Emma Bovary

Emma Bovary

Emma Bovary

Emma Bovary

Synopsis

Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary first appeared as a serialization in the Revue de Paris in 1856, and was published in book form the next year. Its magazine appearance formed the occasion of a celebrated trial for obsenity, which was finally decided in Flaubert's favor. The trial is only one indication of the powerful emotions stirred by Flaubert's masterwork, dealing as it does with the hidden passions of Emma Bovary as she seeks to escape her unhappy marriage and her stultifying country environment with a series of passionate affairs.

In a review of the novel, Charles Baudelaire defended the work against charges of obscenity. Early English critics such as George Saintsbury and Matthew Arnold clearly felt uncomfortable with the novel's sexual frankness, but Henry James championed Flaubert's characterization of Emma. Such later critics as Edmund Wilson, Erich Auerbach, Mary McCarthy, and Susan J. Rosowski approach Emma from political, mythic, and feminist perspectives. Mario Vargas Llosa writes provocatively on Emma's androgynous qualities.

Excerpt

One need hardly be a feminist to observe that Flaubert murders Emma Bovary. What is his motive? Self-punishment of course is involved, but Flaubert was too tough to be destroyed, prematurely, by the reality principle. Emma is at once far less tough and far more vital than her creator. I am afraid that the motive for murder is envy of her vitality, so that authorial sadism becomes as crucial in Emma’s tragedy as is authorial masochism. The Flaubert who was to compose the dreadfully magnificent Salammbô (1858-62) is already present in the making of Madame Bovary (1852-56). Sensations are more extreme in Salammbô, the colors are far gaudier, the temperature extravagantly rises, and yet desire, ours and Flaubert’s, seems less prevalent. As a hopelessly old-fashioned literary critic, who remembers falling in love with Marty South in Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders when he was a boy, I continue to lust after Emma Bovary each time I reread Flaubert’s masterwork. This seems to me as valid an aesthetic experience as being moved to desire by staring at a Renoir nude. Emma may be the most persuasively sensual of all fictive beings. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, like his Falstaff, is too witty not to be ironic about her own capacities, but poor Emma is a literalist of her own sexual imagination. Clearly this is a very different mode of fantasy than that of the narrator of Madame Bovary or of Flaubert himself. The narrator is considerably less fond of Emma than Flaubert is (or we are), and yet Flaubert, and not the narrator, is the murderer. One might transpose the novel into Shakespearean terms by seeing the narrator as lago, Flaubert as Othello, and Emma as Desdemona. Of these three identifications (all knowingly outrageous), that of the narrator as lago is the least fantastic. I have the same uneasy respect for Flaubert’s narrator that I have for lago; both of them propose emotions to themselves, and only then experience the emotions.

Emma, despite her hysterias, is not the heroine of a tragicomedy. The narrator intends otherwise, but Emma has the greatness of her vitality, the heroic intensity of her sexuality, and that eminence makes her an oddity, a tragic heroine in a literary work stoical, ironic, and sometimes grotesquely comic. Flaubert’s savage and superb artistry conveys an embodied image of desire that is close to universal . . .

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