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Friday, 7 March 2014

More on "Madame Bovary" (and "Anna Karenina")

More than once on this blog I have compared "Madame Bovary" to "Anna Karenina" (who can help it?), stressing over and over again that Anna's tragedy is due to both herself and society whereas Emma Bovary has only herself to blame, and that Emma doesn't have the depth and complexity of Anna, apparently Flaubert doesn't like her very much. 
This didn't do the novel much harm, for I have always recognised it as a masterpiece, 1 of the greatest novels ever written. But I must confess that now, having separated these 2 books from each other because of their differences, I have a different view and a better appreciation of "Madame Bovary". On the surface, both are set in the 19th century and concerned with adultery. Yet, unlike "Anna Karenina", "Madame Bovary" isn't really about adultery. Put it this way, Anna lives a sad life with a stiff, emotionless, duty-bound husband and may continue living that way, in boredom but without trouble, if not for the affair with Vronsky; in other words, whilst I understand the dullness of her life, sympathise with her and have a faint idea that if Vronsky doesn't appear, there might be another guy at some point, one may say that trouble begins when Anna meets and falls in love with Vronsky and gets tangled in the affair. For Emma, however, trouble begins long before Emma meets Rodolphe and Léon. Deceitful and self-deluded, she thinks herself romantic and passionate but is in fact sentimental. It doesn't matter whether or not she meets these 2 men, it doesn't matter whether or not she has extramarital affairs, Emma is self-destructive in 1 way or another. Her sexual liaisons aren't the focus, I don't think she truly loves Rodolphe and Léon. As pointed out by Nabokov, adultery is a conventional way to rise above the conventional, I reckon that to Flaubert, having a deep, insightful and wise character commit adultery is quite conventional, perhaps even banal. Instead, Flaubert chooses a woman who only appears so at 1st, who mistakenly believes herself to be different from, more cultured and artistic than, and superior to, other people around her. Then carefully and perfectly, he dissects and exposes her shallowness and philistinism.
To see this is to realise that "Anna Karenina" and "Madame Bovary" have very different protagonists and different subjects, and tackle different themes, and one should not let 1 book affect the reading of the other*. 










*: Of course I read "Madame Bovary" over 1 year before "Anna Karenina", but at the time, had become highly acquainted with the story of "Anna Karenina" and watched at least 1 adaptation.

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