Rereading Part II of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is for me, an odd experience, if only because it is where I expected this story to come flooding back. After all, I read the novel twice before, albeit over twenty years ago. Yet only a faint impression remains, thus I enjoy this remarkable book almost afresh.
A recurring theme puzzled me whilst reading some of the comments on various blogs about Part I. A few commenters reported that they had abandoned Madame Bovary because they found it boring. Boring? I could just about understand readers giving the book up because they find Flaubert’s descriptive prose suffocating or cloying, or because of the lack of sympathetic characters. But boring?
Harold Bloom wrote, “With her [Emma] the novel enters the realm of inactivity, where the protagonists are bored, but the reader is not.” Perhaps Flaubert attracts polarised reactions because Madame Bovary is profoundly unsettling. Bloom again, “I wonder indeed if she does not provoke our fear as well, since she involuntary exposes the contingency of most of our passions. Even our most violent attachments are functions of mere juxtapositions of time and space.”
In the second part of Madame Bovary, the foundation of Flaubert’s pitiless destruction of his protagonist is laid. After the disappointment of Léon’s departure we glimpse the narcissism at the core of Emma’s downfall, “A woman who had required of herself such great sacrifices could surely be permitted to indulge her whims.”
Madame Bovary’s initial seduction, at the Agricultural Fair, by the oily Rodolphe, is my favourite chapter of Part II. The scene’s outcome is predictable but at, “And he grasped her hand; she did not withdraw it,” my immediate thought was ‘no, don’t do it.’ Flaubert succeeds in making this woman sympathetic, despite all.
Thereafter I read slightly breathlessly as the horrors mount: poor Hippolyte’s operation, Emma gets jilted and suffers a nervous or hysterical illness. The illness mirrors Flaubert’s nervous affliction, of which I know little. For me, Madame Bovary leads inevitably to a question: ‘why.’ Why Flaubert, a meticulous writer, who famously declared “I am Madame Bovary” chose to create and then destroy, so mercilessly, this character.
“The Notion of Procreation was a Delectation” (translating Madame Bovary)
>Interesting some people found it 'boring' Its not a fast paced book which has me turning the pages to find out what happens next but the way the settings and characters are set up I suppose could be thought of as boring. I thought the story of Madame Bovarys husband and the boy with the club foot very interesting in this part. It doesn't exactly make the reader sympathise with him does it?
>I can imagine finding it boring in the sense that I sometimes disengage from Greek tragedies because the feeling of unavoidable catastrophe is sort of exhausting. If there's no glimmer of hope, sometimes a work can fail to engage my interest. With Flaubert, I did remain engaged throughout the novel, but I failed to connect with it very emotionally, partially for that reason.I too very much enjoyed the seduction scene at the Comices. Loved the juxtaposition of Rodolphe's oily clichés with the announcements of cash prizes, and rapt villagers.
>Jessica – My boredom switch must be triggered differently. Perhaps the book gets more interesting each time you read, because, though you forget part of the narrative, you know where the story is heading.The botched operation is just awful. Any sympathy left for Charles just drained away.
>Emily – I get that sense of exhaustion, so prevalent with Greek tragedies and Italian opera, but it doesn't manifest in me as boredom. Tiredness, yes, and maybe that is boredom. I just don't really do boredom I suppose.In the seduction scene, I clearly saw your previous point about Flaubert as a founding father of modernism. It is easy to see the influence on Joyce in that scene in particular.
>Not boring in the least bit. Almost exhausting in part as I can feel the hum of the author's many maneuverings throughout. I never did find it boring though. Just full of unsympathetic characters. Towards whom I now feel varying measures of sympathy.The agricultural fair is so skillfully composed. In her moment of romantic transcendence, to hear the running list of the mundane through the window speaks to the fact that Emma cannot successfuly create the world she desires within her physical (and other) limitations.And the merciless destruction? His extreme reaction to his friends task set to him to abandon romanticism? A proof that he can artfully craft sheer emptiness?
>Exhausting is right. Hippolyte's story was absolutely horrific to me. The absolute disregard for him as a person left me gutted. I couldn't write about that aspect of the book, particularly because I was even more angry with MB at that point. I thought the agricultural fair fitting as well. The interplay of the conversation is well done.
>I, too, could never be bored with this story. Have read it numerous times, and with each reread, pick up new nuances, new understandings. I love your descriptor of the 'oily' Rodolphe: perfect! He's so very smooth, he's slick, and I loved that part of their initial attraction, too. Then, my heart was torn almost like Emma's when he left her like so much dross at the end.
>Frances – Flaubert's manoeuvrings: the scaffolding or structure that underpins the book is impossible to ignore – intentional, do you think?The way that Flaubert enables a reader's sympathies to fluctuate throughout the book is an aspect I have only appreciated on this reading of MB.Flaubert's destruction of Emma, Madame Bovary C'est moi etc – a red herring perhaps? There are some interesting parallels between Emma and Louise Colet, but I need to explore this theme further
>pickygirlfoodfilmfiction – Perhaps Hippolyte is the only character in MB genuinely deserving our unconditional sympathy. Flaubert is yet again masterfully manipulating our emotional reaction.
>Bellezza – Oily 'Dolphy has many uses though and perfectly lays so many clues for the remainder of the story. I was pleased for Emma when he jilts her, his intentions are never good, she is just another trophy, another notch on his bed post.
>I was one of those who was bored upon trying to read it once, but I didn't read much, maybe 30 pages. Maybe it was the long hat description that did me in. I guess I have a better appreciation for headgear now because I am finding it quite a page turner!
>Shelley – 30 pages? It does take more than that for this story to become impossible to set aside.
>I've left this book off before because I found it boring, too; I'm pushing through this time because I've committed myself to the read-a-long. I think it's in part because most people now are so very used to reading contemporary literature, which is more fast-paced and "easy to read". Also, I think that the particular translation that I'm reading is part of why I'm finding it so difficult to read.
>Carina – I find it incredible that Lydia Davis can find room to make another translation, when there are at least nineteen previous versions in existence. It is a sign of how difficult it is to successfully translate Flaubert.
>"Perhaps Flaubert attracts polarised reactions because Madame Bovary is profoundly unsettling." As a first-time reader of the novel, Anthony, I would tend to agree with this hypothesis. At least, as much as I love the writing and now the story as well, I can see where readers who like to be led along by the hand by the author might be disappointed by Flaubert's unpredictability and Madame Bovary's characterization (to me and I presume others, she is unlikable and yet someone you feel sorry for at one and the same time). On the other hand, it's hard for me to identify with people who find the novel boring. The chapter on the agricultural fair that you mention was just one of several storytelling knockouts in the course of Madame Bovary's middle half. How could anybody be bored by writing like that?
>Richard – The boredom I don't get, but some have this reaction, I have just decided that I have a high threshold or perhaps don't get bored.By the time I finished my rereading of MB, I ended up feeling as I did last time, loving Emma Bovary, for her madness, her flaws and her crushing naivety. It is the narrator, inseparable from Flaubert that inspires the dislike and the pity.
>Very interesting perspective in your second comment line, Anthony. Now I'm even more interested in finishing the damn thing to see for myself!
>OK, I admit, I was bored with this novel 20+ years. But I was young and had no tolerance for silly, selfish women like Emma — I was very hard on her. So I was unfairly dismissive of the book. This time, I'm extremely sympathetic toward Emma. Rodolphe — what a sleazeball!
>Isabella – This change in perspective as we acquire age and experience is an interesting aspect of a reader's reaction to MB, isn't it? This is the case with any work of art, but seems of critical importance to a story like MB.