Monday, February 15, 2010

Madame Bovary Reopens My Eyes and World

I recently read the classic "Madame Bovary" by Gustave Falubert, published in 1857. There were a couple of reasons I chose this book as a read.

1. I reviewed the six books I read in January and noted they were all current titles including "The Shipping News," "Snow Falling on Cedars" and "The Art of Mending" by Elizabeth Berg. All of these were very good reads, by the way.

2. I had not read a classic in a while.

3. I felt my mind needed the stimulation of a more classic work.

4. In a way, I wanted to prove my intelligence and worth. I may be financially struggling right now but that does not mean I still can't be wealthy in mind and spirit.

5. I had always wanted to read this book. I didn't know much about it except that it had caused a scandal when first published.

6. It is considered one of the best books of classic fiction, ranking in at number 7 on some lists of 100.

7. It seemed like a good book for February since it involves the themes of lust, love, marriage, betrayal, sexuality, etc.

I finished the book a week after starting it and absolutely loved it. In fact, I'd say I was riveted to the pages. I enjoyed being taken back in time to rural French Normandy and reading about fashions and old time implements that no longer exist. As always, whenever I end a book written long ago, I am struck by the realization that human nature hasn't changed that much over the years. We still long for the same things - love, respect, acknowledgment and commitment. Madame Emma Bovary went on shopping sprees and hid her purchases from her husband. Her mother-in-law visited and was critical. Once she and and Emma did not speak but twice during a whole two-week period they were together. Sound familiar to certain situations people go through today?

Also touched on were the themes of grief and the fact that religion cannot explain or offer total comfort to the bereaved. Heavy stuff. At Emma's funeral, the men all advise her distraught husband to get it together and the poor man chastises himself for not being strong enough. I saw so many parallels between the two time periods even with the gap of 150 years. Sometimes I don't think we really have advanced that much as people - maybe there have been technological advances but I think the inner core of humanity has remained largely the same.

I felt let down after I read the final page not because it was over but because I didn't have someone to share my thoughts and impressions with about the book. When I was married both of my husbands and I often talked in detail about the books I was reading. And I miss that. I felt so excited that I'd tackled and gotten through a classic. I was inspired and bursting at the seams with new ideas and images in my head. All dressed up and no where to go to borrow from another saying.

It was the bittersweet way I felt while watching the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics. I have not viewed the Olympics the last few years. And I was totally blown away by the creativity demonstrated in the ceremony. From the dancing and costumes of the native Canadian inhabitants, to k.d. Lang's singing. The technical imagery of the leaves falling and the doves flying. The snow that fell indoors and the floor that magically became the ocean with whales enchanted, excited and blew me away. It made me long for more art, adventure and travel in my life which has been solely lacking the past seven years.

My husband was a seasoned traveler and had been to Canada many times. He and I only had gone to Toronto and Niagra Falls with the boys. I know had he lived, we would have returned to the country he admired and loved so much. In fact, one of the high school classes he taught was Canadian History.

The high school open house was a few weeks ago and I had my paperback copy of Madame Bovary with me. Which I should add I only paid 25 cents for at a used book sale this fall. My youngest son's English teacher saw the book and we started a conversation about it which the led to Moby Dick - another classic I have always wanted to read (but I just am not sure I want to learn that much about whaling). Anyway, it felt so nice to connect with another person about a book we'd both read and have some conversation about it.

I miss that aspect of not living with an adult partner. It will help when I can get out more and interact with others at a job. But for now I suppose I could look into seeing if there is a book club at the library. I can see about going someplace new in lieu of taking a trip. I've always believed that you don't have to go far from home to restore your spirit or soul. But it sometimes means exposing yourself to new ideas and places. Maybe part of it is stir craziness from the winter months.

When my husband was alive I made a point of trying to see all the movies nominated for Best Picture before the Oscars. He would stay at home to be with the boys and I'd take a rare night off on my own. Since his death, I've seen just two movies at the theater and less than 20 videos at home. It is probably more like a total of 10 current movies within a six-year time period. Another casualty of widowhood and the need to carpool boys with heavy sports schedules. I think back to my happiness at being able to go off on my own to see a movie while knowing that my little family was safe and sound at home waiting for my return. When I longed for some time on my own. Boy, have the tables turned!

