Writer's Rehab #7: A Death Scene

During the first period of Charles’s visits to the Bertaux, Madame Bovary junior never failed to inquire after the invalid, and she had even chosen in the book that she kept on a system of double entry a clean blank page for Monsieur Rouault. But when she heard he had a daughter, she began to make inquiries, and she learnt the Mademoiselle Rouault, brought up at the Ursuline Convent, had received what is called “a good education”; and so knew dancing, geography, drawing, how to embroider and play the piano. That was the last straw.

“So it is for this,” she said to herself, “that his face beams  when he goes to see her, and that he puts on his new waistcoat at the risk of spoiling it with the rain. Ah! that woman! That woman!”
Have you ever skimmed a section of a book and had that haunt your thoughts for the next couple days? That you somehow missed something great? So there I was with Madame Bovary the last few days having skimmed the death scene of Charles' first wife after she learned about Emma, the other woman.

I wasn't as invested in his first wife as I should have been, knowing what I know now. She wasn't Emma, the beloved and eventual main character, yet his first wife is this tragic, forgotten, and thrown away character who I feel is the epitome of 'the first wife' tossed away for 'this year's model.' I get this feeling that if Charles would have been happy with her none of the later tragedy would have happened, he would have grown old with his first wife, settled down, loved her, and not hooked up with the floozy and romance-novel rose-glassed Emma.

I am admittedly being harsh here on the romance genre, but hear me out. Emma exists more as a figurative comment on the society of self-centered, all about me, and fantasy obsessed world of the day. Sound familiar? Yes, that our current world, and some things never change. To live a deluded life where fantasy is reality puts you on the road to ruin, because there is no fantasy there at the end of the road.

There is what is today, what we have and who we love, and we can't live so detached from life where our fantasies are more important than what we have now.

Just ask his first wife.

I never realized how much this moment in this book means to me. Charles' first wife was treated almost in passing, a toss-away person who's death was both convenient and necessary for moving the plot along. She was painted to be homely, almost ugly, backward, bony, and unattractive. She was the 'thing' in the way of the fantasy roller coaster ride to come. She was the person who had to be binned, the patsy, the setup, and the fall woman he should have been really content with - yet here comes fantasy and all of its convenient lies and delusions.
And she detested her instinctively. At first she solaced herself by allusions that Charles did not understand, then by casual observations that he let pass for fear of a storm, finally by open apostrophes to which he knew not what to answer. “Why did he go back to the Bertaux now that Monsieur Rouault was cured and that these folks hadn’t paid yet? Ah! it was because a young lady was there, some one who know how to talk, to embroider, to be witty. That was what he cared about; he wanted town misses.” And she went on—

“The daughter of old Rouault a town miss! Get out! Their grandfather was a shepherd, and they have a cousin who was almost had up at the assizes for a nasty blow in a quarrel. It is not worth while making such a fuss, or showing herself at church on Sundays in a silk gown like a countess. Besides, the poor old chap, if it hadn’t been for the colza last year, would have had much ado to pay up his arrears.”
The use of the phrase 'open apostrophes to which he knew not what to answer' is genius here. Is this just another "visit" Charles? An insinuation by the inflection of a tone of voice being a question to which he did not have an answer for. Just beautiful. And then his first wife talks her down, as if in disbelief, but you know the grasping and wicked tendrils of fantasy shall never let go of a man's deepest and darkest thoughts.

She can't possibly be the object of his affection! Look at the mess this woman's family is in! The horror! And here, in this moment, the doomed ex-wife of Charles is trying to use logic to battle the formless and incorporeal creature that is fantasy. Do you know that doesn't work at all? To someone so deluded in the grasp of dis-reality that logic and reason get confused with facts pulled from fiction.

Doomed to fail comes to mind. And doomed to fail she is.

The entire scene, beginning where I began, is only nine paragraphs at the end of chapter two. And there is a lot more to discuss...but...read the book. You shall find more. Also, there are some great lines in here, such as his first wife and his mother-in-law, 'like two knives, sacrificing him with their reflections and observations.' But I skimmed it the first time around, and felt this strange unease like I had missed something great.

And I did.

But since I am in writer's rehab, I afforded myself the time to scroll back a couple pages and read this section again, and in it I found one of the most beautiful and iconic moments of romance novels and erotica. The ex-wife, the scorned first woman, and the wretched hag of which we reflect the 'new girl' against to make the fantasy we sell to our readers a reality.

Snow White's wicked witch probably fell in love with Prince Charming, and he rejected the old crone for the pretty young one. Because, he is a man. But more so, he is a man living in a culture which elevates the 'young woman' fantasy over true love and companionship.

Now I am coming down really hard on fantasy here, and I love my fantasies - don't get me wrong. But this notion of fantasy being a source of conflict is what great writing is made from. It is a reflection of both those times and ours, and the character of the tossed-away ex-wife here is iconic. And yes, in the end she really did love him, and he never saw that, so our perfect Greek tragedy is  setup and prepared for the next two acts.

This is why you never rely on summaries, single resources, Cliffs Notes type books, or even Wikipedia for your information. Never take a summary as fact. If I would have stopped and said 'Wikipedia is what I think' I would have never found this gem, which arguably is worth more to me than the summaries I read elsewhere. I would have never discovered this if I had stopped reading, took another person's word, and lazily accepted someone else's viewpoint as my own.

Go back to the source. Get the real info. Never let someone else do your thinking for you.

And never be too proud to go back and read that part you skimmed.

There is probably something there you missed.