Emma Bovary absolutely refuses to be good…
Madam Bovary, 20th Century Fox, 2014
From The New Yorker:
Maybe Flaubert intends for us to loathe the characters: he was famously disgusted by everything around him. “I feel waves of hatred for the stupidity of my age,” he wrote to a friend. Later, he wrote, “My characters are completely commonplace.” Certainly, the townspeople of Yonville are petty and narrow-minded—but Flaubert doesn’t tell us how to feel about them. “I do not want my book to contain a single subjective reaction, not a single reflection by the author.”
He tells us little about Emma when we first meet her, in her father’s kitchen. She’s quiet, demure, domestic. Flaubert tells us what she does, but not what she thinks, or even how she looks. Instead, he describes what’s around her: “The parasol, of dove-gray iridescent silk, with the sun shining through it, cast moving glimmers of sun over the white skin of her face. She was smiling beneath it in the mild warmth; and they could hear the drops of water, one by one, falling on the taut moiré.” Through a literary sleight of hand, Flaubert confers beauty by transference, creating an aura of subtly erotic loveliness around Emma. He makes us imagine her beauty.
There’s a long literary tradition of heroines who are both beautiful and virtuous; we believe Emma is beautiful, so we assume she’s good. But disruption is Flaubert’s game, and he explodes the trope of beauty and virtue: Emma is not good, she absolutely refuses to be good. The female students tend to be the most critical of her. “She’s so selfish,” one complained. “She’s such a materialist,” another said. “She’s so shallow, so superficial. She’s just interested in social status.” And the worst: “She’s such a bad mother.”
All of this is true. So how will we engage emotionally? Because we do, people are still reading this book a hundred and sixty-one years after its publication. One woman told me that her grandmother was reading it with her; they held their own book group, every week, to discuss it.