Emma Bovary and Me

Deep in her soul, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like a sailor in distress, she would gaze out over the solitude of her life with desperate eyes, seeking some white sail in the mists of the far-off horizon. She did not know what this chance event would be, what wind would drive it to her, what shore it would carry her to, whether it was a longboat or a three-decked vessel, loaded with anguish or filled with happiness up to the portholes. But each morning, when she awoke, she hoped it would arrive that day, and she would listen to every sound, spring to her feet, feel surprised that it did not come; then, at sunset, always more sorrowful, she would wish the next day were already there.

Why do I feel as though I ought to apologize for liking Emma Bovary? For understanding her, her desires, her constant daydreams? That I even truly know how she feels? I like her — reading her, walking away from, even knowing now how this story goes and ends — bad decisions, yadda yadda — I like Emma Bovary.

[Not too long ago, for every morning in the span of several weeks, my second thought of the day was, “Why still this?” So inexplicably dissatisfied with this reality that I kept specifying it as though it were one of many, and I was only supremely unfortunate that I hadn’t been given the power to choose.] I do believe that all people — whether at some point(s) in their lives, or as a central preoccupation — desire other things. Some people resolve to get them, some even do. Some whine while doing so. Some people resign themselves to not ever getting what they want; some people can shrug off this desire.

But Emma Bovary — and yes, myself during dips [or, my pet name for these episodes, ‘basin wavelengths’] — want and want and want, until this wanting defines her and a conviction takes root: I am meant for other things.

[A friend once told me, “I’m already certain the world doesn’t owe me anything. How about you?”]

* * *

. . . Emma tried to find out just what was meant, in life, by the words “bliss,” “passion,” and “intoxication,” which had seemed so beautiful to her in books. Emma, who sought in books the imagined satisfaction of her own desires, she who liked to pick up a book, then, dreaming between the lines, let it fall on her knees.

I was raised around, with, by, for, books. This, coupled by — shall we say—my biochemical engineering [hee] makes for rather dangerous waters. Oh, it’s fun to have an imagination: it helps with long lines and e-mails to people you once considered your friends. Ah, but daydreams — I have elevated this to an art form. I have methods refined, to “solidify” fantasies — visual aids, supplementary material, floor plans, charts. Daydreams, I learned on my own.

Perhaps I’ll be coy and say I write because I want to rewrite. It’s not so much an act of creation with me as it is an assimilation of reality, a manipulation of the world. I wrote things down because I didn’t like what I was seeing. At least I have [had?] a recourse, an outlet — unlike Emma: But how does one express an uneasiness so intangible, one that changes shape like a cloud, that changes direction like the wind? She lacked the words, the occasion, the courage.

* * *

A natural inclination? A given disposition? I try to understand this within myself; I try to forgive. As a woman in a pea-green suit once told me, “It’s not like you woke up one day and chose this.

She loved the sea only for its storms, and greenery only when it grew up here and there among ruins. She needed to derive from things a sort of personal gain; and she rejected as useless everything that did not contribute to the immediate gratification of her heart,—being by temperament more sentimental than artistic, in search of emotions and not landscapes.

Goodness, Emma Bovary is my spirit animal.

* * *

Monsieur Charles Bovary loves Emma recklessly, obviously, embarrassingly, oh-so-calmly. I shudder with Emma; I am firmly planted b her side, morals and common sense be damned. Yes, well, there’s nothing truly wrong with Charles, but I found myself resenting his normalcy, his distressing lack of fire. I despair for Emma, with her, for her. I can only nod and commiserate when she muses, But shouldn’t a man know everything, excel at a host of different activities, initiate you into the intensities of passion, the refinements of life, all its mysteries? Yet this man taught her nothing, knew nothing, wished for nothing. He thought she was happy; and she resented him for that settled calm, that ponderous serenity, that very happiness which she herself brought him.

* * *

And, well, poor Emma finds love where she can: Meanwhile, acting upon theories she believed to be sound, she kept trying to experience love. By moonlight, in the garden, she would recite all the passionate rhymes she knew by heart and would sing melancholy songs to him, with a sigh; but she would find she was as calm afterward as she had been before, and Charles seemed neither more loving nor more deeply moved.

