Pomp and Intertext

Cultural Commentary by Erica Eller

Tag: Flaubert

Madame Bovary’s Afterlife: Lily Bart

“The House of Mirth” published in 1905 by Edith Wharton is a character driven novel that effectively results in a resuscitation of Flaubert’s dead heroine, Madame Bovary. This time, she comes in the form of the extravagant Lily Bart. Ms. Bovary is brought back to life by translation. Fluent in French, Edith Wharton’s francophilia delivers the pre-conceived warning to American young beauties about the French curse of debt induced suicide. Revitalizing the dead society culture of American high society of her time, Edith Wharton’s love of France and all things French (including Flaubert’s aristocratic critique of bourgeois fallacies) enables the esteemed realistic creature, Madame Bovary, to enter into a hyperrealistic duplication in the form of Lily Bart. Rarely is a copy more compelling than the original, but for many book lovers, this is the case when asked about their preference between Bovary and Bart. Why is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary trumped by her rebirth in the form of Lily Bart? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Lily’s translation is closer in time and space to the contemporary capital of the 20th century, New York City.

Provocatively, Walter Benjamin poses the question, “Is a translation meant for readers who do not understand the original?” Certainly, the linguistic elitism implied by that question, serves to suggest that we need to and should understand “the original.” Under this aegis, Edith Wharton likewise preserves her authorial claim to originality. Perhaps not having enough of a literate audience to compare the continental canon, she was able to shock and stun her own bourgeois readership of their own frightening entanglement in capitalism. Furthermore, Benjamin claims that translations cannot transmit what is essential about literary works. Therefore, translation is merely a testament to the translatability of the original. In medical terms, we might consider what is translatable to be the “viral,” contagious spread of disease. We are overcome with a work by virtue of our need to share it.

Thus, the afterlife of Madame Bovary spreads the disease of debt and its crippling effects once again in an updated American version. It proves that there may be nothing more stunning than to witness the fall of the most beautiful, effortless, weightless, and superficial members of elite society even though Lily Bart is proven to have more wit and more gumption than Madame Bovary could ever manage. Therefore, she is prepped for a more hungry audience. They liked what they saw, and the virus had taken hold. Each era has the potential to reframe the translatable figure of Madame Bovary as long as her archetype remains fixed, and as long as we continue to fear the threshold of death that looms at the edge of a fall in status. But is that kind of decadence exactly what Edith Wharton had in mind? And why do mostly high-society writers(Edith Wharton was a kin of the elite) latch onto this particular translatable text? Why is it somehow satisfying to kill off a member of their own in fiction?

Let’s recall the novel’s “non-essential” (non-literary) information:

Lily Bart is a beautiful high society lady living with her wealthy aunt in New York City. She earns a stipend from her aunt for her expenses that accrue as she mingles among wealthy social circles by adorning parties with her exceptional beauty and grace. Her lifestyle could only respectably end in marriage. Lily Bart, however, defies this “natural” trajectory by gambling her money away at bridge and eluding her suitors. When she becomes financially entangled with married suitor who seeks to adopt her as his mistress, she realizes she must repay him to quell rumors that will inevitably spread. When her aunt learns of her niece Lily Bart’s defamatory endeavors, unbeknownst to Lily Bart, she adjusts her will to restrict Lily Bart’s inheritance and award the bulk of her wealth to Lily’s previously less-admired cousin. As far as her aunt is concerned, Lily Bart has wasted her beauty and upbringing on frivolous, selfish pursuits. Ultimately, what Lily inherits is just enough to cover the cost of her debts. Lily Bart’s downfall results in her confiding to various suitors of her situation. One of them offers her a loan to cover her debt to the original suitor and restore her reputation in a plan that involves an eventual marriage and return to her customary status. However, by this time, she  is working to earn her living as a hat maker for which she has no skill and she is living in a boarding house. By the time she finally receives her inheritance, she realizes its full amount is almost entirely accounted for. Unable to revoke her lifestyle of excess and materialism, or to give up her independence, or to see the virtues of her less materialistic friends, she overdoses while thinking of her hopeless circumstances.

Lily Bart is a direct translation of the character Madame Bovary into a different nation and culture, which offers Edith Wharton the opportunity to provide a critique of American society. Let us recall that Madame Bovary was absorbed in a quest of freedom as a natural exponent of true love. Along the way, her savings succumbed to her dreams as she lavishly adorned the romantic setting where she met her lover to the point of suicide-inducing debt. Lily Bart, however, appears to despise the concept of marriage and dreams instead of remaining free to carouse the tightly-knit circles of society with equal dress and esteem as if she were attached to a partner, but without the trappings of closure and limitation that marriage might impose on her power to allure. Unable to find a suitable partner, she prefers to gamble and dream of the virtues of financial independence.

