that time period to be dismissive of children.

(The Homais children are rather out of the ordinary, always in the thick of things and under foot, but I do think it's the pharmacist who's the Enlightened, forward thinker; his children are being raised in an unconventional manner for the times.)

Léon. How bored he is! He and Emma are so much alike. Difference being, of course, that he's male, he can go off to Rouen any time he likes. He can call his mother for money, and leave for Paris. Emma can't. I wonder if we'll see him again.

Poor Emma. She did try to seek out spiritual guidance, but she wasn't taken very seriously, as if a woman of her position couldn't have any troubles.

Not sure what to make of her calling her child ugly (p 101). A bit harsh, but perhaps this is just a detached objective assessment of her child. Or else the comment comes as a reflection of her marriage or husband. I anticipate Emma being criticized for this statement, that she doesn't love her child, but I think it has nothing to do with that. (Besides, she doesn't even say it, she just thinks it.)

Uh-oh! Page 114. Rodolphe has designs on Emma. He'll ruin her. What a jerk!

The whole Hippolyte fiasco! I recall blaming Emma for this previously (and I think Isabelle Huppert's performance reinforced that reading). The potential increase in income from performing a noteworthy operation is a factor, but Emma is motivated also to do something for Charles, to nudge him toward being a being a man she could be proud of, and I see these as practical considerations, godd for the household, I don't think it's all about money.

Aurgh! Damn you, Lydia Davis! Huge spoiler in the note to page 175.

Regarding the narration: I think we've moved very much inside Emma's head now. An omniscient narrator, sure, but not an all-telling one. Is Emma self-absorbed? Well, that's what makes the story. We're not privy to the daily banalities, her managing the household (with the exception of a few key events), just like we don't know about Charles's comings and going, or the small talk over supper — any good writer skips over this stuff. The details Flaubert offers give a sense of realism that contributes to deluding the reader into a sense of completeness, when really the narration is very selective.

I feel Emma is a very much a victim as regards Rodolphe. His intentions are clear from the start, and he knows what buttons to push. I'm not saying Emma's not a willing participant, but it takes a character like Rodolphe to have made her willing.

Is Emma responsible for their financial problems? I want to defend her here, too. (Why am I taking sides like this?) She likes pretty things, Charles has never restrained her. (Most of America lives beyond its means; will you judge her for this?) When she's ill, he neglects his practice — arguably that's her fault, too, but it shows that money and sensible financial management aren't his first priority (he loves her!). Come to think of it, he's pretty passionless himself, doesn't feel strongly about much, he just doesn't see this as problematic, he'd be bored too if he just stopped to think about it.

Loving the pharmacist and the priest! Hilarious!

Ah, so here's Léon again, in Rouen. And Charles practically pushing Emma into Léon's arms. This won't end well.

Here ends Madame Bovary, Part 2.


Emily said...

The Middlemarch/Madame Bovary connection is so interesting - and not one I'd have ever thought to make. Primarily because Eliot's work seems so suffused with compassion and humanity, whereas Flaubert...

I really blamed EVERYONE involved in the Hyppolite catastrophe. What a horrible situation! And the fact that the Bovarys (and the reader) see it as just sort of a single-chapter interlude in their romantic dramas...very telling.

Frances said...

I feel some of that same inclination to defend Emma as she is so heartlessly handled. Was so contemptuous of her 20 years ago too. When I believed that we all controlled our own fates completely. Now I am a Flaubert hater. :)

Enjoyed the way you constructed this post too. Gives the panoramic view of your insightful thoughts. Clever.

Bellezza said...

I felt that Emma was very much the victim as well. To Rodolphe, surely, but also to her own discontent which brought her so much trouble. I wish that I could read the Lydia Davis translation; my edition is from Barnes and Noble, which I've enjoyed very much, but I'm afraid I've missed some important nuances that Lydia would have included.

Carina said...

I found that I was particularly unsympathetic to Emma once she started acting so ridiculously obsessive about Rodolphe. She was just way over the top, and didn't seem to realize that he was pushing her away already.

AB said...

I didn't know Chabrol did an interpretation of MB, I look forward to watching that. Thanks.

Richard said...

I guess I'd have to reread the scene in question, Isabella, but I didn't remember Emma's role in the Hippolyte fiasco as being anything constructive or positive at all. I read it as Emma wanting to replace the uncertainties of love (she'd been having ups and downs with Rodolphe) with the more certain rewards of wealth (or fame) if/when Charles became "successful." All about her and not about "helping" Charles advance or anything like that. And while her trust was clearly abused in some ways by the selfish Rodolphe, it's hard for me to feel too, too sorry for her in that regard since she's kind of the Rodolphe to Charles' Emma if you get my drift. Plenty of unhappiness to go along with the blame here--thank goodness the pharmacist and the priest lighten things up for us once in a while!

Bybee said...

I'm almost sure that Eliot was familiar with Mme. Bovary. Eliot was so intelligent, ferociously so...she seems to have known and known about everything.

Shelley said...

In much of this part, Emma's baby and husband seem very absent. Where is Charles while she's hanging out at the fair with Rodolphe? Does Charles have a problem with it? I haven't been very sympathetic when it comes to her attitudes as a mother, but maybe I am judging her from a modern perspective. I feel that if Berthe is raised without any motherly affection, she will turn out just like Emma. A damaging cycle.