March 2012 Feminist Fiction book club Madame Bovary

(46 Posts)
StewieGriffinsMom Thu 09-Feb-12 13:48:38

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SweetTheSting Sun 12-Feb-12 22:16:51

Great, thanks! Gave up on this book as a teenager and haven't attempted it again since, it's free on Kindle so what have I got to lose smile

sakura Mon 13-Feb-12 07:08:23

Interesting! I enjoyed it, but I wouldn't say it was feminist! So it's a sort of feminist critique then????

StewieGriffinsMom Mon 13-Feb-12 09:43:06

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vezzie Sat 18-Feb-12 11:53:44

Should we all read the same translation? or are we going to do a compare-and-contrast on them?
Lydia Davis wrote a really interesting essay on her translation of it in The Paris Review
Whose is the free one on Kindle?
I heard that Flaubert makes a mistake with timing: his structure confused him so much that he makes a character pregnant for 21 months. I heard this shortly after reading it for the first time and couldn't work it out at all, now years later I can't even remember who it was. I wonder if I will spot it this time.

StewieGriffinsMom Tue 21-Feb-12 11:15:00

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vezzie Tue 21-Feb-12 14:54:03

hmmmmm. I don't think this is it, the thing I read (in print) was longer and was Fall 2011. But there's some stuff in common:

AIBUqatada Thu 23-Feb-12 08:17:15

I'll look with interest at the discussion. My overwhelming feeling when reading Bovary is of how much Flaubert seems to dislike all of his characters, for the character traits he assigns to them in virtue of their bourgeois class status.

And for me that makes it hard to isolate the part of his lack of sympathy for or empathy with Madame Bovary that originates from her gender rather than from her class (though I don't doubt for a minute that his distaste for her has its source at least partly in her gender, of course).

It is very strange reading a book whose author seems to feel such distaste for all his characters. How does he manage to sustain our interest in people he castigates as mediocre and limited?

butterflyexperience Thu 23-Feb-12 20:14:39


I'm new to the topic but not to feminism smile
Anyway I have read this book a dew years ago but dint understand how it is a feminist book.
Could someone help enlighten me?

StewieGriffinsMom Thu 23-Feb-12 20:18:19

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NinthWave Thu 23-Feb-12 20:29:43

I'd love to join in, pretty sure we've got a copy somewhere in the house (compulsive secondhand book buyer, but not so good at actually er reading them blush)

Portofino Thu 23-Feb-12 20:31:55

Yay! I read this donkey's years ago and loved it.

StewieGriffinsMom Tue 13-Mar-12 21:27:23

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SweetTheSting Wed 14-Mar-12 10:54:26

Hope to be on tonight but have only read about a fifth blush. I got distracted by 'Eve Was Framed', which was great grin.

AbsofCroissant Wed 14-Mar-12 11:25:57

Would love to join, but I don't think I could force myself to read that book again. Wanted to punch her in the mouth the whole way through. She was SUCH an annoying character.

If you're taking recommendations for other books - Anna Karenina.

I am studying this as part of my 'Monstrous Bodies' (English Lit Degree) module so it would be interesting to analyse it from both a feminist and 'body' perspective. Having not yet had the lecture, it seems that the monstrous bodies aspect is mainly to do with the chemist and not the protagonist herself.

I will see you about 9.30

I read this in French (get me!) years ago and so have no idea about translations. I am not sure if Flaubert doesn't like all his characters, I think the male ones exist without very much comment on their inner motivations or thoughts, and as a result are not subject to the narrator's judgement. I think MB's husband and lovers are "generic" men without much comment from the author. Mme B, on the other hand, gets the full force of his disapproval. At no point does he try and make her likeble no show any sympathy for her, even at the end her world has fallen apart there is no discernable compassion from F. I think she is supposed to be supremely unlikeble and the reader is expected to think that she gets what she deserves at the end. For me it's a misogynistic morality tale on what will happen to a woman if she refuses to conform to society's norms.
I always thought it would be interesting to make a comparison of MB with a Spanish text called La Regenta (The Regent's Wife) by Leopoldo Alas Clarín (I don't know if there is a modern translation) which tells nearly the same tale, but with compassion and understanding. The wife in this tale is conflicted and confused, her home life is shown to be difficult, her eventual seduction by what Geogette Heyer would term a rake is shown in terms of the moral conflicts the wife goes through. The ending, in which her infidelity is discovered, shows the pain and suffering of the wife with compassion and some understanding. In short, the text does not seek to condemn but explain and understand why a woman would be unfaithful to her husband.
I mention La Regenta because is it a text written at more or less the same time as MB in a strongly Catholic society. If Clarín was able to adopt this attitude, I therefore think it questionable that Flaubert's disdain should simply be written off as a product of his time. (Not that I would imagine anyone here would, but my uni lecturers certainly tried)

Sorry but I can't be there at 9. I share my ramblings, but will read your wise comments tomorrow. Enjoy the discussion.

