Madame Bovary was the sort of novel that made me really paranoid. Paranoia is a matter of losing your perspective. And this novel is about a woman who’s perspective is shifted dramatically in a single, glamorous night, setting her on a downward spiral of refusing to accept her reality, and instead trying to construct a world of fantasy in which to live.
Madame Bovary, a humble farm girl who’s defining characteristic is her lovely ignorance of the vastness of the world, is invited with her country doctor husband to go to a ball at a rich Marquis’ house. This is not the climax of the novel, but it is the turning point of Emma’s life. What had seemed to her to be a life of simple happiness with which she was more than content now seems small, cramped, and dull. She is disgusted with her simple husband, who has no lofty goals but just to enjoy his humble life with her. Gradually, her life becomes a series of secrets; her extravagant spending on frivolously fancy things, a series of affairs, and other morally questionable behaviors.
In a way, this novel is about blindness. Emma was blind to a richer life until she goes to the ball, her husband is blind to all of her faults due to his love for her, and she is blind to her own faults through her idea that she is entitled to a better, grander life. She is even blind to the way she is taken advantage of by the men she takes on as lovers. They use her for her soft and vulnerable sex, and when she demands the love and respect and devotion that she demands as hers, she’s left alone.
The whole story feels like a drawn out tragedy about Emma Bovary’s slow demise in the face of her unattainable dreams, but I think the real tragedy is those she takes for granted, or even hates for their simpleness. For one, there is her husband, the bumbling, mediocre and unassuming husband. He’s not ugly or handsome, and adores his wife without question. He’s blind to her blundering, desperate affairs, and only learns about them after she’s died. There’s also her daughter, who is sent to a workhouse after both her parents and her grandmother die. These are the real victims, and yet the story revolves only around Emma and her tragic inability to accept her life as it is.
This was a painful story to swallow. In the way that all books seem to speak to you in a startlingly poignant way, I felt like this novel spoke to me in the way that sometimes, when we get a glimpse of a world that is not our own, it can cause us to be unhappy with a perfectly happy situation. I am really blessed in this life. I am a young, healthy woman living abroad, with a beautiful flat, a handsome fiance, and the time to create art, enjoy craft projects, enough income to live comfortably, and so much more. I also went to dinner at The Ritz with a good friend of mine last week. The waiters wore tuxedos with tails, food was served on silver and gold plates, there was live music, good wine, and a bill that totaled more than my monthly rent. I could see this situation, and feel bitter that I can only enjoy a dinner like that when my wealthy acquaintance takes me out, but instead, Emma Bovary has taught me to see situations like that for what they are. Magical glimpses at what we don’t have, that we can appreciate and share the memory of with our loved ones, but then we will tuck those ideas away, and move on in our own lives, with grace and appreciation, and a better sense of perspective.