Book Talk: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
What Drew You to This Book?
I first encountered Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, the father of literary realism, as a college sophomore enrolled in Realism in the Novel. Having grown up consuming every fairy tale collection I could find, I didn’t give a hoot about realism. Since this was the only lit class that fit my schedule, I enrolled out of determination to leave behind the life I’d endured living on a farm. College was my ticket out. Back home, during stolen moments between shoveling manure and weeding bean fields, I’d retreat to my tower room in our Victorian farmhouse to study The New Yorker my, subscription purchased with Christmas money. Wrapped in the duende of mail-order flamenco and pasodobles albums, my Hemingway music, I drove my parents crazy as I imagined living a Bohemian life with a soul mate in Greenwich Village or on the Left Bank—anywhere but central Michigan.
Is it a wonder that as I turned the pages of Madame Bovary in my dorm room that the power of Flaubert’s words intoxicated me? I surrendered to the spell cast by this author who seemed to know me better than I knew myself when he wrote of Emma Bovary, “Love, she thought, must come suddenly, with great outbursts and lightnings, a hurricane of the skies, which falls upon life, revolutionizes it, roots up the will like a leaf, and sweeps the whole heart into the abyss.”
Emma chafed at rural life, craving adventures and excitement with a fierceness I recognized. A year before I opened that novel, I’d vowed not to be crushed by my mother’s insistence I become a teacher in order to support myself, her fears I was at high risk of spinsterhood since I seemed perpetually stuck in an awkward phase. I’d turned a deaf ear to my father’s half-teasing advice to look for a young farmer with a big tractor and land that was paid off because, after all, he was paying my tuition to a school founded as the state’s agricultural college.
Although I never attended a convent school, my experience with boys was as limited as Emma’s. At 13 I’d concocted what would become a four-year crush on an older boy who bartered fieldwork for space in our barn to raise his 4-H hogs. In high school I was dateless, partly because of shyness often mistaken for sullenness and partly because some boys spread the rumor throughout our small school that I was a lesbian in a time when that label was a kiss of social death. To survive I wrapped myself in my unrequited crush on the swineherd and lost myself in longing for him to kiss me. Living in that imaginary world was safer than the struggle to fit in.
My social life improved in college. Freshman year, several boys asked me to keggers. One frat boy threw up on my shoes, and two passed out. My roommates advised me to view them as training dates. As a sophomore I was more than ready for the real deal. Fueled by Flaubert, I craved the kind of man who would make the magical outbursts and the lightnings happen. After all, this was 1966, the cusp of free love. A prisoner of my own virginity, I vowed to pull off a jail break by winter break.
In my evening class, Writing Short Fiction, a tall student with hair curling about his face in wild spirals smiled at me, and I smiled back. (I may have even fluttered my eyelashes.) Unlike the round-faced, taunting boys with butch haircuts back home, boys who talked tractors and 4H softball, this one emanated an intriguing worldliness. When he gazed over the wire rims of his John Lennon glasses and offered me a lift to my dorm on his motorcycle, silently rejoicing, I opened my thighs to straddle the seat behind him. Pressing my breasts against his aviator jacket, I hung on for dear life, inhaling the animal scent of leather, feeling the engine cough then catch and throb. Riding over maple leaves slick with rain, I filled with a boldness I had never known was in me. My yearnings mirrored Emma’s as she began her affair with Rodolphe. The promise of passion, ecstasy, and delirium rode me like a drug.
Over coffee trysts at the student union my lover-to-be read me his rough drafts of stories and then his love poems. I would listen with my eyes closed, bathed in in his voice, secretly dreaming of a future together, maybe in grad school at NYU or Berkeley, maybe in Paris. When he dropped me at the dorm, his kisses tasted of Gauloises, and I felt as if I were a room filled with fireworks itching to explode against a darkened sky.
One moonless night in late autumn, he borrowed a rusty station wagon and threw an army blanket in the back before driving us through blowing snow, over the train tracks, and past the dairy barns to a narrow lane between two fields.
