Thursday, October 14, 2010

Madame Bovary Part 1

"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."

Group read of Madame Bovary hosted by Frances from Nonsuch Book.

This first part of Flaubert's Madame Bovary has been full of a few surprises for me, most notably that I'm really enjoying it.  I attempted to read it several years ago and was simply bored.  I'm chalking that up to an inferior translation, because so far in Lydia Davis' capable hands, I'm entranced.  

(I should note here that I did not read the introduction.  Davis so graciously gives a spoiler alert before the intro, and I like to know as little as possible before beginning a novel, other than historical context.  I will go back and read it when I'm done, as I already have questions that are probably answered therein.)

I was a bit jolted by the transition from the beautiful embossed cover of a woman in a veil to reading this first line:  "We were in the Study Hall, when the Headmaster entered, followed by a new boy dressed in regular clothes and a school servant carrying a large desk."  Okay.  I was both impressed and perplexed.  It was not at all what I expected, and I love that.  We get to meet Charles Bovary here, and wallow in his average-ness. (I was really nervous when he had to fix the broken leg.  I wasn't sure if he was going to be able to do it or not.  I don't think he was so sure of himself either.)

I was also wrong in my preconceived ideas about the character of Madame Bovary.  We actually meet a couple of other Madame Bovarys before we get to the protagonist, all with personalities of their own.  The first Madame Bovary introduced is Charles' mother.  Her marriage is far from happy, and her "rebellion" is to suffer in silence and take on more of the responsibility for running the household.  Then Charles takes a bride.  She's ugly, bossy, high-maintenance, and just happened to lie about her fortune.  This woman so fit my idea of what THE Madame Bovary was like, but then she dies.  Huh?  But there's the captivating Emma, with her white fingernails, dry knuckles and beautiful brown eyes.  She's intelligent.  She's talented.  She was quite religious (albeit romantically so) for much of her childhood, until it doesn't satisfy her lofty longings.  Will Charles Bovary be the answer?  Well, if the fact that he just stands there empty-handed while Emma picks all the grass and thistles off of her wedding dress by herself is any indication, we're in for a bumpy ride.

One of the things I love about Flaubert's writing is the details.  There is frequent mention of clothing.  (I think Flaubert had a thing about hats.)   We have a lengthy description of how the wedding guests are arriving and what they are wearing, but only one phrase referring to the actual ceremony.  All we know is that it wasn't at midnight, by torchlight they way Emma wanted (big warning sign, by the way, Charles.)  I have a pretty sharp visual image of each scene and object, it's like looking at a vivid, realistic painting.

I'm getting quite lengthy here, so just a few briefly worded thoughts. 
  • I'm troubled by the male characters' choice of words--Emma's dad want to "give her" to Charles, Charles feels better about himself because he "possesses" her, she's like a toy to him.  
  • Ironic that it is a "spinster"  who gets all of the romantic ideas into Emma's head.
  • She's pregnant?  She ain't seen nothing yet as far as depression goes. Wait 'til that post-partum depression hits...


  1. Ha ha! Love your prediction of Emma's post partum future. You are closer to the truth than you realize. And come to think of it, I would love to look at this now in that light. Post-partum depression has mnaifested itself in similar ways before. But motherhood for next week?

    Emily is also interested in the clothing of the characters, and I put forward that I think there clothing represents who they wish to be but the reality lies closer to the dry hands and big brown eyes.

    Thanks so much for reading along!

  2. I wonder if the translation was my problem because I just hated this book when I read it!! I always wonder that when it comes to translations.

  3. The points you bring up in the beginning of your post, about being introduced to Charles in all his clumsiness, and the two Madame Bovary's before Emma, were all glossed over by me because this is not the first time I've read it. But, I can certainly see why they'd be distracting to the reader!

    My translation is one from Barnes and Noble classics, and it does every bit of justice to the details as you say Lydia Davis does to her translation. I never read the preface to a novel, too anxious to dive in, I guess, so I can't comment about all that. I want to know what the author said more than what someone said about him. ;)

    It's fun to be in another read-along with you, after The Brothers Karamazov, and I'm glad we'll be doing it again for The Voyage of The Dawn Treader!

  4. big warning sign, by the way, Charles

    Haha! NO KIDDING. That cracked me up. :-)

    I love all the clothing descriptions, with the wedding guests tiered by social position according what coats they're wearing, and Charles relegated to everlasting vulgarity by his (or his mother's) choice of scholastic headwear. And I like your point about the prevailing patriarchal attitudes - Emma acts very badly throughout the novel, but I think it's relevant to consider what her options were.