AIBUqatada Wed 14-Mar-12 17:00:48

I'm not sure I could agree with that. There is plenty of judgement heaped on Charles too. The account of his vainglorious performance of an operation he is not qualified for -- and of the consequent awful suffering of his patient -- is dripping with disapproval and contempt.

And in that respect Charles and Emma fail in parallel ways: she reads the romantic literature that Flaubert despises and so fantasises about a relationship less mundane than the one she has, and he reads medical literature and is inflamed to the point of wishing for a medical career less mundane than the one that he has. Both are despised by the author for their facile ambitions?

There is a very interesting paper by Joshua Landy that argues that Flaubert causes us repeatedly to switch our empathy between Charles and Emma, with the objective of causing us ultimately to feel a kind of "nothingness", an absence, in our reaction to them both. I'm not sure about that, because I just find it hard to find much empathy for anyone at all in the book. But it is an interesting idea and makes a case for a complicated distribution of empathy that is not all on the side of Charles.

I do think, obviously, that she has the short straw, though. Her life just doesn't present her with opportunities to act well. What is there for her to do? Even motherhood is denied to her as a sphere of acting well because practice of sending children off to wet nurses undermines her parenting from the start. Her poor daughter gets an even shorter straw. Am I right in thinking that Emma's mother is off the scene fairly early in her life? Can we see Emma's own early childhood echoed in that poor dispirited and neglected daughter of hers?

I'd forgotten about the operation. You are right AIBU. My memories of MB are very much coloured by how angry I was on her behalf. I see I have selective memories then.
<goes off to reconsider>

AIBUqatada Wed 14-Mar-12 17:57:25

I don't remember the book too well, either, and I don't mean to imply that he wasn't grotesquely unfair on her.

Sorry to double post, but I won't be around tonight so just wanted to witter a bit re "What is there for her to do?"

Charles has the chance to succeed (or fail) through his career, and define himself in that arena but she is denied that. All that is left to her is the sphere of relationships. She has no other arena in which to seek self-definition.

In this deeply bourgeois world, that Flaubert hates so much, in which men's vanity is seeking social recognition and self-definition/self-advancement of one sort or another (in a more-or-less fantasy-driven way), she, unlike men, just doesn't have any arena for social recognition and self-understanding other than her fantasies of a relationship grander than her own dreary marriage to a lump of a man. Flaubert seems to make no allowances for that at all. He hates her for the preoccupations that she has, without making any recognition of how her horribly trammelled life corners her into one kind of fantasy. He sees that all the men in his book are driven by vain fantasies, but he chooses to expose hers more than theirs. It is like he doesn't want to understand her -- which is a very odd stance for a novelist.

StewieGriffinsMom Wed 14-Mar-12 21:00:57

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SweetTheSting Wed 14-Mar-12 21:05:12

Interesting posts, AIBU and Catita!

From what I've read so far, Flaubert does seem very contemptuous of all his characters - Charles's father and mother get a fair amount of vitriol too - Flauibert said about them that (approx quote) "his wife had adored him once but bored him with a thousand servilities that estranged him" - charming!

SweetTheSting Wed 14-Mar-12 21:06:04

PS I am supposed to be finishing a work letter so will flick in and out!

StewieGriffinsMom Wed 14-Mar-12 21:11:41

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StewieGriffinsMom Wed 14-Mar-12 21:14:51

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highlandcoo Wed 14-Mar-12 21:15:33

Didn't Flaubert famously say : "Madame Bovary, c'est moi" ?

This would suggest, not necessarily that Emma Bovary was an admirable character, but that he did identify with her closely for whatever reason.

SweetTheSting Wed 14-Mar-12 21:17:24

Yes, I think Charles is very shallow - he fell for Emma because she was young and curvy and subservient (compared to the thin, long-toothed widow who he'd hoped would let him use her money and leave him alone). I don't think he had any interest in either of them as people!

I've just checked my kindle and I have made 92 notes: none of which are jumping out at me right now.

StewieGriffinsMom Wed 14-Mar-12 21:25:57

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I'm not sure. I wonder if my tutor is here? I have emailed her. I will just see if the lecture slides are up.

