A review of this — 2 years ago
Recently, I read a review of the new translation of Madame Bovary in the New York Times Book Review that suggested that no one could possibly sympathize with, or even like, Emma Bovary, probably one of the most famous characters in literature. The introduction to my copy of the novel intimates the same. But having recently read Madame Bovary, I am completely sympathetic with Emma, even if I don’t condone her actions.
All of us, especially those of us who are heavy readers, probably go through a phase of life in which we fantasize an exciting, adventurous future for ourselves, when we are swept up by great passion and every moment trembles with meaning. But then we grow up and discover that life is largely mundane, and most of us make our peace with that and find other means of contentment. However, Emma Bovary couldn’t bring herself to do that. Her relentless attempts to live a storybook fantasy lead her first to the Church, then to adulterous love affairs, then to bankruptcy and, ultimately, self destruction.
In many ways, Emma is a feminist figure. In 19th century France, the only choices for a woman of her class were the nunnery or marriage. Emma chose marriage, but when she became bored, she didn’t have the options that her male lovers did: to go to Paris or travel abroad or take another mistress. Perhaps if she had had more choices, she wouldn’t have destroyed herself and her family.
It’s not men who seduce Emma, but the novels she reads that lead her to believe that her life could be a passionate one rather than the dreary, day-to-day routine of the small village where her husband is a doctor. If we condemn her for refusing to be satisfied with a mundane life over which she really has no ownership, how are we any different from anyone who has ever insisted that women stay in their place? Certainly, Emma makes terrible choices in her almost hysterical pursuit of something — anything — that can fulfill her. But we can’t fault her for pursuing that.