Nutshell: bucolic twerp, well read in romance novels, gets bored with bourgeois husband, has affairs, bankrupts estate, dies.
A tremendous narrative. Only rhetorical default is the first word, We
(1), first-person narration, which nevertheless disappears very soon in favor of third-person omniscient. It's an odd defect, and am not sure what to make of it. A clever reading might be able to turn it into a virtue; I see no need.
In the first part, we must note that Emma's discourse is not presented directly, via quotation, but only indirectly, through summary of conversations. It is a weirdness, not ineffective, and not necessarily retrograde, as no character has much direct discourse in the first part of the novel.
Eponymous protagonist appears initially as someone who surprises with "the whiteness of her fingernails," which were "shiny, thin at the tips, almond-shaped and as spotlessly clean" as some sort of ivory (12). We then get a similarly detailed critique of her hands, and praise of her eyes. It's all sort of hyper-technical and barbaric at the same time.
Monsieur Bovary is revealed to be the beneficiary of his first wife's death, which was "quite useful to him in his profession, because for a month people had kept repeating, 'Poor young man! What a tragedy!'" (18). So, yeah, he's a douche. Not sure how to take the revelation that Charles "acted as though he had lost his virginity during the night" of their wedding, whereas Ms. Bovary showed "nothing whatsoever" (26). Perhaps we should be shocked at the role reversal, were we misogynist, but otherwise amused by the retrograde imposition of gender roles.
Emma is revealed to be a voracious reader of romances, wherein "chatelaines in low-waisted gowns [...] spent their days with their elbows on the stone sill of a Gothic window surmounted by a trefoil, chin in hand, watching a white-plumed rider on a black horse galloping toward them from far across the countryside" (32). Emma substantially becomes the chatelaine when she "put a shawl around her shoulders, opened the window, and leaned out" (46). It's a s slick moment of hyperreality-within-hyperreality. I likes. (We encounter other hyperreal moments, such as when Emma buys a map of Paris, which she travels with her fingertips (49)--very much like Borges' map of the empire--or when she recalls an aristocrat as one of the "fictitious characters in her books" (50)). By the time Emma "abandoned herself" (139) to one of her lovers, she was remembering "the heroines of novels she had read, and the lyrical legion of those adulterous women began to sing with sisterly voices that enchanted her. It was as though she herself were becoming part of that imaginary world, as though she were making the long dream of her youth come true by placing herself in the category of those amorous women she had envied so much" (140).
She quickly becomes "bored" in marriage (33), then "rebelled against the mysteries of faith and became increasingly irritated by discipline" (34)--eventually regarding "herself as extremely disillusioned, a woman with nothing more to learn and no more emotions to experience" (id). Her dissatisfaction extends to "the boring countryside, the idiotic bourgeois people, the mediocrity of everyday life" (51). We see later that "the drabness of her daily life made her dream of luxury, her husband's conjugal affection drove her to adulterous desires" (94). The point, of course, is that this is not to be condemned; that Flaubert refused to condemn it, and was banned because of the refusal, is a progressive development on his part. Let it be a lesson to ye: marriage causes adulterous desires. My multiple marriages can only confirm this thesis, and it is difficult to get too worked up about it, unless one is a proprietor-in-marriage, who believes that spouses might be owned like so many chattels. As Emma says, "'it didn't begin till after I was married'" (95). The allegation is admitted.
As a potential cure for her apparent disorder, physician husband "therefore decided to keep Emma from reading novels" (109). Even so, she remained "the amorous heroine of all novels and plays, the vague 'she' of all poetry" (229), and envisioned her lover as "a phantom composed of her most ardent memories, her strongest desires and the most beautiful things she had read," whereupon he therefore "finally became so real, so accessible, that she was thrilled and amazed, even though she was never able to imagine him clearly, for his form, like that of a god, was lost in the abundance of his attributes" (251). Mass culture is the easy villain, no matter which century--though, considering the hyperreality of the protagonist's experience, it may not be out of place here.
