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)