“Madame Bovary”*

*the debut novel of French writer Gustave Flaubert, published in 1856. The eponymous character lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of provincial life.

Richard Yates: Revolutionary Road (1961):

“It strikes me,” he said at last, “that there’s a considerable amount of bullshit going on here. I mean you seem to be doing a pretty good imitation of Madame Bovary here, and there’s one or two points I’d like to clear up. Number one, it’s not my fault the play was lousy. Number two, it’s sure as hell not my fault you didn’t turn out to be an actress, and the sooner you get over that little piece of soap opera the better off we’re all going to be. Number three, I don’t happen to fit the role of dumb, insensitive suburban husband; you’ve been trying to hang that one on me ever since we moved out here, and I’m damned if I’ll wear it. Number four – ”

She was out of the car and running away in the headlights…”

Roxana Robinson wrote in The New Yorker of 5.11.17:

“Each fall, I teach “Madame Bovary” to my graduate writing students at Hunter College, and each fall I read it with them. My course is called Introduction to the Modern: The Role of Compassion. So we look at modernism, and how it disrupts the literary world, and at compassion, and how it expands the soul. I ask my students a fundamental question about intention: Does Flaubert want us to feel contempt or compassion for his characters?

My students have strong views on this, and I do, too…

…Flaubert wants to challenge us. “This will be the first time, I think, that a book makes fun of its leading lady and its leading man,” he wrote a friend. He won’t give us a traditional protagonist, brave and virtuous, who is triumphant in the end. He won’t let us admire Emma…

…At the start, Flaubert encourages us to judge her. But by the end he asks us to consider what it means to sacrifice everything for a dream. He asks us to consider human dreams and their worth. He asks who among us are heroes. He asks us to consider the human body, which is such an intimate partner in our lives. How Emma’s body, so strong and vigorous in her pursuit of love, finally compels a dreadful reckoning over which she has no control.

I asked my students to consider Emma in this way, and to ask themselves these questions. And to see if they felt compassion for her now.

The woman who’d accused Emma of social climbing said, slowly, “Now I feel bad.”

The student with the grandmother sighed.

“This is huge,” she said. “This book is huge. It’s about everything. Everything.”

Which was just what Flaubert, the disrupter, had intended.”

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