[I remember I would often hurl the word “calm” as though it were an insult. We do not want to be calm when we feel all this fire; we demand the other stoke it—much better if they burn themselves.]

. . . Emma would ask herself, again and again:

“Oh, dear God! Why did I ever marry him?”

[And that’s a vital difference between Emma and I.] [But this is where Emma and I are horrifically similar (not always, not with this thing, but, well, there):] She would wonder whether there hadn’t been some way, through other chance combinations, of meeting a different man; and she would try to imagine those events that had not taken place, that different life, that husband whom she did not know. All of them, in fact, were unlike this one.

Ah, Emma the Hopeless-and-Raging. Emma the Volatile: She considered herself thoroughly disillusioned, with nothing more to learn, nothing more to feel.

* * *

Her romances. What is Emma Bovary without her romances? [And, of course, her ruination. In fact, years and years before I knew of Emma, the character, I knew of the Fate that befell her.]

Ah, hello, Lèon. Captivating poor Emma by a shared passion for books and idleness: “. . . What could be better, really, than to sit by the fire in the evening with a book, while the wind beats against the windowpanes, and the lamp burns? . . . ” And our desperate housewife: “Oh, yes,” she said, her great, dark, wide-open eyes fixed on him.

Hee, the emotional affair: Had they nothing else to say to each other? Yet their eyes were full of a more serious conversation; and while they forced themselves to find commonplace remarks, they felt the same languor invading them both; it was like a murmur of the soul, deep, continuous, louder than the murmur of their voices. Surprised by a sweetness new to them, they did not think of describing the sensation to each other or of discovering its cause. Future joys, like tropical shores, project over the immensity that lies before them their native softness, a fragrant breeze, and one grows drowsy in that intoxication without even worrying about the horizon one cannot see.

Lèon is the courtship, the romance — Emma needs this; she never had it with Charles. Even upon his departure, Emma orchestrates herself into the lovesick woman. She kept the memory — the idea of Lèon:

She would rush up to it, she would crouch down next to it, she would delicately stir its embers, so close to dying out, she would look all around for something that could relive it; and the most distant memories, as well as the most recent events, what she was feeling and what she was imagining, her sensuous desires, which were dissipating, her plans for happiness, which were cracking in the wind like dead branches, her sterile virtue, her disappointed hopes, the litter of her domestic life — she gathered all of it up, took it, and used it to rekindle her sadness.

And yet the flames died down, either because the supply of fuel was exhausted, or because too much was piled on. Little by little, love was extinguished by absence, longing smothered by routine; and the incendiary glow that had reddened her pale sky was covered over in shadow and by degrees faded away. In the torpor of her consciousness, she even misunderstood her feelings of repugnance for her husband to be yearnings for her lover, the scorching of hatred for the rekindling of affection; but since the storm continued to rage and her passion burned itself to ashes, and since no help came and no sun appeared, night closed in completely around her, and she remained lost in a terrible, piercing cold.

And then we have the suave, slimy-smarmy Rodolphe. Who woos her and corrupts her, never mind that she is all too willing. . . . With a long tremor she gave herself up to him. This, meanwhile, is the passion she so longed for. Ah, Emma celebrating, languishing, in the wickedness, the satiation: She savored it without remorse, without uneasiness, without distress.

She said to herself, again and again: “I have a lover! A lover!” . . . at last she would possess those joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired.

Never mind that this is self-destruction. And that her husband just so happens to be collateral damage: . . . She was experiencing a humiliation of a different sort: that she had imagined a man could be worth something, as though twenty times over she had not already been sufficiently convinced of his mediocrity. Ouch.

* * *

Ruination, dammit: Her life was no more a confection of lies in which she wrapped her love, as though in veils, to hide it. And yet, so constant the dissastisfaction! Emma asks herself: Why was life so inadequate, why did the things she depended on turn immediately to dust? Her life was falling apart — her marriage, her finances, her romances:

. . . his heart would grow drowsy with indifference by a love whose refinements he could no longer see.

