Monday, August 13, 2012

Madame Bovary: Final Inquiries

The Three Stages of Inquiry on Madame Bovary:

I. Grammar Stage Inquiry [The What]

Really, what is the most important event?

May I answer a question with a question?

Is the most important event when Madame Bovary begins her affair with Rodolphe or when she commits suicide? 

She was always restless and bored.  The author never alludes to her falling in love with Charles; she remains the same throughout that relationship.  She mistakes lust for love in each of her affairs; so there is no change there.  However, once she actually begins an affair with Rodolphe, she becomes brazen, careless, reckless, obsessed, and uncontainable, like a drug addict who cannot get enough.  One bad choice snowballs into more bad choices, and she goes from bad to worse.

Then there is her suicide, which is a continuation of her wicked and selfish desires that finishes her off; but the only change now is that she is dead.  And even if she can no longer make bad choices, now her husband is continuing in her legacy, spending and borrowing carelessly until he succumbs to depression, just as she did. 

So where was the change?  I am stumped!

II. Logic Stage Inquiry [The Why and How]

What in the world does this woman want?

Madame Bovary wants contentment, personal-fulfillment, and self-satisfaction.

So what’s the problem?

The woman is never satisfied.  Typical!  Everything is standing in her way: her marriage, her husband’s weaknesses and faults, her gender, her social status, her child, etc.  All of her solutions - affairs, spending recklessly, her religious ventures - fail to bring her contentment.  

III. Rhetoric-Stage Inquiry [The So What]

What’s the point of the story?

Good question!  Why did Gustave Flaubert even bother to write such a provocative plot, which caused him to get arrested, no less?  My goodness!

One argument: forming unattainable expectations is not such a good idea.  Emma was dissatisfied with her lot in life, and she spent too much time thinking about what her life could have been like if she did this differently or married someone else.  Much of her “what ifs” were out of her control.

Another argument: humans can be foolish.  Because Emma’s expectations were unattainable, and she was determined to change her place in life, she made foolish choices that caused her to feel out of control emotionally and put her deeper into debt.   And let us not forget that many of the other characters were making foolish decisions as well, such as Homais and Charles in their “get rich and famous quick” scheme to cure Hippolyte’s club foot. 

Another argument: the quest for happiness through others or possessions or social status or money is paved with disappointment and is a dead end.  Things, social status, and money are no brainers for those of us who walk with two feet on the ground: they do not bring happiness.  But Madame Bovary was not well grounded, and her desire to find happiness and contentment through lustful adventures left her confused; instead she was burned because she had expected to be fulfilled through the men she was with. 

Another: women in the nineteenth century were stifled creatures of their time. Women were truly locked into their status and roles of the day with not much chance to change their own lot in life.  Madame Bovary of the nineteenth century would have blended nicely into our century without much offense.  But is this a case for her adulterous behavior and foolish spending?

Why write about content women of the nineteenth century?

Emma read those romantic novels, which set her heart on fire for excitement, love, celebrity, and social accomplishment, which she could not achieve because her expectations were irrational.  Could a woman in Emma's place ever have been satisfied with her life as it were?  I believe so.  We just do not usually hear about those unexciting stories of women who were content with their dull lives and stifling duties.  At least, I have yet to read great literature about the happy housewife of the nineteenth century.


Unknown said...

The thing that has stayed with me with this book is the fate of Emma's daughter. I always wonder what became of her.

Ruth said...

Absolutely. One of the other questions I have to answer from TWEM: "Who do you most sympathize with?" My only answer is poor Berthe.

Christine said...

"Where was the change?" Good question. I'm going to ponder that today. I don't think I ever answered that question. I was too busy complaining about how much I disliked Emma.

Karen said...

What is the change? on one level you could say that the meeting she has with Rodolphe where she asks him for money and is spurned, is a turning point. Rejected by him and in desperation because she is in debt, she has no where else to go but death.

But that's only a turning point in the plot not in her character. For me, Emma herself doesn't change. Throughout her married life she imagines herself as the heroine of the opera or romantic novels. Even on her death bed she plays herself into that tragic role. She never stops playing a role

Ruth said...

Yes! That's right! Even on her death bed, she is starring in her own drama.

And I do remember how my feelings about her were affected when she tried to proposition herself to what's his face! That was sheer and absolute desperation; a new low for her - if that were possible. But that's about the closest to change I get out of MB.


Joseph said...

As always, an excellent review Ruth. Yes, poor Berthe...the only person I truly empathized with. I was actually glad that Flaubert didn't develop her much, or it would have been even more painful. Thanks for the feedback on my review.