In reading Flaubert's Madame Bovary, I occasionally came to such a feeling of eerie self-recognition in the character of Emma Bovary, that I felt as though I was reading the journals I wrote as a teenager. Frightening and unflattering thought. Sadly, if I had read this as a teenager, I don't think I would have made it all the way through, and I'm not sure I would have been self-aware enough to see my reflection in Emma Bovary's compulsions. But we learn our lessons.
I finished late Friday night, feeling myself starting to sneeze and the cold start to settle, but I couldn't leave it hanging. And still I needed to read on, to the very last death bed scene (because we know that death is imminent. We feel from the beginning, like Anna Karenina, that Emma is doomed.)
Emma Bovary is the desperately unhappy wife of a provincial bourgeois doctor. She thought marriage would be exciting, but it's not. Each anticipated stage of her life is accompanied by the dull monotony of realism that does not seem to afflict the characters in the novels she loves to read. Eventually, her boredom is corrupted by her careless and idealistic desires; she is destroyed by her nerves, by her own duplicity and wanton living (and I would classify this wanton living not as the love affairs she throws herself into but her wild expenditures on frivolous items and inevitable bankruptcy.)
It is a serious novel: Flaubert is ruthless in pursuing his character's motives, her actions and justifications. It is also a funny novel. In one of the first scenes between Emma and her lover Rudolphe, he declares his amorous intentions to her speckled by the announcements of an agricultural prize-giving ceremony. And after a pathetic and prolonged death, the chemist and the priest sit at the corpse's side, sleepily and jocularly discussing religion and science.
And oh! that very sly carriage love scene...