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Lee on Literature: Madame Bovary

January 21, 2012, 11:00 am
By Lee Miller

On January 9, psychoanalyst and author Louise J Kaplan died from pancreatic cancer in Manhattan at the age of 82. Ms. Kaplan’s titillating 1991 book, Female Perversions: The Temptations of Emma Bovary, explored the subtlety of female fetish within an industrial/material society.

She argued that many women tended to channel sexual aggression differently than men, through longing obsessively for luxury items, compulsive fashion sense and uber-conformity to rigid gender stereotypes. Ms. Kaplan used Gustave Flaubert’s fictional character Emma Bovary to help illustrate her thesis. 

Madame Bovary, published in 1857, follows the life of a woman unhappily married to a devoted and clumsy doctor (Charles Bovary) in a provincial town of northern France. Everything around Emma Bovary is rural, placid and dull—“bovine”—which results in her deep fits of depression. Looking to appease his wife, Charles moves to the larger town of Yonville- l’Abbaye and takes Emma to an opera in Paris, where she is enthralled and Charles is dumbfounded. After the opera, Emma’s fantasy and fetish blossom rather than placate. She has married Charles, believing that a doctor would provide the ideal fantasy life present in Romantic novels. When the bliss, passion, and rapture found in her books do not appear in the reality of married life, Emma begins to look elsewhere for enchantment. She strikes up an affair with Leon, a young law student with an equally romantic outlook. But within a short period of time, the lust fizzles and Leon leaves for the more cosmopolitan Paris. Emma becomes depressed again, a bored housewife whom the shrewd gentleman “player” Rodolphe soon exploits. Emma travels to the city twice per week for shopping and expensive music lessons, followed by meetings and “carriage rides” with Rodolphe. The make love during a town parade, and the sessions become more desperate, fetish filled, and debased. Emma spends way beyond her means while grasping for an ideal love that never materializes. Rodolphe tires of Emma and abandons her with self-serving excuses and lies. Crushed and heavily in debt, Emma commits suicide, a last romantic act, which again rings empty.

Gustave Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary in response to his friends’ attempt to cure him of excessive Romanticism. They challenged Flaubert to write a gripping story about the most boring topic they could think of, married life, using only non-idealized, non-Romantic style and technique. The result, Madame Bovary, is the hallmark of “realist” literature which continues to set the standard for literary fiction to this day. Flaubert is reported equal to his characters with regard to fetish, spending nearly eight hours per manuscript page, fretting that there were too many “r”s in a particular paragraph. 

Yet the greater perversion is revealed as Flaubert holds up a mirror to the patriarchal French society of the 1800’s, a society eerily similar to contemporary America.  In both circles, an ideal for female “happiness,” “success,” and gender role have been perversely defined by increasingly unrealistic romantic ideals. This Romanticism is flamed by the media, drummed by Kim Kardashian, America’s next top model, and Snooki of Jersey Shore. The result is unhappiness, futility and debt. Most individuals in America live beyond their means, in significant debt. As a nation, we cannot reconcile reality to our established romanticism. Joy is lost and happiness is elusive with this mindset. The standard is beyond reason. Yet the perversion lives on and intensifies, illogically, a fetish that Louise Kaplan eloquently identified over twenty years ago. Like Emma Bovary, the American female’s sexual energy may be greatly misdirected, in a world they did not create.

Lee Miller is the author of the Bengali novel, Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com), a story of how Mrs. Sona Choudhury grapples with the sexual stereotypes inherent in 20th century Indian society.

 

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