Waiver: This blog post has absolutely nothing to do with Charlie Hedbo (at least not explicitly).
Getting back to the original intent of this blog, I now return to literary commentary.
Today’s post is the first on a series about fictional suicidal heroines.
I’m afraid to admit it, but I only just recently read Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert for the first time. While it has been touted by all sorts of Francophiles for its literary merits, I was more interested in reading it through a narcissistic lens.
Recap: “Madame Bovary” as you probably know, is story of a famous, lovely, young French woman who marries Charles Bovary. She soon feels bored by married life and turns to extra-marital romantic affairs. The first of these ends because her lover is distracted and ultimately refuses to commit and run away with her. The second leads to more heartbreak and dire fiscal consequences. Once she falls too deep into debt, she gets hold of some cyanide and ends her life when she courageously swallows away her debt, dreams, and doldrum. The death leaves a stain on her community, especially on the psyche of her forlorn husband.
With so many fallen dreams crumbling throughout the book, any empathy you start to feel for the characters is tainted by the overbearing notoriety of the author himself. After all, he wrote this book to satisfy his urge to critique the French bourgeois society of his era. We learn a compelling moral that unsatisfiable emotional needs, paired with the influence of several favorite bourgeois pastimes: reading and shopping and fantasizing, lead to one woman’s fatal downfall in the form of suicide. Her urge to “opt out” is compounded by the male constituents of the community who offer the option of support through sexual trade. At every corner, she faces the risk of losing her status, which is her most prized possession. This, in fact, proves to be worth more than her life to her. It is ultimately more “affordable” to expend her own life, than to risk losing her social status.
However, the novel’s particular focus on the fatal attraction of debt-inducing behavior was particularly poignant for me. Parallels between the risks associated with a female livelihood in this novel and my own life lead me to believe that beyond the book’s superficial warning against frivolity, there is another more compelling historical relationship between her (Madame Bovary) and me (Je Suis). Not only do Madame Bovary’s material demands lead to her downfall, there is a more sardonic depiction of female psychology at play. Her love of fiction, her fancy, her imagination and her wish to transcend “daily life” are actually what cause her demise and mobilize her debt. “Daily life,” after all, lacks passion. It lacks the extremes of emotion and it continues onward in a highly predictable manner. Flaubert is taunting us by drawing the line and reminding us that actually, the only people who are free from the risks that debauchery entails are privileged male artists like himself.
From a writerly perspective, the style of Madame Bovary has been cited for establishing what we now call “realism.” I was particularly entranced with the descriptions that gave such a compelling illusion of truth. The thick residue of time and space melted away so that I really sympathized with Madame Bovary, reading this book. This story led to profound self-evaluation on my part. This novel of female escapism and its hazards parallels the framework supporting my writing endeavors.
A brief summary is as follows: inspired by novels I read, I decided that I should become a creative writer. There was no financial goal in mind, just an urge to devour life for all of its myriad flavors. So, for a few years that comprised the latter half of my twenties, I earned two self-defining Master’s degrees in which I entertained dreams of both madness and greatness. Out of these endeavors, I produced very little actual readable work of any quality. I was “experimenting.” After a several-month-long trip to South America to learn Spanish, a class in Marxism at Berkeley, a year-long avant-garde poetry thesis, a several-month long-trip to Germany, and a visit to Turkey later; I landed in Istanbul as a SAT instructor and university application counselor for wealthy private Turkish students. Not to mention, all of my escapades have been extra-marital, but of a different kind than those of Madame Bovary. Mine are not dependent on any particular lover’s participation (for better or worse). Now that I am some 40K in debt (no, I am not a Columbia graduate, otherwise those figures would be into the triple-digits), I am still compelled to write. But more and more, I understand the difficult-to-face reality that my writing is actually a fatal, fruitless task. Little by little, I am crawling my way out of financial risk. The main difference between me and my mirror (Madame B.) is that I am still blind to how my romantic adventures have lead to any social downfall. Perhaps that’s why I’m still alive. My status as one among billions in this digital-era, leaves me thankfully anonymous. Therefore, I think my adventures have had very little effect upon my status, which started rather low to begin with. I have successfully escaped the Bovary effect: “Pardon me, but do you happen to have any… ahem… cyanide?”
Purportedly, Madame Bovary dispels the false, romantic illusions of the bourgeois class. In that regard, I have interpreted it as a stark, but brilliant portrayal of someone like me. At the same time, it allures us with the beauty of the senses, the decadence of extreme emotional range, and Ms. Bovary’s courage to singlehandedly take down an entire provincial, sexist community of men with a defiantly independent form of female nihilism. Perhaps, most of all, it is this that captures my imagination. I love Madame Bovary for her defiance and her reckless approach to what is ultimately the destruction of personhood by way of ruining her own body’s material value in a patriarchal society. She explodes out of its confines with her own death. This leaves the question, was Madame Bovary ruined by a toxic frivolity that led to her eventual demise, or did she succeed as the ultimate heroine of material escape?
Madame Bovary reminds us that we live in and come from a society that drives women towards debt through various factors including:
1. The urge to stay materially equal or superior to our peers in fashionable appearance, dress and lifestyle.
2. The combined disincentive to work that the traditional conceptions of marriage and motherhood imposes on women. This leads to our economic disadvantage. Of course, this is less prominent in this era, but many women must still contemplate this dilemma.
3. The romantic ideals of true love, emotional freedom and creativity that are often achieved in some part through material acquisition. This means that the life of an imaginative, artistic young woman is inherently conducive to financial traps designed specifically for our social economic “class.”
The Madame Bovary Antidote:
The greater the imagination, the greater our chance to escape this “horror.”
“The Horror! The Horror!”
Yes, this is the colonization of women’s freedom of body and mind by the advertising, fashion, and the capitalist machinery that urges us to achieve ultimate material dependence under the guise of expressive independence. Ok, perhaps this has turned into a platitudinous post, so I shall…
Up next on the suicidal heroine blog-post docket:
Commentary about Lily Bart in “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton