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Friday, November 25, 2011

Madame Bovary

I read this book for my book club.  Interesting and thought-provoking.  I didn't really expect to like it, but I enjoyed reading it, especially the second half.  It's a little hard to get "into," but a lot of books are that way.  I might not have persevered if I hadn't been motivated by the book club, so I'm glad I had that to keep me going.

I read the Francis Steegmuller translation, which is considered the most authoritative.  I got a gorgeous copy of the book at the library - a real treasure, with a ribbon bookmark built in.  The saddest thing about ebooks is that we won't have these lovely books to hold and read anymore (they're virtually extinct already).

In the Steegmuller intro, he says that Madame Bovary is considered a "perfect" book.  Flaubert apparently crafted every sentence with deliberation.  It has some beautiful passages, though the descriptions can get a bit tedious, and I admit to scanning more than a few paragraphs.

One of the things that struck me was how modern the book seemed.  Other than the descriptions of clothes and transportation (and medical treatments, ugh) you could almost swear you were reading a 21st century novel, which is a testimony to Flaubert's skill.  It's also a testimony to the incredible universality of the themes in the book, which occur so frequently in literature that they are almost cliche - boredom with modern life, the search for love, the petty cruelties of friends and neighbors.

I found the character of Emma to be both sympathetic and highly aggravating.  I went back and forth, feeling for her situation and then feeling annoyed with her.  She makes many bad choices, and succumbs to self-pity (and of course the ultimate self-pitying act), but she is often aware of her own foolishness, and some of the best passages are her questioning herself: why am I so unhappy, why can't I take pleasure in my life?

I was a bit surprised that she commits suicide, not over lost love, but due to her financial ruin, and her general cynicism about life.  In general the book is not romantic or passionate the way I expected it to be, but that's not ultimately a flaw.

The question is always raised about whether this is a feminist novel.  On the one hand, I would say, definitely not, because Emma is such a victim of her circumstances and her melancholy nature.  But there's also an amazing passage fairly early in the book, talking about the dilemma of women, that could have been penned by Betty Friedan, right out of The Feminine Mystique.

As I read it, I often found myself wondering: where are her female friends?  It seemed almost an oversight on the author's part - women always have friends in novels written by women.  Emma does not seem especially anti-social and I had to think that her story would have ended very differently if she'd taken the trouble to cultivate some girlfriends.

I also thought the author's gender was apparent in the short shrift that Emma's relationship with her daughter was given.  The child is almost an afterthought throughout the book.  It's possible that a woman of such strong emotions would have so little connection to her child, but I thought it was improbable, and one of the few weaknesses of the story.

I also thought some of the secondary characters could have been developed more.  For a story that was so carefully crafted, this seemed something of a missed opportunity.

Overall I enjoyed the book and thought about it more than many books I've read.  I was left with the thought that there are so many "classic" novels that I never read, and the ones I read in school I didn't probably understand or appreciate. Added to my Bucket List: take a literature course!



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