Cited as one of the greatest of French novels with Emma Bovary, the eponymous heroine of Flaubert’s novel, often spoken of in the same breathe as Tolstoy’s greatest creation Anna Karenina. Well, I have to say, I’m not convinced.
I can appreciate the style and the sense of boredom and desperation that Flaubert so
effectively created in his first novel, however I find it very hard to feel any sympathy for his supreme creation Emma Bovary. Serialised in 1856 and then published as a novel in 1857, Flaubert paints a beautiful picture of the nascent rural bourgeois society into which the educated Emma arrives as Charles Bovary’s second wife. Charles is a dull-witted, if harmless doctor, dominated by his mother and still mourning his first wife. He comes across the beautiful Emma on a visit to one of his patients and, under normal circumstances, the rest would be history.
However, Emma is unable to accept her life, its monotony, its lack of excitement, its lack of charm, its lack of romance and most of all its lack of a Prince Charming to make every moment of her life perfect. Charles is not enough for her, everything seems too monochrome and she is only sustained by her highly romanticised dream world. And I know that I’m supposed to feel her pain, to sympathise with her plight, but whose life isn’t filled with tediousness and clock watching? For most of us life tends to be a series of moments, that when combined, provide enough illumination and stimulation for us to make it through the day.
I know, I know, the French have a word for it, it’s “ennui” that poor Emma is feeling. She feels and thinks too much, she wants much more than she has and I can sympathise, but at some point her self-indulgence starts to grind. Her husband is a dullard, but ultimately I feel for the poor man, why is he punished with this prima donna of a wife? Emma my dear please get over yourself. Anyway, she doesn’t and the daydreams and fantasy bleed into her life, there’s an affair and serious consequences.
So Anna or Emma? Well, Anna is a fascinating, complex and truly attractive character, who has the capacity to care for others, while Emma is that woman you are drawn to at a party, but before you realise your mistake has trapped you in the kitchen and won’t stop talking about herself.
What do you think of Emma and her dilemma?