The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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October 21, 2010

Madame Bovary, Part II (part one)

Did you weigh your decision carefully? Were you aware of the abyss into which I was drawing you, my poor angel? You weren’t, were you? You were going ahead, foolishly trusting, believing in happiness, in the future…

Unfortunately, I only have time for a quick gathering of thoughts today, but this weekend I hope to look back and put together more of my impressions on Part Two. The book continues to surprise me, and hold my attention, and even to be suspenseful, though we know how it ends.

Writing, imagery, detail and psychology aside, a lot happens in Part Two. Charles and Emma move to Yonville L’Abbaye, as a remedy for Emma’s illness (her weapon) and her boredom. This new setting brings in a new and larger group of characters to surround the Bovarys. Some of them (the tax collector, the innkeeper, the pharmacist, the priest) are here (it seems to me) to add color and even humor; others are more essential to the story (M. Lheureux, who isn’t a source of happiness) and are more deeply drawn (Leon, Rodolphe).

Once they arrive, the Bovarys meet Leon, then meet Rodolphe; there is the agricultural fair, Leon’s departure for Paris, the failed operation on Hippolyte, Emma’s affair with Rodolphe, and her plan to flee with him, his betrayal, Emma’s illness, the trip to Rouen for the opera, and the reunion there with Leon.

It was interesting to me that, three pages after we meet him, we know who Rodolphe is (there is no doubt):

‘I believe he’s very stupid. She’s probably tired of him. He has dirty nails and a three-day-old beard. While he trots off to his patients, she stays at home darning socks. And we’re bored! We’d like to live in the city, dance the polka every night! Poor little woman! That one’s gasping for love like a carp for water on a kitchen table. With three pretty compliments that one would adore me. I’m sure of it! It would be lovely! Charming! . . . Yes, but how to get rid of the woman afterward?’
I found myself wondering why Flaubert did this. If the story is meant to be realistic, should we just know this? Is there always a villain? Would first readers of the novel in its time have found Emma’s waiting to flee with him suspensefully written, as I did, even knowing what will happen?

There are wonderfully written scenes in Part Two, driven by thoughts or dialogue rather than detail. There’s a gathering at the pharmacy, when Binet, who is ‘going to make unfavorable conjectures’ when he sees Emma in the meadow, asks Homais for half an ounce of vitriol. (Is that Flaubert’s joke, or Lydia Davis’?) At the agricultural fair, Rodolphe’s pretty speeches to Emma are interrupted by announcements of the prizes for manure and a merino ram, and later, both lying in bed, Charles imagines Berthe growing up as Emma thinks of her new life with Rodolphe.

For me, the best (most delicious) pages are in Chapter 13, when Rodolphe writes to Emma to ‘explain’ why they cannot run away together. There’s an image that pegs him…

To recapture something of her, he went to the cupboard by the head of his bed and took out an old Reims cookie tin in which he was in the habit of putting the letters women sent to him, and there escaped from it a smell of damp dust and withered roses.
and wonderful internal dialogue as he writes his dishonest letter.

For more thoughts from our group reading of Madame Bovary today, please visit Frances’ wonderful blog, Nonsuch Book.

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Frances said...

I actually really liked that Rodolphe's thoughts are immediately revealed because they leave no doubt as to his intentions with Emma. Brutal because we can't retreat into Emma's illusion of happiness for even a moment. Flaubert is one tough cookie.

Bellezza said...

First, let me say what a very lovely blog you have. It immediately caught my interest, and held it, with its beauty, design and peace. (Loved your armchair photo, and your idea of going home; I, as well, would alway prefer to be there even though I've travelled far and wide.) Also, I quite agree with you about Rodolphe's internal dialogue, all the reasoning he put forth about why he couldn't go with Emma for her sake. What a loving thing to do... ;)

He's an endlessly fascinating character to me. He could be living today, in my opinion.

Richard said...

Chapter 13 is a classic all right, Audrey, both because of the savage humor and bitterness evoked by the letter-writing scene and then with the shift in tone at the end where Emma is headed for a trauma. Very niftily done on Flaubert's part, I thought. On the novel's realism, I'm finding it interesting here and there that in some of the more high intensity emotional scenes, Flaubert seems to be anticipating magical realism with the way the natural world seems to come alive in Emma's imagination/point of view. Looking forward to your second installment on this part of the novel!

Shelley (Book Clutter) said...

I feel like Flaubert made quite an effort to erase any romantic feelings we might have while reading the book. I have been wondering if it is a response to overly sentimental literature during his time.
I also very much enjoyed the writing in Chapter 13. That cookie tin was just abominable! Wasn't there even hair in it that he had collected from other women? Bleh!

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