I suspect that a good number of readers who are participating in the readalong that Frances organized for Flaubert's Madame Bovary might well be posting about the third and final part of the book this week. Much as expected I am trailing along behind, reading at a leisurely pace, and am just now finishing part one. I don't mind and am enjoying basking in Flaubert's beautifully descriptive prose and it brings to the fore just how good books can be and what heights an author can achieve.
When I read Madame Bovary a few years back I was very sympathetic towards Emma, despite her many shortcomings. What do you do when you discover the life you wanted to have, hoped to have, turns out to be unsatisfactory? Surely that is a question that many of us must ask and the dissatisfaction Emma feels is palpable. It ripples through the pages. She's practically given away by her father, being of little use to him on his farm and Charles is a reasonably successful doctor--all in all not a bad catch. How many options were open to a young woman of middle class of that period? Educated in a convent and exposed to romantic novels by a spinster who would spend time there, her world is formed by images of "English ladies with blond curls" riding in carriages through the park or "dreaming on sofas beside an unopened letter". She envisions palm trees, or perhaps tigers, or maybe even Roman ruins. Life set against an exotic or at least romanticized backdrop. And she ends up with an unambitious, though kind-hearted, country doctor. He means well, but he can't compete. To him Emma is all dainty elegance and to her Charles is a bit of a bumpkin.
Imagining is one thing, but then being exposed to the real thing only fuels her discontent. Emma thrives when she and Charles are invited to a party at a nearby château--yet again another happy patient of Charles's, much like Emma's father, rewards him with some special gift. Mingling with the gentry is what Emma has dreamed of and she shines at it--a social success.
"The night was dark. A few drops of rain were falling. She breathed in the damp wind, which cooled her eyelids. The music of the dance was still humming in her ears, and she made an effort to stay awake in order to prolong the illusion of this luxurious life that she would soon have to leave behind."
"The first light of dawn appeared. She looked at the windows of the château for a long time, trying to guess which were the rooms of all those people she had observed the night before. She would have liked to know what their lives were like, to enter into them, to become a part of them."
But she doesn't become a part of them. She and Charles leave in the morning and return to their normal and unexciting lives. Charles has his work and Emma has? She has her fantasies. Her subscriptions to Parisian magazines. The running of her small household. There's nothing worse than being unhappy in your situation. Life can feel oppressive and you feel as though you wish you could walk out of your skin you're so restless. Contentment is not an easy thing to achieve and if you've felt the unbearable weight of unhappiness pressing down...well, taking that next step away from your real (maybe empty) life might not be so surprising. Perhaps what Emma will do is not admirable, but it is certainly human.
So the stage has been set and now Emma is faced with the rest of her life, as well as the anticipation of a child. Onwards to part two.