It takes a great deal of effort to function as an only parent and devote a bit of time to oneself. Even more effort to try and maintain a degree of culture in one's life, much less keep up with the daily news. I for one, did not know there had been an airline bombing attempt on Christmas Day until some weeks later. But I think what reading Madame Bovary did for me as well as viewing the Vancouver Opening Ceremony was to show me that I need more entertainment, culture and beauty in my life. They say that reading a book opens up a whole new world. I think that has what has happened with Madame Bovary. I have a taste again of what has been lacking in my life and I want to devour more of it.

And while I'm at it, in case any of you out there have read this book. This book took five years for Flaubert to write. Do you think he specifically created characters in the book to represent certain themes? There is a terribly disfigured blind beggar that some think is supposed to represent Emma's ultimate destruction. I for one, don't think Flaubert set out to create a character to depict this but maybe I'm wrong - after all he took five long years to write this. I think authors for the most part write their story and then all the critics afterward come up with the meaning which may or may not have been there (think "The Old Man and the Sea"). But I miss being able to ask someone their thoughts on this and to discuss it.

Today I am grateful:

1. For great books that stand the test of time.
2. For art in all forms.
3. For creativity that inspires a passion within.
4. For knowing that there will always be more great books out there than I will ever have the opportunity to read.
5. For the finer things in life. I have always focused on simple pleasures but am finding that a mix of the not-so-simple isn't a bad thing. Why shouldn't I dream about visiting Vancouver someday?


  1. I can really hear how much you miss the intellectual stimulation of discussing a book selection. I don't have that with my husband, but I have found that need met by my local book group. Granted, it did take me awhile to find a good match, but the group satisfies alot of inclusion needs as well as the commonality of having read the same book. I don't mean to fly into fix it mode with you by making the suggestion, but this may be a great way to get out and keep from isolating. If you can't find a group in your area - start your own. I think you'll be surprised by how many people are looking for the same thing. Just a thought...Seventies Girl

  2. It's funny you should mention Madame Bovary, because just yesterday I recommended it to someone who was trying to put together a reading list for high-school students. I majored in English literature in college, and it was among the best of all the many, many books I read for coursework.

    I totally agree on the need to make room for culture and entertainment in your life. One of my goals for this year is to see more live theater - it's something I've always loved, but haven't had many opportunities to do for a while. I haven't made it to a play yet this year, but my daughter just saw a production of A Wrinkle in Time on a class trip, so at least one of us is making progress!

  3. I'm glad you found a book that made you both think and feel so much. I imagine you could find a book club in your area or even on-line. By the way, I love the site. It doesn't cost much to mail a book to a member who requests it and then you get a free book of your choice in return. Check it out.

  4. I read the book years ago when my mother mentioned that she had read it and it was scandalous at the time. I loved the book and should read it again. For some reason, I don't read as much as I used too--too distracted by the pain I live with each and every minute of the day. I should get back to it--maybe it would distact me from the pain?

  5. I too am an avid reader and have been mulling over pulling some of the classics. I think you just may have chosen my first one for me.
    I was also wondering about a Book Club/group as well. I've not seen or heard of any in my area and was wondering if a place closer to Chicago would have more offerings. I was thinking maybe checking with the local Barnes and Noble thinking they might have some suggestions?

    Yes, it is hard not having someone to bounce thoughts and ideas off of. Especially if your partner was someone with whom you did that all the time. Joe and I were so alike in political and other beliefs that sometimes we would chose the mundanest of topics to debate just to be able to debate. It was fun. I miss that.

    A book is a great companion. It can take you places in your mind that you can't go to physically. A wonderful diversion during the cold, cold months.

  6. Thanks everyone for commenting! It was so nice to talk about reading and books, which I love. If anyone has books they would recommend, feel free to pass the titles along. I find that the very best books I end up reading are usually recommended by someone.

    Seventies Girl - I will check out area book clubs starting with the library and go from there. I'll keep you posted.

    Vanessa - I used to see more plays too, even major productions in Chicago! Here in the suburbs there are always decent shows at the numerous local colleges. It is nice to be talking to an English Lit major. Do you have a response to my great question of the day which is whether Flaubert just created his characters for the story/plot line or did he make them up to represent certain themes such as evil and destruction?

    Thelma - I will look into the paperback exchange you recommended - it sounds fun.

    Jude - I am truly sorry to hear that you are in pain. I would think that reading would serve as a good diversion. It is working for me with all the emotional stuff. Couldn't hurt to try!

    Kelly - Hurry up and read the book and we can discuss it online! I think our Barnes & Noble stores have various book clubs. I will see about it. I loved talking politics with my husband. He knew so much about current events and taught me a great deal from a historical perspective since he was a history teacher.