StewieGriffinsMom Wed 14-Mar-12 21:38:28

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These are some questions to consider froma 'body' perspective:

Part One: Chapter 2
• What do you make of the physical descriptions of Emma and Heloise? How are the women’s bodies characterised?
Part Two: Chapter 2
• How is Emma’s pregnancy described?
Part Two: Chapter 4
• What is the significance of clothing in the novel?
Part Two: Chapter 5
• How is female desire portrayed in the text?

SweetTheSting Wed 14-Mar-12 21:44:41

Emma was really 'romantic' about life in the convent too, wasn't she? And then got bored there, I think, as it was too much of a good thing almost.

ElephantsAndMiasmas Wed 14-Mar-12 21:50:39

Oooh how exciting - I was recommended this by my former housemate as it was his favourite book. I found it faintly nauseating.

StewieGriffinsMom Wed 14-Mar-12 21:51:33

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ElephantsAndMiasmas Wed 14-Mar-12 21:56:51

I remember some old perv of a writer on that series on the novel a couple of years ago repeating the story that Flaubert had an erection the entire time he was writing Madame Bovary. Whether that's true or not it certainly chimed with the sort of ghastly pleasure the novel seems to take in examining Emma's sexual behaviour with a catsbumface while secretly stroking its thighs at the very idea. Like a prim neighbour getting various thrills from a woman "no better than she should be" Flaubert finds Emma disgusting in her physicality and wholehearted lust for life and sex and affection, while simultaneously finding it a turn on.

SweetTheSting Wed 14-Mar-12 21:57:00

I am really surprised it could be anyone's favourite book. DO you know why he liked it?

I love (and agree with) your post Elephants. Shall I make that the focus of my essay? grin

StewieGriffinsMom Wed 14-Mar-12 22:01:40

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StewieGriffinsMom Wed 14-Mar-12 22:07:05

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ElephantsAndMiasmas Wed 14-Mar-12 22:07:12

Ha Unnamed grin Yes please do.

It's Readers' Nude Wives, basically.

She's insatiable, and the dry people around her can only stare in wonder and horror. And that includes the author.

Can we have more fun by imagining alternative endings for her? What would she have enjoyed do you think?

I'd like it if a beautiful Argentinian man had come through town and swept her away to help run his tango academy. She'd have liked that.

StewieGriffinsMom Wed 14-Mar-12 22:12:00

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Fuck all happens to the DD IIRC

TheOriginalSteamingNit Wed 14-Mar-12 22:21:36

Berthe ends the novel with holes in her stockings and a worrying cough, I'm afraid.

I wrote about this book for my MA and it's all coming back to me now.

My perspective would be that no, Flaubert didn't much like any of his characters (or anyone he knew, really ) but I actually think if he liked anyone it was Emma. Yes she's an idiot, but I think we feel for her as being so much better than her surroundings ever allow.

She's badly educated, half arsedly brought up and married to a well meaning idiot, desperate to feel Big Passionate Love but never meets anyone who can give her that. But she has innate taste and delicacy of feeling, whilst being fatally condemned by her essentially weak nature.

'Madame Bovary, c'est moi' was an exasperated response to people asking F which real woman he'd based her on, iirc. Meaning, she comes from nowhere but my own imagination and there isn't a real one somewhere whom I have libelled!

AIBUqatada Thu 15-Mar-12 11:45:04

Yes, that sounds right -- that he did like Emma. I think I was caricaturing Flaubert a bit.

We are often hardest on the people we identify with most (I think part of Tolstoy's vileness to poor Anna Karenin originates in his horror of his own sexual needs), and perhaps part of the reason Flaubert was hard on Emma was because he felt a little closer to her than to his other characters (even if the c'est moi thing is a bit of a fiction)

And even by focussing on how awful she was (and she is awful isn't she?), he is perhaps indicating the awfulness of her circumstances, the circumstances that shaped her to be what she was. The sad unparented plight of little Berthe does suggest a story in his mind of how Emma might have been let down from the very beginning, and never stood a chance.

I don't know, though. I find it so very hard to parse any part of the novel, because I read it so shaped by English novels of nineteenth-century womanhood, which map so poorly onto the French scene, particularly in respect of sex I think. And her class position is hard to parse, too -- lower than an Austen gentrywoman, higher than Hardy's women. I feel disorientated. Much more disoriented than I do when reading, say, a Russian 19-c novel, because things are MORE different there, so I don't feel the need to "translate" features to their English equivalents.

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