They knew each other too well to experience, in their mutual possession, that wonder which multiplies the joy of it a hundred times over. She was as weary of him as she was tired of her. Emma was rediscovering in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.

Her life. Was. Falling. Apart. I wanted her to wake up. But this is poor Emma Bovary, our Emma. For her, it wasn’t that she was having practical problems, mind you. It was all love for her, love all the way. She was suffering only because of her love, and she felt her soul slipping away through the memory of it, just as the wounded, in their last agony, feel the life going out of them through their bleeding wounds. Good lord.


Well, rather disjointed thoughts up there, haha — and me, mostly citing wonderful words. But I obviously like this book. Seriously. I don’t really know how to pu this liking-and-loving into one succinct, clear, and all-encompassing statement. There’s more I have not talked about. This — all this — is only one dimension of my love for this beautiful book. I am yet to talk about the turning inside me, what I truly felt about Charles, what I felt about this book’s ending, the language, the translation, my burgeoning devotion to Flaubert. Goodness, so much to say!

I have left a space in my notebook for those thoughts.

The pages of my notebook dedicated to Madame Bovary [by Gustave Flaubert, in the new translation by Lydia Davis] have been scanned, in a moment of Extreme Dorkery, and can be seen below:


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13 comments

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sasha Martinez, Sasha. Sasha said: [new post] Emma Bovary and Me: http://wp.me/pEpEj-18G [...]

  2. I was rereading this, then got into my Jane Eyre phase and sort of abandoned the book. I don’t know, it feels like I need to really sit down for this new translation, to take it all in. There is one thing though, that always makes me wonder. As with Anna Karenina, I find it hard to feel sympathy for Emma. Maybe not so much sympathy that is missing, but I feel so frustrated. This, in your post:

    “Her life. Was. Falling. Apart. I wanted her to wake up.”

    made me feel I finally understand why. I get too caught up in wanting her to wake up, I think.

    Seeing your notebook notes was lovely. I really like seeing your handwriting, somehow. It is very precise?

  3. You may feel a little bad for liking Emma, but I feel bad for liking Rodolphe! Really, he was my favorite character. At least he had some notion what he was about, some smidgen of self-awareness.

    Argh, poor Emma and her convoitises. I think it’s interesting that she thinks her ruin is caused by love, but really, when you get down to it, it’s caused by money, you know? If she’d had these wild love affairs but kept herself in hand with the borrowing of funds, I see no reason she couldn’t have continued blithely for years and years. Especially considering how oblivious Charles is.

  4. [...] Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert; in the new translation by Lydia Davis. [...]

  5. Ah, I too really liked Emma. I read this a few years ago and I’m looking forward to rereading it in the new translation. Beautiful thoughts, thanks for scanning your notes. So pretty.

  6. [...] Emma are still unresolved. Last time I read Madame Bovary, I could not feel any sympathy for her. Sorry Sasha. But now, I’m torn. On the one hand, I want to slap her, and shake her, and make her see what [...]

  7. [...] [Save for, of course, your gorgeous translation of Madame Bovary.] [...]

  8. [...] Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert; trans. by Lydia Davis [...]

  9. [...] The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in the Lydia Davis translation. Yummy. More importantly — I need to get myself a trunk of [...]

  10. [...] couldn’t be a deep relationship between Mrs. Edna Pontellier and I, because, well, she wasn’t Mrs. Emma Bovary? Yes, I know they are two very different creatures—but, well, doesn’t it testify to my fondness [...]

  11. [...] Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert; in the new translation by Lydia Davis. (via sashawantsmore) This entry was [...]

  12. [...] fact that I have sworn to bring Jane Eyre to my crematorium. This, despite my having realized that Madame Bovary will forever be my spirit animal. This, despite the fact that many a listless summer, I’d dipped into my mother’s circa-1940s [...]

  13. [...] it’s [almost legendarily] translated by Lydia Davis [hushed tones from the internet, here]—Davis whom I’ve always considered a far better translator than writer. I am daunted by Proust because he is Proust; I will most likely stop with this Proust because [...]

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