Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Madame Bovary Isn't A Feminist Icon


As well read as I have been over the years, including many of the classics of Western literature, I have just gotten around to reading Gustav Flaubert's Madame Bovary.

Maybe I thought this particular classic was a Dr. Zhivago without the snow.

Boy was I wrong. How to account for this gaping hole in a bibliographic odyssey that has included a thousand or so books over four or so decades? I dunno.

Emma Bovary is in some respects the prototypical “Desperate Housewife,” a manic depressive spendthrift with eating and panic disorders who makes her life into a novel to escape the emptiness of her existence in rural France.

The message that I took from Madame Bovary is that there is no lonelier a woman than one who demeans her sex but uses it to get special favors. But like many great books, that message resonates even more powerfully today than when Flaubert introduced it in the mid-19th century to a public alternately titillated and shocked by the book's sexual innuendo.

Let me try to explain what I mean before the Feminism Police break down my door. Which they may do anyway since I, like Flaubert, might be tarred with that ultimate male pejorative -- misogynist.

Yes, Emma Bovary is a victim of the suffocating patriarcy of the time that demanded she be no more than wife and mother, or alternatively a nun, which she contemplated becoming in her youth and looks back on in fits of "what if" melancholy when she loses her mojo.

Yes, Madame Bovary is a work of fiction, albeit a breakthrough in realism. But Emma's self emancipation from an unsatisfying marriage – which some scholars say heralded the dawn of feminism -- probably would have been undermined no matter what. And she is most certainly not a prototypical feminist.

Emma is unable to see that her husband, the kindhearted but hapless Dr. Charles Bovary, is the only person who loves her unconditionally. She pursues a fantasy life of high society and sexual escape based on the popular novels of the time that ultimately is as unfulfilling as the bourgeois drudgery of Yonville. That is the provincial village where she and her husband live with their daughter Berthe, whom she had desperately hoped would be a boy and rejects except when she needs to be seen by others as a caring mother.

This is because of her most un-feminist like determination to use the power of her sexuality and the perceived weakness of her gender as cudgels to get her way, which ultimately undermines her few praiseworthy goals in life. These include becoming a writer of the stature of the contemporaries whose novels she escapes into. As it is, her own writing consists of nothing more than letters to her lovers, and these are merely means of stringing them along.

The manipulations of this high-maintenance heroine result in unfulfilling liaisons with men who like her aspire to the finer things in life but are as shallow as she is. They include Rodolphe, an icily manipulative local landowner who tires of her once the initial thrill is gone and throws her over on the eve of their planned elopement, and Léon, a law student whom she fits for a cuckold's suit but eventually tires of her insatiable demands.

The mountain of debt that Emma has accumulated through loans from the crafty Monsieur Lheureux, who plays to her femininity to make her buy things on credit, comes crashing down on her. She is tarnished by villagers with that ultimate female pejorative – slut. Then Léon and finally Rodolphe reject transparent invitations to climb back into the sack with her if they would only float her reputation-saving loans.

It is then that Emma finally realizes she can not live on come-hither looks and orchestrated swoons.

In a final act of selfishness that leaves her daughter an orphan, she swallows arsenic. But she is unfulfilled even on her death bed. The romance that she saw in this ultimate act is supplanted by grotesque pain, and she is for the last time rendered as a caricature of herself and not the feminist that she could have been.

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