Saturday, September 15, 2012

Madame Bovary: What If? (A Guest Post)

A couple months ago I read Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert. Since it was my first example of Realism in fiction, I felt I had entered into a closer relationship with the characters than I had experienced with previous novels from the WEM list.  I watched with angst as Emma Bovary wrecked herself through the folly of her selfish decisions. 

Flaubert painted his controversial novel objectively -- with equal doses of both ethereal landscape descriptions and earthy characterization. He gave no moral judgments; I was left to examine the themes for myself, to strain each tragic scenario through my own sieve. I think it's pretty much impossible to close the book on Madame Bovary and not wonder -- at least for a moment -- "What if?"

Several weeks ago, my friend Sandy Bramhill sent me an email which contained her response to Madame Bovary. She has generously agreed to let me use it as the first guest post on Classical Quest. The images of paintings by Mary Cassatt and Claude Monet can also be found on my new Pinterest boards.

What if….
by Sandy Bramhill

...Emma's mother had lived to raise her? She had a loving father, but what if she had experienced the love of a mama as well? What if she had witnessed a healthy, loving marriage when she was growing up?
Reine Lefebre and Margot before a Window - Mary Cassatt 
...the old woman who came by the convent from time to time had not loaned Emma romance novels? What if Emma had read good literature? What if the heroines of her books had been examples of faithfulness?
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…Emma had been taught the Word of God rather than being raised with only the mystical and emotional aspects of religion? What if she had read the Bible for herself?
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…when Emma tried to share her deep inner struggles with the priest, he had actually listened to what she was saying?  What if he had given her good counsel?
Pinned Image
Rouen Cathedral, by Claude Monet -- depicted in a scene in Madame Bovary.
…Emma had had a group of female friends?  Or even one true, faithful female friend?
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…Emma had had to work? What if she didn’t have the luxury of sitting around fantasizing and wallowing in her discontentment?  Would keeping busy have staved off some of the self-pity?  (The elder Madame Bovary thought so.)
 Woman with needlework Sun - Mary Cassatt
…had had a son?  Would she actually have taken to being a mother? (I certainly don’t think so – boys spit up, too! But Emma may have thought so.)
 Master Robert Kelso Cassatt - Mary Cassatt
…women in her time nursed their own babies instead of sending them away? Would Emma have bonded with Berthe and found meaning in motherhood?
Images Courtesy Wikipaintings

...[Emma] was not happy, and never had been. Why was life so unsatisfying? Why did everything she leaned on instantly crumble into dust? […] nothing was worth seeking – everything was a lie! Each smile hid a yawn of boredom, each joy a curse, each pleasure its own disgust; and the sweetest kisses only left on one’s lips a hopeless longing for a higher ecstasy. (III.6.29-30)

Sandy lives with her husband and two teenage sons in Tucson, AZ.  She loves reading, cycling, and befriending people from other countries.  She discovered Classical Quest through  "The Book That Changed My Life" post.  Soon after, she joined me and the ladies at A Classic Case of Madness on our journey through the classics. 


  1. Great insights, Sandy! You made me want to read this classic again!

  2. It does make you wonder.

    Jeannette, Christina and I talked about the isolation Emma experienced. I'm sure if she had witnessed the loving relationship of her parents it would have made a world of difference both in her relationship with her spouse and child. (Charles' parents didn't provide the best example either.)

    Oh, the scene where the priest doesn't listen to her is so sad. I think it's the only instance where she tries to get help, and the priest stomps all over the opportunity.

    Although Madame Bovary was one of my least favorite novels that we've read so far, I think that I have to give Flaubert credit for developing Emma in such a realistic way as to make her (sadly) believable.

    Thanks for the thoughtful questions, Sandy!

  3. While I've heard a lot about the novel, I've never read Madame Bovary. Still, reading your questions here has given me insights into the character and her problems (much like listening to one side of a telephone conversation!). Very well done, Sandy.


  4. I tried reading this novel for college, but never got past the first few chapters. I suppose some day I might give it another go. I find your what if questions very interesting though. As Tim above me says, it gives us an insight into the character of Emma. ...

  5. Beautifully written and arted (is there a proper word for that?)

    Thank you for your words, which struck an important, and beautifully resonant chord with my life right now. I am so thankful for many of these exact things which Emma lacked. God help me to not disregard and push them away as she did.


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