I want you to know how scared I was and how I wanted him to love me. How the heater didn’t work and the cold invaded my coat. How the stiff army blanket beneath us in the back reeked of beer. And while I struggled with torn panty hose around my knees, he knelt beside me fumbling for the Trojan, dropping it, losing it.
I remember how my head banged atop the tire iron. How I wondered why he hadn’t kissed me, why the blanket was so scratchy. He bucked against me then and made the guttural cry of an animal in distress, splattering his hot seed above my knee without even trying to pull my panties down. And afterward I knew by the way he yanked up his jeans, that I’d done something wrong—I didn’t know how to make things better.
If he’d driven me to my dorm in silence right then, perhaps I’d have felt nothing more than sadness that he’d written the love poems for another girl, not me.
My teeth chattered as he asked me if I was on the pill, all the time wiping the moisture from our breathing off windshield. When I told him no, he said he was engaged to a girl back home. “If you get knocked up, don’t blame me.” His voice was heavy with threat. “My fraternity brothers will swear in writing you pulled a train. That you slept with all of them. They’ll swear you liked it.”
He spoke as if he’d memorized that speech, and his calculated cruelty stunned me more than his words. Mute and unmoving I sat beside him as he drove, suspecting he had navigated down that dark and disappointing lane before. I felt like a stupid twit of a girl, but not so stupid I couldn’t guess premature ejaculation, not pregnancy, was the problem. Not so dumb, I didn’t know that if he ever claimed I’d invited a house full of boys to rape me, no one would believe my word over that of his brothers. I ached to slap him spitless, but even more I needed to keep him from knowing how deeply he had hurt me.
Concentrating on the cold seeping through the floor, through the soles of my shoes, moving up my legs, I froze inside. Nearly numb, I conjured up how Emma felt when Rodolphe, the cowardly manipulator, had dumped her with a letter. I speculated how the poet, Louise Colet, Flaubert’s lover of eight years (during five of which he wrote Madame Bovary) had felt when he ended their relationship with a letter: “I’ve been told you came to my apartment three times to try to talk to me. I wasn’t in and I shall never be in for you again.”
Near the end of Madame Bovary the newly discarded Emma encounters Léon (her lover before Rodolphe) when she attends the theater with her husband. Afterward she and Léon revive their former fling with more intensity than ever. But the affair begins to lose its luster, and reality rears its depressing head. Emma, who has spent vast sums on luxuries, often on presents for her lovers, suddenly faces a huge bill she has no way of paying. Neither Léon nor Rodolfe will float her a loan. Spoiler Alert: Terrified that her husband will discover her illicit liaisons, she eats rat poison and permanently escapes without learning anything from her misfortunes. We readers however do take away a lesson: Living with one’s head in the clouds and stars in one’s eyes, will assure one’s downfall.
This is the place where Emma’s path and mine diverge. Although I’d shared her Romantic notions, I did not share her appetite for arsenic—instead I manufactured a slow-acting, low-grade poison from my own humiliation. Too cold and numb to cry, I told myself I should count my blessings—at least the boy hadn’t left me guessing how he felt. And neither had he asked me to a pig party or plied me with liquor and pills for his brothers to rape, frat boy team sports the Resident Advisor had warned us about the year before. It wasn’t his fault that I was too blinded by fantasies to tell his fictions from the truth. My two-dollar panty hose were ripped beyond salvation, but my hymen was intact. If I let myself feel hurt, then he would have won. I warned myself to put it behind me alongside my high school tormentors, pretend it didn’t happen—admit my shame to no one, not even to myself.
He never showed up at our writing class again, but he must have bragged about his prowess to his brothers. When they called to ask how much I charged, I hung up on their malicious laughter. In time my phone stopped ringing, and my life went on.
