Today is a glorious snow day, which allowed me, despite many things I SHOULD have done, to finish Madame Bovary. I loved this book. I didn't know a lot about it before I read it, other than that it was about adultery and that it recieved a lot of criticism for being too licentious. This book is about much more than adultery.
The first theme I pulled out of the book was about the idols we set up in our lives and the things we will do to pursue them. Madame Bovary was in love with "love", a trait that I too am often guilty of. After reading several books emphasizing the romantic ideal she longs to be swept off of her feet by someone who woos her with poetry and beautiful things. Although she at first believes her husband to be this person, she soon realizes he is not. Despite having a series of lovers, not a single one of them lives up to her romantic ideal and the narrator makes an astute observation that when you put anything on a pedestal we are bond to be disappointed. I loved this quote because it expressed that sentiment beautifully. "We must not touch our idols; the gilt sticks to our fingers". Other characters in the book are also guilty of this character flaw (which just goes to show that it is, unfortunately a part of human nature). Homais, the chemist in their provincial town of Yonville, fancies himself to be a bit of a physician. He has often tried to run doctors out of town so that he can practice medicine. He also longs to be recognized with a Star of a Cross of Honour which he succeeds in doing in the last sentence of the book, but to do this he "sold himself-in a word, prostituted himself". Charles Bovary succeeds in realizing his ideal near the beginning of the book which is to have a cozy home and to spend each night in comfort with a beautiful wife. In order to maintain this he sacrifices everything for Madame Bovary and remains oblivious to her adultery. When he eventually discovers it after her death he very shortly dies of a broken heart.
The second theme that emerges is that of the human condition. By that I mean our inability to ever fully express that which is within our hearts. Since the fall of man the Bible talks about how we can only now "see through a glass darkly". Madame Bovary tries to express herself to her husband but he never quite grasps her meaning. When she finds her lovers grasp a bit more she is at first appeased, but soon discovers that even they do not fully understand. Through a mutual love of literature she finds a small amount of connection with her second lover when he says,
"has it ever happened to you', Leon went on, 'to come across some vague idea of one's own in a book, some dim image that comes back from afar".
And further on in the book it is expressed in a different, but rather more poetic way:
"...no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, nor his conceptions, nor of his sorrows; and since human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out a tune to make bears dance when we long to move the stars"
I read through this book quickly, and was swallowed up by the vivid descriptions. Everything was so well described that it was almost like I was there. At times I almost smelled the smells of the flowers, and felt the breeze let in by the windows. Unfortunately, the death scene of Madame Bovary was also described in great detail, and I was brought instantly back to the death of my father and how that experience felt. I wasn't however, angered by this, but felt it was beautiful that the author, Gustave Flaubert was able to capture the essence of what it feels like when someone you loves dies. Flaubert also does, like Dostoyevsky, in Crime in Punishment, an excellent job of describing completely insane acts in a way that allows us to understand how they might happen even to us. Although I esteem the sanctity of marriage higher than almost everything else, I was able to comprehend how Madame Bovary succumbed to adultery (and I am loathe to admit that it could happen to me).My favorite authors have always been the ones that provide insight into the man's weaknesses and show how all actions are rational. If these thoughts intrigue you I highly recommend anything by Dostoyevsky and my favorite Canadian author David Adams Richard's book "Mercy Among the Children".
This book is really not about adultery at all and I was suprised that it recieved such an outcry against it. The adulterous scenes are vaguely described and left completely to the imagination. This book is quite dark however, and perhaps that is more what people were opposed to.
Finally, I leave you with one final quote which I thought was beautiful:
"He was in one of those crises, in which the whole soul shows indistincly what it contains, like the ocean, which in a storm opens itself from the seaweed on its shores down to the sands of its abysses"
The next book I am on to is Middlemarch. This one is significantly longer than Madame Bovary but I am still aiming to have it read in three weeks (a month at most).For those following on facebook please check out my blog at magic-and-mystery.blogspot.com