Writer's Rehab #8: My World, as I See It

Charles’s conversation was commonplace as a street pavement, and everyone’s ideas trooped through it in their everyday garb, without exciting emotion, laughter, or thought. He had never had the curiosity, he said, while he lived at Rouen, to go to the theater to see the actors from Paris. He could neither swim, nor fence, nor shoot, and one day he could not explain some term of horsemanship to her that she had come across in a novel.

A man, on the contrary, should he not know everything, excel in manifold activities, initiate you into the energies of passion, the refinements of life, all mysteries? But this one taught nothing, knew nothing, wished nothing. He thought her happy; and she resented this easy calm, this serene heaviness, the very happiness she gave him.
So Madame Bovary switches point of view to Emma, and we are rewarded with this gem. So he is not a biker, billionaire, werewolf, cowboy, bondage-loving, foot-long rocking bad boy with a heart of gold?

Throw him back!

This was written in 1856, and it predicted today's narcissistic me-culture filled with the unrealistic fantasies gifted to us by Internet pornography. Oh, and there is this:
She trembled as she blew back the tissue paper over the engraving and saw it folded in two and fall gently against the page. Here behind the balustrade of a balcony was a young man in a short cloak, holding in his arms a young girl in a white dress wearing an alms-bag at her belt; or there were nameless portraits of English ladies with fair curls, who looked at you from under their round straw hats with their large clear eyes. Some there were lounging in their carriages, gliding through parks, a greyhound bounding along in front of the equipage driven at a trot by two midget postilions in white breeches. Others, dreaming on sofas with an open letter, gazed at the moon through a slightly open window half draped by a black curtain. The naive ones, a tear on their cheeks, were kissing doves through the bars of a Gothic cage, or, smiling, their heads on one side, were plucking the leaves of a Marguerite with their taper fingers, that curved at the tips like peaked shoes. And you, too, were there, Sultans with long pipes reclining beneath arbors in the arms of Bayaderes; Djiaours, Turkish sabres, Greek caps; and you especially, pale landscapes of dithyrambic lands, that often show us at once palm trees and firs, tigers on the right, a lion to the left, Tartar minarets on the horizon; the whole framed by a very neat virgin forest, and with a great perpendicular sunbeam trembling in the water, where, standing out in relief like white excoriations on a steel-grey ground, swans are swimming about.
I shall take artwork with large-clear eyes and all this stylized imagery to mean he predicted Anime as well. I kid somewhat, but there is that objectification of the perfect female artistic form happening in this passage that reflects upon Anime-like qualities - and also that objectification in an artistic form can lead to an objectification in our minds - which I feel is what happens here with Emma. I love Anime as an art form and it influences my work - but I do understand what too much of a good thing can do to our perceptions of the world and self-image. You know, why are we dying our hair purple in real life and exposing ourselves to all those chemicals? A generation ago it was going under the knife with plastic surgery, and I still feel the same way about living life as you are and being your own beautiful person on the inside.

I feel if someone can't accept a few wrinkles or judges you by your wild hair color, then you need to rethink your choices in companionship. Those people only care about the image outside, not the person inside. The older I get the more I sound like my mother, I know.

Back on track, or did we ever get off track? I have no idea. But back on track anyways. I feel this book is about unrealistic expectations or life, romance, companionship, and body-image served up to us by the media.

Striking that fact, isn't it?

I shall mark him down as predicting Photoshopping as well, just for kicks. I am being harsh here, but wow, the resemblances to today's culture are striking. I came away after chapters five through seven as feeling if Emma were alive today, she would be a vacuous Youtube personality looking to 'upgrade' her boyfriend constantly based on how many subscribers her new beau possessed.

She comes across as surface and not really a well-developed character. In fact, she is less a character in this novel than she is a caricature. She feels like a two-dimensional cartoon, less interested in others as she is living in the fantasy she created for herself. She doesn't even have any dialog in these chapters, just internal monologue and paragraph after paragraph about 'what does this world mean to me' narcissism that I felt like skimming but drug myself through so I could fully comprehend the depths of her insanity.

Oh, Emma.

I have the special hate for you that only a woman could only have for another woman.

And as a reader?

I am absolutely in love with you. You are my own special train wreck waiting to happen. You are the beautiful rose with the thorn that unexpectedly gives me a nasty cut. I shall place you on a pedestal and gleefully watch it until the end of time, expecting you to fall at any moment.

I love my villains, and the more twisted they are the better it is to watch them fall.

The danger with Madame Bovary for some readers is as taking this as a criticism of romance readers, which, in its unique French way, it is and it isn't. You have to understand that unique French trait that it is possible to both love something and hate it in the same breath, to laugh at tragedy while still yet feeling sorrow for those affected, and to make comment on things people love while in the same stroke being honestly critical of the objectified thing in question.

If you were to get all flustered over this, you would take the novel as the writer hating romance novels, and then proclaiming, 'look at what this does to society!' This woman Emma! Terrible! Terrible! You would hate this book and cling to your tattered, dog-eared, and well-worn Harlequin books with revulsion and disgust at this work.

This man, Flaubert!

How. Dare. He?

In fact, if television reviewed romance books, I am sure some commentator would hold this book up and revile it as the gold-standard go-to book for 'people who hate romance books.' They always want to divide us, you know. Turn everything into a wedge issue and erase the reasoned, thoughtful middle ground. There is no money to be made with reason and compromise, after all, and I feel the people who run the news and social media know this. But I digress, and I shall spare you from further pointless division and distraction.

Madame Bovary is not what you think it is. It put together the narrative realist method and defined the writing style which continues today. It still sounds modern, over a century and a half on. But more importantly, the book helped clarify the characters and conflicts that we see in modern romance and bring these themes and personalities into stark contrast. The ex-wife, abandoned. The new girl, with her head full of dreams. The overworked husband who misunderstands, soon to be abandoned as he did the ex-wife. The dashing rogue with commitment issues, which I have yet to get to.

You could see it as satire, in a way, filled with biting truths and sarcastic observation. And it that lies its haunting strength. This...this is us.

You see these characters in today's novels, and most importantly these conflicts are one more at-home here in the modern age than say Victorian principles and the world of curtsies, gentlemen, lords, and ladies. In a way, Madame Bovary is a lot like the original 1977 Star Wars film to the romance genre as that was to sci-fi - it put together a lot which came before, and defined the world into before and after eras. Not only does the style live on, but the modern sense of identity and image conflicts this book laid out lives on as well in our words - and as well in our lives to this day.