Her husband without delay reveals himself to be a dullard, whose "conversation was as flat as a sidewalk," "traversed by a steady stream of the most commonplace ideas, all wearing their usual garb and appealing neither to emotions, the sense of humor nor the imagination" (35). Though husband is a physician, the limit of his skill is apparently that he "bled people abundantly" with leeches (52). His one attempt to be ambitious (which she fervantly desired (53)) ended in disaster during the later clubfoot episode (2.XI). Antipathy to her husband peaks when, fearing discovery in flagrante with her lover, she asks lover "'Do you have your pistols?'" (146). (This lover does come across as a Valmont type from Laclos, a true seducer, who has Emma "under his domination" (147).)
Pretty obvious, then, where this might be heading! That said, she does exhort husband to "stay in your place" (42) at an aristocrat's ball--though this is less about holding him back and more about clearing the lane so that she might try to get laid. (Clandestine rendezvous certainly occurred at the ball, as when a young lady dropped into some dude's "hat a white object folded into a triangle" while he was distracted (45).
Early on Emma is revealed to be "inclined to live beyond her means" (36). This is no idle description.
Class politics are oblique, but manifest nonetheless, such as when Emma notes "peasants looking in from the garden, their faces pressed against the glass," at the aristocrat's ball aforesaid (44). Emma is revealed to have "thoroughly browbeaten the maid" (57).
One of the cooler aspects of the novel is the parallel drawn between the progression of Ms. Bovary's erotic development and the economic development of their village. Part II makes this explicit in several ways, including a seduction scene between Emma and Rudolphe wherein the dialogue alternates with speeches given by economic propagandists (2.VIII)--the section is brilliant, one of the best bits ever, in my not-at-all humble estimation.
Nice Derridean moment when Emma's infatuation with law student Leon works better when she is alone: "she sought solitude because it allowed her to revel in [i.e., masturbate to?] thoughts of him at leisure. His actual presence disturbed the voluptuous pleasure of her reveries" (93), which is very much like the description of Rousseau's compulsive jerking off in [b:Of Grammatology|85326|Of Grammatology|Jacques Derrida|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348822962s/85326.jpg|2078997].
Cool, also, that this appears to be the inversion, to a certain extent of [b:Les Liaisons dangereuses|49540|Les Liaisons Dangereuses|Pierre Choderlos de Laclos|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1298425654s/49540.jpg|3280025], such as when it reports the "tears of despair and desire" of certain persons (87) or when Emma is described as "so virtuous and inaccessible to [law student] that all his hopes, even the vaguest, abandoned him" (92), a very Laclos moment. (Perhaps if I ever get around to finishing Laclos, these intertextualities might be drawn out in particular.) Law student is of course no mere seducer, as in Laclos, but is rather fully bourgeois: "tired of loving without having anything to show for it" (102), recording thereby a failure of return on investment.
If there is a villain, then it's merchant/loanshark Lheureux, who "maneuvered Charles into signing a promissory note" regarding various merchandise (182). This is the same guy who plagues Emma through part III, eventually leading to bankruptcy for the Bovary estate and Emma's suicide. At first I thought this was merely incidental to the bringing-it-around-town adultery plot, the connection being the randomness that Lheureux appears to have deduced her affairs and extorts additional promissory notes from her as blackmail. On reflection, it strikes me that her boredom with "bourgeois life" is the underlying element for both the romance-novel adulteries and the ease with which she is co-opted by the money-lender. Those who are bored to the point of willful ignorance regarding the details of bourgeois economics have no business making promissory notes. It's probably one reason that so many persons are in foreclosure, bankruptcy, and so on in the US. That's a secondary reason, explained by the primary reason, i.e., capitalism sucks. Emma is of course no socialist revolutionary, even if her sexuality is progressive; she is more akin to the old rightwing pastoral romantics described in [b:Reactionary Modernism|1220628|Reactionary Modernism Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich|Jeffrey Herf|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348826536s/1220628.jpg|1209109]. She is incapable of means-ends calculation, and is specifically irrational: her "passions absorbed her completely; she was as unconcerned about money as an archduchess" (245). The debts and the affairs are nonetheless separate, despite a common grounding: Emma insists, when in financial duress, "I'm not for sale!" (263), regarding her refusal to prostitute herself for moneys to satisfy creditors. The question of sex is accordingly not tied to moneys for her; she desires sex on her terms, but also wants money enough so that she need not think about economics. It was never a matter of trading up for a richer husband.
Novel otherwise has fun critiques of religion, amusing professional rivalry between physician and pharmacist, as well as pharmacist and priest, and possesses much wit & humor.