Madame Bovary, Part Three


…for this was the way they would have liked to be–they were both creating for themselves an ideal against which they were now adjusting their past lives.

The third part of this book was exhausting, but I certainly do not intend to connote a negative reading experience. When I say the third section left me this way, it’s because I would argue Flaubert is a master in making me feel. As he says right after the quote above, “[b]esides, speech is a rolling press that always extends one’s emotions.” Regardless of your overall impressions of the novel, I do not think anyone has come away from the experience denying Flaubert’s true gift in that sense, as I felt more and more desperate as the Bovary’s bills were piling up, as the lies were mounting, as the facade began to crumble.

That particular element continually crept into my reading – facade. The small village is so carefully crafted; there is a requisite pharmacist, doctor, innkeeper. The proximity of neighbors engenders curiosity and suspicion. Lheureux, a most despicable character, is perhaps the most oily of them all, taking advantage of the financial immaturity of the villagers and preserving his reputation by maintaining a relationship with a “strongarm” enforcer so as not to appear the bad guy.

Emma is certainly not the only one to use her “facade” to her advantage; no one here is real, a telling description of Flaubert’s take on the bourgeoisie. The strata in these villages are all the same, upper class, lower class – every character acts a certain part. Leon, in his encounters with Emma, is implicit in the facade as well. For Emma is not the woman he loves; he simply loves

this grace in language, this reserve in clothing, these drowsy, dovelike postures. He admired the sublimity of her soul and the lace on her petticoat. What was more, wasn’t she a woman of the world, and a married woman!–a real mistress, in other words?

She was the beloved of every novel, the heroine of every drama, the vague she of every volume of poetry.

At least Rodolphe is honest in that he loves the adulation Emma pours over him. Leon fools himself and Emma, and she gradually sees through it, attempting to increase her love for him by willing herself to feel a certain way. She is so used to funneling her emotions, yet it doesn’t work at this point in her life. She is exhausted, desperate, defeated:

She was not happy and never had been….everything was a lie! Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a malediction, every pleasure its own disgust, and the sweetest kisses left on your lips no more than a vain longing for a more sublime pleasure.

*Spoilers beyond this point*

Like a drug, the drama Emma sustains becomes weaker over time. The risks are ever greater in order to produce the same effect. There is no stopping her as she hurtles toward the closing scenes, again exquisitely melodramatic – swallowing arsenic, writing a letter of remorse, speaking to Charles and then lying down, “observing herself curiously, to see if she was in pain.” Last week I mentioned Emma delighting in pain, an idea that seemed to resonate with a few of you and one I’d like to follow up. As in the quote above, the more unhappy Emma is, the more she pretends the very opposite. Here, in arguably the most physical pain of the novel, Emma is

overcome with joy at the sudden sight of the violet stole, no doubt reexperiencing, in the midst of this extraordinary feeling of peace, the lost ecstasy of her first mystical yearnings….[t]he priest rose to take up the crucifix; at that, she strained her neck forward like someone who is thirsty, and, pressing her lips to the body of the Man-God, she laid upon it with all her expiring strength the most passionate kiss of love she had ever given.

Perhaps some readers, concerned for Emma’s dirty, dirty soul, take this as a sign of repentance or conversion; for those of us, however, who have known Emma over the course of the novel, the language gives it all away. Flaubert, using the guise of a sacred ritual, portrays the sensuality Emma relates with spirituality, the product of her years in the convent spent reading trashy romance novels. The priest

dipped his right thumb in the oil, and began the unctions: first on the eyes, which had so coveted all earthly splendors; then on the nostrils, so greedy for mild breezes and the smells of love; then on the mouth, which had opened to utter lies, which had moaned with pride and cried out in lust; then on the hands, which had so delighted in the touch of smooth material …

The world which created her also has no specific place for her, shunning her, cornering her, pushing her to take the only control she has ever really had over her life – life itself. And does anyone outside Charles feel this ripple, the loss of this woman he loved? Poor Justin, relegated time and again to the lowly position of errand boy weeps for her. Outside of these two, though, life continues in its mediocrity. Much like the odd beginning, Flaubert leaves us with non-action, almost cinematically pulling the camera away from the individuals, focusing instead on the village as a whole, a small town with overinflated happenings, the stark reality of life as it is and as it continues to be.

I have so enjoyed ‘discussing’ Madame Bovary during this readalong. Thank you to all who have stopped by and contributed to the conversation in ways small and large – it makes my own reading and interpretation so much fuller, and I appreciate that beyond words. Particular thanks to Frances, without whom I would still be aimlessly reading from my enticing but very random library acquisitions. Head on over to her site to read all the fantastic recaps – I can’t wait to see the thoughts from this week’s reading.

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8 responses to “Madame Bovary, Part Three

  • Shelley

    I thought of your comments about pain as I read this third part, and could definitely see her bizarre ecstasy when in pain. This last part is rather exhausting–you just want to take a deep breath when it’s all over.

  • Frances

    The third part is exhausting, emotionally taxing. At the height of Emma’s desperation, I found myself closing my eyes briefly, a reaction I have never had to a book.

    Love when you say this:

    “Flaubert, using the guise of a sacred ritual, portrays the sensuality Emma relates with spirituality, the product of her years in the convent spent reading trashy romance novels.”

    You are so right in saying that she does seek or require redemption in the conventional sense. I think of those pages just a few back from here where the church becomes her boudoir upon her entrance. And then when Charles failingly embraces her sensuality after her death. Just bone-crushingly sad.

    Thank you so much for reading along! It has been a wonderful discussion and not our last I hope.

  • Jessica

    I think the realistic setting was the main strengh for me in the book, the whole village was painted really well in my mind and how all the characters interacted with eachother. Certaintly would not have wanted to live there though!

  • Amy

    The third section is just so incredibly sad. The waste of Emma’s life, the waste of Charles, and the predicament of poor Berthe, barely loved and now alone, with nothing. Although as someone else noted–perhaps she’ll become the better for it? Certainly she can have few illusions about what life is supposed to hold for her.

  • Marie

    What a beautiful summary of this complex, satisfying and wonderful book. I had such mixed feelings about Emma but you synthesized a lot of information in a very eloquent way. The last section seems like a downward spiral until there’s nothing good left for anyone, except cheery Homais of course, who seems to bounce back no matter what.

    • pickygirlfoodfilmfiction

      Thank you so much for your sweet comment! It truly made my morning. I can’t imagine NOT having mixed feelings about Emma. Homais really is quite a character, isn’t he? I didn’t look at him too closely, but on a re-read, I may do just that.

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