Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sympathy for Vronsky and a Few Thoughts on Madame Bovary

I just finished reading Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert.  People seem to think that Emma Bovary is less sympathetic, somehow, than Anna Karenina.  I am not sure that's right.  It's true that Anna is shone in a sympathetic light, but I think Emma is too.  She is a victim of the grip that romance has on her impractical mind.

(This is how Jeffrey Eugenides opens The Marriage Plot, with a description of the books that Madeleine Hanna had read:

To start with, look at all the books.  There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Brontë sisters.  There were a whole lot of black-and-white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov.  There were the Colette novels she read on the sly.  There was the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis on the marriage plot.  There was, in short, this mid-size but still portable library representing pretty much everything Madeleine had read in college, a collection of texts, seemingly chosen at random, whose focus slowly narrowed, like a personality test, a sophisticated one you couldn't trick by anticipating the implications of its questions and finally got so lost in that your only recourse was to answer the simple truth.  And then you waited for the result, hoping for "Artistic," or "Passionate," thinking you could live with "Sensitive," secretly fearing "Narcissistic" and "Domestic," but finally being presented with an outcome that cut both ways and made you feel different depending on the day, the hour, or the guy you happened to be dating:  "Incurably Romantic."

It seems to me that Emma Bovary is very much the kind of character Eugenides had in mind, that is, a woman in the grip of a certain romantic idealization of the world that leaves her ill-equipped to make the compromises that real life forces on us.  Unfortunately I don't think Madeleine develops in that way, in fact I'm not sure she develops much at all as a character.  But anyway this idea of having been infected with incurable romanticism, this is a very Emma Bovary thing it seems to me.)

I also find this completely unfair (stop reading if you don't want to find out what happens in Anna Karenina!):

"Anna Karenina has a repellent husband, embarks on an affair with a man who ultimately betrays her love, and commits suicide."

How does Vronsky betray Anna's love?  Vronsky is not the most admirable man in Russian literature, but he treats Anna pretty well I think.  Or at least, he treats her well by his own lights.  I can't think of any way in which he betrays her.  I think one of Tolstoy's great achievements, and Flaubert's too, is that characters who should be repellent are understandable and even likeable.  (And by the way I don't find Karenin so repellent.  Unattractive, maybe, and very James-like in his fusty pedantic uselessness . . .  okay, I guess the word "repellent" is apt, but he too is understandable and almost likeable - he is being the only way he knows how to be.  It is only his misfortune that it is a disgusting way to be.)

But so I think Emma Bovary has an undeserved reputation.  The book is a tragedy because her predicament is so understandable and the logic of her destruction is so true to human life.


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