I tweeted this list about a week ago – books that I need to finish, books that I look forward to reading and books that haunted me.
Notice that the comment for Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is: the book I want to burn, currently reading.
At the time however, I wasn’t actively reading it. The Wordsworth copy lay somewhere at the foot of my bed, waiting in vain for me to pick it up. The last time I closed the book Emma Bovary had just met Léon Dupuis, after what seemed like a string of dreadfully dull non events that stretched for (hyperbole alert!) hundreds of pages.
My laptop threw a temper tantrum one night last week and refused to start up so I reluctantly picked up the book again and surprised myself by blasting through it to the end in a few hours.
Throughout the course of her downward spiral into ruin, Emma did not change much – she remained fretful, entitled and selfish. Still, as the story progressed I couldn’t help pitying her, rooting for her, even if I knew it was in vain. For Emma, ever the foolish woman, kept on disappointing her reader by choosing the path of the most destructive.
I looked up the reviews on Goodreads the last time I felt the need to throw this book at the wall for its sheer dullness – and was gratified to find a lot of seemingly intelligent people eloquently verbalized the problems I had with enjoying Madame Bovary.
The opposing sides however, were praising Flaubert on ‘a masterpiece’, ‘an ambitious work well executed’, etc.
By the time I finished the novel I saw what they meant. On paper, Emma is not the character you want to love or sympathize with; she’s not even the character you’d love to hate. She’s just an extremely flawed woman who was trapped in a dreadful life, having no fortitude to make the best of it.
So why do I find myself feeling sorry for her and, despite knowing better, rooting for her to finally make a good choice…? Which (spoiler!) she never did, by the way.
It’s a question to which I’ve yet to find the answer. An article I read a while back reiterated how Flaubert said he wanted to see if he could write the most dreadful, unlovable character and still made his readers supporters of said character.*
The only explanation I could offer is that people, whether they want to admit or not, do identify with Emma Bovary.
Not all of us are brave people who do good and generally strive to be a better version of ourselves. Some of us indulge our petulant selves and then throw tantrums when life tells us such practice does not give us what we want. Some of us deliberately choose the worst of choice out of spite toward life, only to find out we are screwing ourselves.
Some of us have seen the chasm that is the darkest of human nature and have been horrified to find that we were actually staring into the mirror.
A train wreck has always been a fun thing to watch; writing one, however, is no easy task. Writing a train wreck about to happen with as much subtlety and refinement is indeed a masterpiece.
*) rephrased somewhat loosely.