  5. The translation I read before (a penguin edition) did not do much for me either and I am enjoying this one much more. Even if this is a reread for me I had completely forgotten about the fact that the story starts with Charles and not Emma. And like you, I thought it was interesting that there were several Madame Bovary's.

  6. I had forgotten that the book opens with Charles as a schoolboy and felt a similar jolt. His conscientiousness as a schoolboy, though, gave me more confidence in his eventual talents as a doctor.

  7. This sounds like such a good book. I wish it was on my list. I'm definitely reading it once I'm through with my 120...

  8. "Well, if the fact that he just stands there empty-handed while Emma picks all the grass and thistles off of her wedding dress by herself is any indication, we're in for a bumpy ride."

    Heheh. True enough. And yet it certainly resonates, doesn't it. It's amazing how these issues, so many relational touchpoints, cross all those years between the book's original publication date and present-day.

  9. Even though I've read this before, I chose to skip the intro, too. The details are wonderful and I'm really enjoying the description of the clothing. So far, my experience is much more positive this time around. Whether that's due to translation, or my current frame of reference is hard to day...

  10. Love the post partum comment! Maybe Madame Bovary is better for you this time because you have more life experience?

    I too loved that Davis gave a spoiler warning. Why do they insist on calling these things Introductions and putting them at the beginning? Put it at the end, rename it, and be done with it.

  11. I was more put off by Emma's apparent selfishness than the male characters' sexist language, Shelley. Generational prejudices aside, at least Charles seemed to have real feelings for somebody other than himself! However, I do like what Emily says about this in the last line of her comment above. Curious to see what Flaubert does with this beginning and how the characters evolve over time.

  12. I think we have a lot of dramatics and fireworks ahead for Emma! Great post!

  13. I have been so much enjoying reading the other Madame Bovary posts that I'm just now getting to respond to my comments!

    Yes, I'm curious about what's going to happen when motherhood gets thrown into the mess!

    If you ever feel so inclined, I would give this translation a try. I just know that I was instantly engaged with this version, and that was definitely not the case last time.

    I like that several participants have read MB already and are therefore have an added perspective. It's all new to me!

    I noticed the descriptions of the clothing but did not delve deeper into what they signified--I just thought it was part of the realism he was trying to convey. I'm learning so much from all the other posts that I can take into the rest of the novel.

    I'm not any kind of an expert on translations, I just know that this one I like, and the other one I didn't. I must admit that this beautiful hardcover edition adds to the experience! I don't buy books that often, and almost never hardcovers. This was a satisfying splurge!

    The broken leg incident turned out okay, but I'm still not sure if I would want him treating me. He does seem to do alright as a doctor so far, though.

    I hope you do get to it ... post-120!

    Buried in Print,
    There is a timelessness to it. I don't know if you've ever seen the show Everybody Loves Raymond, but the neglectfulness on Charles' part reminds me of some of Ray's finer moments!

    Maturity may be a factor in my enjoying it more this time. To be honest, I think when I tried this before I was in the midst of my own depression, and simply couldn't focus. I did not, however deal with my problems in quite the same way as Emma!

    I couldn't agree with you more about introductions. Sometimes they are okay to read first and sometimes not. It's just nice to know.

    Not to excuse Emma's self-centeredness, but Charles feelings for Emma seem very superficial. He sees her as an object. Something to look at and grab, and something to raise his status and make him feel good about himself. His lack of helping her with her dress and failure to get read of his dead wife's wedding bouquet show that he's not even bothering to consider her feelings or point of view. Realistic, maybe, but not love. I'm sure as things move along, I will get more frustrated with her actions than his.

    Yes, I'm anxious to get to the forthcoming drama, but I haven't even started Part 2 in an effort to read everyone's thoughts. I think I'm ready to delve into it tomorrow!

  14. I listened to this one last year and while I enjoyed Flaubert's writing, the story just made me cranky; I couldn't stand Emma!

  15. You are lucky, reading this for the first time! It deserves its rep as a "classic." Enjoy the (bumpy) ride.

  16. I'm ashamed to say that I have yet to read Madame Bovary. But I do intend to doing that in the near future. I know I'll like it.
    I wish I knew about this group read, it would probably motivate me to read it right away, just like with Lonesome Dove.