The same book that introduced me to Tess of the D’Urbervilles has introduced me now to Madame Bovary. This is a book I am thankful for, not because of any enjoyment in the reading of it, but because it spoke so truly on things society would rather you ignore. Gustave Flaubert released his book to a shocked audience. For a woman of his time to seek enjoyment in lovers outside her marriage was unthinkable. But as Karen Swallow Prior says,
Books meet with disapproval because of their objectionable content. Wisdom, however, considers not only what a book says (its content), but how it says it (its form). Just as important- or perhaps more important than- whether a book contains questionable themes….is how those topics are portrayed. Are they presented truthfully in terms of their context and their consequences?…Discerning judgments of literature consider form as much as content, just as with any other art.
This book is not so much about adultery as it is about the difference between love and passion, the oppression that follows the consumer, and the isolation and futility of disenchantment with reality. Do not come to this book for entertainment. It will not deliver you that; but if you come to seek the reality of love, the repercussions of bottomless desire, come. This book has saved many from the errors of its heroine.
Emma Bovary, were she to enter upon 21st century music, would have been a fan of The Darkness:
Love is only a feeling
She would have sung it with gusto. She is a woman searching for love, finding it, losing it, searching again, finding, losing, ad infinitum. For her, love is a feeling; it is synonymous with passion.
As to Emma, she did not ask herself whether she loved. Love, she thought, must come suddenly, with great outbursts and lightnings—a hurricane of the skies, which falls upon life, revolutionises it, roots up the will like a leaf, and sweeps the whole heart into the abyss.
We see it all over: in music, in film, in literature, we even feed it by the spoonful to our children (enter Disney). Emma realizes in the weeks following her wedding the stark difference between her idea of love and the reality of it:
Before marriage she thought herself in love; but the happiness that should have followed this love not having come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words felicity, passion, rapture, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.
But rather than question her idea of love, she assumes her mistake was in the finding of it as opposed to its definition.
As to me, I have found love to be a number of things in my life. It takes shape in a myriad of ways. It is a Person, an action, a choice, and sometimes a feeling. Feelings, even the feeling of love, is fleeting. It is susceptible to changes in circumstance, evolving personhood, or even things as fickle as the lighting of a room, the time of day, the latest story to influence imagination, or the mood one happens to be in- everyone knows this. I have walked into my daughter’s room to watch her sleep and felt so full of love for her I could burst. But when I was up in the middle of the night nursing a screaming baby, I was not feeling the love. I didn’t love her any less than eight hours before, but the feeling was gone. The love was still there, it was the very thing motivating me to hold her gently, nurse her, sing and rock her back to sleep- despite the hour, despite the cold, despite the exhaustion. Love was a choice; love was my act.
We cling to this romanticized version of love because the story sounds prettier. Because we want to believe that something or someone can fulfill every desire, even though deep down we know (don’t we?) that love reveals itself not in self satisfaction but in service to others. That is why this novel is truly novel. Gustave takes our culture’s mistaken understanding of love and pursuit of self and presents it truthfully in terms of its context and consequences. The result isn’t pretty at all. It doesn’t start pretty, and it certainly doesn’t end pretty. And in this way, Gustave becomes an artist.
She was not happy—she never had been. Whence came this insufficiency in life—this instantaneous turning to decay of everything on which she leant?… nothing was worth the trouble of seeking it; everything was a lie. Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a curse, all pleasure satiety, and the sweetest kisses left upon your lips only the unattainable desire for a greater delight.
I always want to advise the characters I’m reading, not because I am a wealth of wisdom, but because in them I can see parts of myself, but without blindness. I wanted to give Emma Bovary this piece of a poem from Hans Ostrom’s “This is the Gazelle Ghazal”:
This is the love affair, so raging it convinced itself it would last forever but ended.
This is the friendship, which began before it knew it began and will not end.
Emma, said my soul, you cannot force the feeling of love to do what it cannot- remain. Pursue a love for others that exceeds your love of self. Rather than become a student of fantasy, become a student of friendship. Find in your husband a friend, rather than a lover, and you may find that he becomes both. Love is so much more than a feeling.