During Realism in the Novel’s last meetings, we learned how the early works of the period, characterized by realistic descriptions of the mundane world of the middle class, had morphed into Modern Realism. This new literature depicted the harsh reality of social classes, and oppression by chronicling the lives of down-and-out men and fallen women. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser was our last book. It is the tale of a country girl turned big city mistress, who becomes an actress and then a star while her wealthy sugar daddy who loves her desperately, goes bankrupt, gets and loses a job, catches pneumonia and ultimately gasses himself to death in a dingy flop-house. In the space of 44 years heroines had gone from victims to villainesses, but the takeaway remained constant—in the end the realists outlasted the starry-eyed lovers. Having learned my lesson, and learned it well, I filled my blue book and aced the final.
How Did This Book Change You?
I used Madame Bovary as a club to knock some sense into myself. I honed a sharp-tongued, self-directed sarcasm that served as both armor and disguise. Becoming an expert at the art of faking both orgasms and affection, I kept my feelings to myself and learned to end relationships before they ended me. And when hurt found me, as hurt is often wont to do, I drank for a decade to kill the pain. I was 30 when I sobered up, started seeing a therapist, and, with her help, examined my many questionable choices – but not all of them. Compared to my other trespasses (and to those who’d trespassed against me) the story of the night I didn’t lose my virginity seemed a minor footnote. Jimmy Carter was President, I had moved to Colorado, and Roman Polanski had been locked up for allegedly raping a thirteen-year-old girl. I wrote, and I taught. I raised a fine son. Not all was right with the world, but it did seem to be improving.
Flash forward to September 27, 2018—fifty-two years and one month after I first read Madame Bovary. Two years after the election of a presidential candidate who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy. I am mesmerized as Christine Blasey Ford, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, quietly shares how talking her experience terrifies her. I get that. As long as you don’t give voice to what happened, you can always wish it away, though never as far as you would like. The words are what make it real.
Her voice breaks as she tells the world how in the early 80s she was pushed into a bedroom at a party, how Brett Kavanaugh tried to rip her clothes off. How he put his hand over her mouth to stop her screams while his friend watched. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” she says, “the uproarious laughter between the two. They’re having fun at my expense.”
The detail of the laughter unlocks my memory of the midnight calls, and the knowing I tried so hard to hide. I was nothing more than a dirty joke to them, a thing to be used and tossed aside like the housemaids and serving girls in the days of the robber barons. My heart goes out to this woman, and when I think of that cold, winter night, for the first time in half a century, I feel compassion for myself.
All afternoon I watch the accused veer between arrogance and martyrdom, his face twisting into a distorted, horror-show mask that makes me shake. Innocent or guilty, his display of wounded pride is difficult to swallow. I study the good old boy Senators in their expensive rumpled suits, their gray hair and their flabby jowls, their puppet mouths flapping, spittle flying at the very idea that one of their brothers is being held to account. They gather their energy around him forming an impenetrable shield, men old enough to have been frat boys in my day. With their praises, they exalt him. Modern Realism is alive and well. Hearing adjourned.
I name and feel the pain that starts as a trickle of melting ice and grows to a torrent that washes through me – scouring, polishing, shaping. Self-compassion grants me permission to grieve a deeper loss of innocence than I’ve been brave enough to admit to before now. On my keyboard, I type one word after another, writing my way back in time to reclaim my truth.
About the Author:
Gustave Flaubert was not a particularly happy man. He never married – instead he spent his time in the company of prostitutes. He had no children, writing in an 1852 letter to a friend that he would “transmit to no one the aggravations and the disgrace of existence.” He died at 58 from a brain hemorrhage after suffering for most of his adult life from venereal disease. When early readers of Madame Bovary would not stop asking him the identity of the woman who had served as a model for his characterization of Emma, he is said to have answered in frustration, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” Perhaps he was telling the truth.
Kay Marie Porterfield’s work has appeared in The Sun, Hippocampus, Two Hawks Quarterly Review, Eastern Iowa Review and Toasted Cheese. Her admiration for the painstaking care Gustave Flaubert took with his work, sometimes spending all day revising a single sentence, has grown over the years. As did he, she knows too well the burdens and gifts of dyslexia.