Friday, December 2, 2011

Madame Bovary

madame bovary 
Madame Bovary
by Gustave Flaubert
 
Madame Bovary, c'est moi. This has been my favorite book since I came across it in high school. My teacher saw me reading and asked, as I remember, if my parents knew I was reading it. My parents didn't know anything about it. I could have read a Stephen King novel or the Decameron or The Story of O in front of them. They saw me with a book open in front of me, and they assumed I was fine. That's how I'd always been.

Even as a teenager, I identified with her mooniness, her daydreaming, the way she found in books what life could not offer her.

Later, in college, I read it again as part of a course called "Literature and Psychology." I offered a juvenile and trite Freudian take on Emma and Charles in a paper that's so bad I daren't even read it again. But still, the appeal. She stuck with me, that Emma. I began to write my own stories then, and wrote a story much like Emma’s, again and again. The dissatisfied wife, disillusioned, yearning for escape in life of the kind she finds in her beloved books. The pattern, you see, was set early on. Books offered me, as they offered Emma, what real life could not.

It is possible that I, like Emma, could have found the stimulation I yearned for in life if my priorities were different. If we opened our eyes and learned to appreciate what we were given. Flaubert, narrating for Emma, puts a fine finger on her yearning: "If Charles had wished it, however, if he had suspected it, if his gaze, just once, had read her thoughts, it seemed to her that her heart would have been relieved of its fullness as quickly as the ripe fruit falls from an espaliered tree at the touch of a hand. But while the intimacy of their life grew ever closer, an inner detachment formed, which loosened her ties to him." Not to throw blame around, but when you look to a partner for a kind of fulfillment and it's not there and isn't forthcoming, at some critical point you have to look elsewhere.

The tricky part, the guilty part, is that I saw it all coming. Or I made it happen. I'm not sure which. But, like Emma, the marriage I threw myself into with all my heart eventually became only a source of frustration and sadness. It became all about what it wasn't.

But, unlike Emma, I had other paths open to me. I didn't need a Count to sweep me away. When the time was right, I broke off, got divorced, and launched into my own life. Emma's epic yearning for something more than what life could offer a middle-class girl from provincial France was not far from my yearning for something more. The difference is that there was more out there for me to find. Madame Bovary, with Flaubert’s precise realism, stands both as a cautionary tale and as a symbol of what I can have if I only reach for it.
 
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