I sat down with Aristotle’s Poetics last night and had a good laugh when I got to his section on the best kind of tragic plots. Aristotle points out that in order for the audience to experience pity and fear (his criteria for excellence) the hero or heroine must not be of outstanding moral character, nor depraved. Both these extremes would be too difficult for the audience to identify with. We’re left with the ordinary individual. The kind of person who experiences just enough undeserved suffering for us to pity them but who creates just enough of the same kind of mischief we might feel inclined to dabble in ourselves to make us nervous about our own life.
The reason I laughed is because I just finished Madame Bovary. And I think Aristotle would have taken Flaubert out and bought him champagne. Both Emma and Charles (and Rodolphe and Leon, for that matter) are so perfectly mediocre. Just earnest enough for us to sympathize with but just selfish, just cowardly enough for us to want to keep a weary distance.
I first read Madame Bovary in college. I remember enjoying it. I remember feeling sorry for Emma. I remember disliking lunky Charles and thinking it was so unfair she couldn’t just run off with the men she loved. To put it bluntly, I think I kind of missed the entire point.
Reading the novel again was fun. I still feel sorry for Emma, for her silly selfishness and desperate scheming, but I think Flaubert did something much more than write a scandalous account of adultery and feminine ruin. He characterized the maudlin yearnings of a mediocre bourgeoisie while criticizing the superficial sentimentality of mass culture. Two very scathing social assessments, both still relevant to a contemporary discussion.
It’s hard to decide who is the more pathetic of the two – Charles or Emma. Charles seems unbelievably clueless for a long time, which is far less interesting, until just after Emma kills herself when there is an affecting scene between Charles and Rodolphe (Emma’s first lover) and it becomes quite apparent that he knew all along. I looked at Charles differently after that and it made me reconsider why Flaubert begins and ends the book with Charles.
Madame Bovary isn’t really a tragedy (Aristotle would have figured this one out much more quickly than I did) – it’s a satire. Charles is an anti-hero, Emma a false heroine. It’s sad when she dies but not unexpected – and Charles mourns her, but it seems fairly dismal to mourn the woman who never really loved you. Like Revolutionary Road (a modern meditation on a similar theme) the real tragedy befalls Berthe – their daughter. Unloved, unwanted, and uncared for, she ends up an impoverished worker at a cotton mill.
I deliberately avoided reading the Nabokov essay until I’d written up my thoughts but I’m eager to get started and see what he has to say. There are also several film versions of Madame Bovary but two I am particularly interested in finding – a 1949 Minnelli with Jennifer Jones playing Emma and the most recent, from 1991 with the lovely Isabelle Huppert and an apparently outstanding performance by Jean-Francois Balmer as Charles.