2019 Classics Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

Emma Bovary: victim of circumstance or classic narcissist?

30374787Finished the last third of Madame Bovary by the great Gustave Flaubert last night and I have the eye strain to prove it.

As I read and iced my temples with the cool glass of the ice water I was drinking, I began unconsciously adding up Emma Bovary’s crimes against reason in my mind and it dawned on me that I was cultivating a very negative opinion of her. In fact, I was tallying her failures as I perceived them and feeling quite smug about it.

As you may or may not know, this is the classic work of French ennui. It is Flaubert’s first novel, published in 1865, and caused a scandal that resulted in litigation because of its salacious content (thanks to Emma’s affairs).

The story centers on Charles Bovary, a country doctor, and Emma Bovary, his pretty, well-educated (in a convent) wife who, to quote Disney’s Belle, wants much more than this provincial life. Charles is in love with his wife and does his best to please her, though, like any man of his time, he requires a hot supper each night and the little woman to provide him the many comforts of home.

Over time, Emma’s interest in Charles dies with her longing for a more interesting life and he quickly becomes odious to her. In fact, I can’t remember if she liked him in the first place. But anyway, her increasing dissatisfaction prompts her to initiate a couple of affairs with other men and, especially in the last half of the novel, she also drives the couple deeply into debt, making one terrible financial decision after another, losing Charles’ inheritance to boot, and resulting, as you also may know, in Emma’s suicide.

I should have pity for Emma. Her boredom, fickleness, selfishness, and general negativity are all understandable given her station and this particular moment in history. She’s a woman, first of all, and her options are limited, despite her good education, to, um, marriage. As a member of the middle class in rural France, there’s literally no other respectable role for her but wife and mother.

I should also be kind because, honestly, I really sympathize with Emma. I wholly identify with her disappointment in the monotony of day-in, day-out life as it comes, and with her longing for excitement and her inability to create any of her own. Her life is lived in a constant paralysis.

“She longed to travel or to go back to her convent. She wished at the same time to die and to live in Paris.” 

I mean, I get it. I’m not paralyzed, but I see how one could be.

And yet I can’t help feeling terrible for poor Charles. He’s a good man and a decent doctor and he cares deeply about his wife, even if his expectations of her reflect the chauvinism of the times. I go back and forth on Charles: he was duped and cuckolded and is just living out the prescribed circumstances for a man of his station. On the other hand, he’s a willing cog in the machine of a Western society that, generally speaking, raises men above women in all aspects of life. But how would he know any different? I realize that’s a stretch and I’m bringing a really contemporary and feminist perspective to this novel and I’m not sure I’m meeting it where it lives.

Back to my original idea and the title of this post. As I was reading, I developed the fun game of of tallying up the qualities in and behaviors of Emma that resembled the classic narcissist.

  1. Emma is emotionally manipulative of (with?) her husband and her lovers. She alternately showers them with love and then withholds love to serve her purposes. She expertly “handles” Charles, at turns cooing and browbeating him to get what she wants (for example, when she obtains his permission and the money to go to Rouen ostensibly for piano lessons, but really to see her lover).
  2. Emma is overly concerned with status and disappointed in Charles for not being a more prominent doctor. Along with Homais, the local chemist, she is the engineer and primary champion of a surgery that Charles attempts on a servant man which goes horribly wrong.
  3. Emma exhibits lack of empathy. Things happen to her and her feelings matter more than anyone else’s (especially when she’s manipulating people to get what she wants).
  4. Evident in her affairs, Emma is preoccupied with fantasies of ideal romance.

So, I’m conflating actual symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder with a lay-person’s understanding of what narcissism is, but you get my point. Some of Emma’s problems are self-created but the personal qualities or emotions that drive her to create them are born of her circumstances. If that makes sense.

How did I feel about the book in general? I loved it. And I was sad at the end when things went horribly wrong. Having been in debt myself, Emma’s financial missteps were especially agonizing. That bothered me more than the suicide, tbh.

Have you read it? Would love to know your thoughts!

p.s. This is my book for the “Classic Tragic Novel” category in the 2019 Classics Challenge.

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