Edith Wharton’s francophile approach to writing results in an uncanny doppelgänger effect when one reads “Madame Bovary” and “The House of Mirth” in sequence. Edith Wharton’s admiration for French culture is vividly transparent in the near duplication of themes and motivations. Just as Flaubert wished to critique the romantic delusions of the French bourgeois class, Edith Wharton directs her critique at her own materialistic, inbred society of New York where all of the members of the elite merely wish to escape to the superior “culture” of Europe.

What is brilliant about Edith Wharton’s translation of Madame Bovary into a new work is that it reflects her simultaneous desire to adopt French culture as a corrective to her own. Edith Wharton was fluent in French and she died in France at the age of 75. With “The House of Mirth,” she infuses a French classic text into the American imagination because of her profound belief in the superiority of Europe and its aristocratic class to her own. Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth” represents not only a heroine’s escape from her troubles, but a writer’s escape from her own environment, by embracing another culture.

The relationship between Madame Bovary and Lily Bart is not about female empowerment, but rather a dissolution into the borderless confines of identity captured by the figure of the flaneur. Lily lands at the cusp of such a wandering phenomena by traversing high and low culture, maneuvering in and out of Europe and America, while also floating in the in between space of decisive suicide and accidental death. This indeterminable half-life, can no longer can be reigned in by patriarchy. Lily Bart instead leads towards an atrophy of self in which the only vague sense of certainty befalls her upon her death. Unlike Bovary’s lust for a transcendence from her strict realism in the form of eternal love, Lily Bart chooses not to choose, and falters over her identity as a relinquishment of willpower. She settles with powerless ease into the systemic demise that awaits her. Lily Bart, trumped by capitalism, represents a more clearly etched indecision that Madame Bovary inspired and transmitted. Eloquently prim in their lack of resistance to the capitalism that rules supreme in these representations, Flaubert and Wharton alike simply give in to the notion that women, left to their own devices, are no match for the death-seeking downward spiral of debt that is induced by a capitalist society. Thus, Benjamin continues to hold the key, by claiming that Paris was the “capital” of the 19th century, proving the most hallucinatory generator of phantasmic images of ghosts, untimely deaths of beautiful women, and the machinery of the resulting continuation of such an epidemic. Cast aside and forgotten, in the story of Lily Bart, the dance of excess carries on long after her death. Lily Bart ushers in the new era of an American translation of such liberal freedoms.

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Je Suis Madame Bovary

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?

Concluding thoughts:

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…

end…

its…

life.

Up next on the suicidal heroine blog-post docket:

Commentary about Lily Bart in “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton

2015 New Year’s Resolutions

Here are my New Year’s resolutions, what are yours? Once again, getting married and starting a family still didn’t make the list. Neither did losing weight or winning the lottery. My hopes are rather minor and highly personal. Most of them involve continuing the same things I was already doing at the end of 2014.

a. Pay off some debt.

b. Aspire towards fluency in one or all of the following languages: Turkish, German, Spanish

c. Find more editing and writing gigs in addition to my regular work (time permitting).

d. Finish reading all of the books that I buy and sell the ones I’m not referencing when I’m done with them.

e. Use less plastic packaging and create less waste.

f. Take a more journalistic approach to my life by documenting my travels and do so in ways other than online social-media photography, namely: writing, drawing in my sketch journal, and recording sounds with my handheld recorder. Compile these creations in some format other than marginalia scattered throughout my notes and papers and digital files.

g. Travel more (so far I have plans to visit San Francisco, home, and Amsterdam in February)

h. Critically approach the suicidal-heroine genre of writing in a project (a thought inspired by recently reading Madame Bovary by Flaubert, The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, and Veronica Decides to Die by Paul Coehlo)

i. Get back to my historical writing project on Francis Fuller Victor and Hubert Howe Bancroft and the Pacific Northwest.

j. Plant some bamboo or other plants in the back yard (will it grow in Istanbul?)

k. Stay healthy, run, relax, drink chai and play tavla and chess.

l. Buy an accordion and learn some polka tunes.

m. Do some form of environmental activism.

n. Try my best to stay in touch with my friends and family.

o. Collaborate with others.