    Let me know what you end up reading.

  7. Joe LOVED history. We have more history DVD's than I can count. From Lincoln to the Kennedy's and everything in between. When the boys were little, if they acted up they had to sit and watch 30 min of a Civil War series (8 DVD's in all). At the time they saw it as punishment but now they know more about that time period than any kid their age, lol! Joe knew what he was doing. They both love history now.
    When we first met and I told him where I was from, MA, he was so excited because he knew I was a democrat and would know about the Kennedy's. He was thrilled. That also explained his choice of wedding venues, Martha's Vineyard! He got Belushi and the Kennedy's in one deal, lol!

  8. The "punishment" of having the boys watch 30 minutes of the Civil War series (which we also have) was absolutely brilliant!

    My husband and I used to love watching Bill Maher and we always would view the McLaughlin Report. You've brought back some good memories for me tonight.

  9. Good memories for me as well. It's a part of their childhood that they will always remember and in a good way. Even now they laugh about it and remember it fondly. At 11 and 14 punishments are much harder to come by now. At least ones of consequence. They are so much older and wiser. Punishments now are likely to include loss of electronics of some type. While this serves a purpose I'm not sure how much it is 'teaching' them. It's times like that I wish Joe was here.

  10. BTW...I ordered Madame Bovary tonight along with 3 other books. Can't wait until they arrive~!

  11. Madame Bovary was right at the edge of the shift from Romanticism to Realism (it's supposed to be the first true example of Realism in literature) so it was really written to be a commentary on bourgeois society as it was at the time - you can see Flaubert was pretty contemptuous of it, too! He based some of the plot and characters on his own experiences, and he was famous for saying that Emma Bovary shared a lot of his own personality traits ("Madame Bovary, c'est moi") That being the case, I think he would definitely have created/included characters to represent the types of people he saw in society - the bored provincial wife, the greedy merchant, the student, the wealthy seducer - but not so much moral themes like evil and destruction. This is really a book about the smallness and banality of the ordinary and everyday; Emma keeps creating drama to try to transport herself beyond that, and she never succeeds, even in her own death.

  12. Kelly - What other books did you order? I'd love to know - maybe I'll join you in reading one of them too, or maybe there is one I already have read.

    Vanessa - I really appreciate you taking the time to relate some of the scholarly aspects of this book. I knew it was considered the first "modern" novel but not that Flaubert was harshly indicting bourgeois life. Interesting that it was a totally new concept back then to write a book about ordinary lives and people!

  13. I ordered The Lovely Bones. I was going to see the movie but the reviews said it was not nearly as good as the book and it really interested me so I figured I read the book instead. I also ordered "Reaching Through the Veil to Heal: Death, Grief & Communicating with Loved Ones in Spirit" and "There Is No Death and There Are No Dead: Evidence of Survival and Spirit Communication Through the Voices and Images from Those on the Other Side".
    Depending on your views, these may or may not interest you.

  14. I loved the Lovely Bones - maybe I will reread it. It was a difficult read because the subject matter but I found it so beautiful. How an author could weave a heartbreaking situation into one that was hopeful amazed me. You'll get a lot out of it.

    I haven't seen anything about the other two books you got. Maybe I'll see if they have them at the bookstore. Right now I have to be frugal and if I can't buy a book at the resale shop for a quarter, have to "read" it at the bookstore or library. Let me know what you think about all the books you got. I'd be very interested to hear about your reaction. I read a lot about "the other side" in the early days of my widowhood but kind of got away from it but am still interested. I saw a book on regression therapy at the used book store and was intrigued as it deals with the possibility of reincarnation. Anyway, you have a lot of good reading ahead to look forward to!

  15. I've done regression and it was AMAZING. It really brought many things into alignment for me. I will tell you it was one of the most intense experiences I have ever had. I was wiped out for days after.
    As for "the other side", I have been active in that realm my entire life. I was brought up Catholic and still find great comfort in that but I have also been able to see and speak to spirits since I was a child. For me, it's just another part of life.
    I can't wait to read The Lovely Bones. It sounds so intriguing. I ordered all of my books from Got them for 75 cents plus shipping. If I can't find it there I will get them from an amazon seller for less than a dollar. I never pay full price for books. If there is something new and expensive I want to read I head to the library. Plus they have CD's and DVD's to check out for free as well!! Gotta love a library!!