In the summer of 1848, a young woman from Rouen, France — Delphine Delamare — who is unsatisfied with the routine of married life, commits suicide. She is in debt, under financial and emotional pressure. When Madame Delamare ends her life by taking prussic acid (known today as hydrogen cyanide), she leaves a young daughter and a mourning husband behind; and her story appears in many newspapers in Normandy.
Inspired by this incident, Gustave Flaubert creates his groundbreaking novel “Madame Bovary”, which became a cornerstone in modern literature. The hype about the book was not indeed overrated. Its literary brilliance can be understood when we look at the socio-economical criticism and the realistic feature of a romantic novel. In Vladimir Nabokov’s words, it being a book that “lives much longer than a girl” makes the book a strong sociological reference still in today’s society. Emma Bovary, without doubt, is a solid character that in every era people can identify themselves with.
When it was first published in 1857, readers of the novel saw how easy it was to have a miserable marriage without being in any way a bad person. In his omniscient style of writing, Flaubert tells the story of Emma without taking any sides, and makes his readers feel pity and sorrow for her, despite her affairs. The reason of Emma’s misery in marriage and her dissatisfaction appear clearly in the book: cheesy, mainstream romantic novels that she had been reading since her younger years. All those novels present her a pseudo, exaggerated and false image about love and marriage. She marries with Charles, who was her father’s doctor, and she has a lot of enthusiasm about love, a passionate life in a big city. However, things seems so dull and Emma cannot deal with the realities of ordinary life and marriage. Therefore, she loses her interest to her husband and child, and searches for novel-like passion, but every affair becomes another disappointment for her. In today’s world, of course we can link those ‘mainstream love novels’ with all the culture industry products that exist in a broader sense. All those mainstream ‘love’ movies, songs, and mass-media tell us one thing: “you should find a specific person as your special other, and fulfill the pattern that you have been given; namely built a family, so you will live happily ever after”.
I think it would be a bit naive to say that there has been much change in the cultural tropes since the days of fairytales. We can still clearly see that there is a certain utopian image about life, and that all society is trying to accomplish this quest to reach “happiness”. Adorno described this network as an ‘omnipresent entertainment machine’, which has only one function: to keep us distracted. In this manner, the leisure time appears as a virus that we completely misuse. According to Adorno, free time is an opportunity to discover and expand ourselves, not for keeping our mind distracted.
Like Adorno, Flaubert also despised the mass media and mainstream entertainment tools, which was according to him, spreading a new form of stupidity, in his words “la Bêtise”. People were being informed about art, literature, politics, etc. from these tools, but this idiocy was even worse than ignorance at some point. Knowing a lot of things could be equal to knowing nothing if you are filled with information that you cannot cope with smartly. Emma Bovary is not an ignorant character, she always read novels, read about art, literature, and even philosophy. But the image she creates in her mind about the world is an overly-idealised image. So, as a reflection of this ‘emotional sickness’ of the 19th century; she gets disappointed about life and her boredom finally takes her to end her life by drinking arsenic. In this sense Flaubert’s realism becomes prominent. The consequences of pressure that is created by the society and its ideals are destructive. The desire for bourgeois aesthetics was a way to prove herself in society and as the “heroines” in her novels, she thinks that she has to be a perfect ‘object of desire’ herself.
Since the mid 19th century, there has been a huge evolution in ‘consumption society’ and today’s world would be striking for Flaubert, who would have thought it was commodifying our lives. Rumor has it that, when being asked about his protagonist, Flaubert answers as “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” (Madame Bovary, that’s me). So it can be interpreted that Emma Bovary’s boredom about life was a common curse of the modern human. How can we be ‘subjects’ of our own lives when we have to commodify ourselves as an object?
Deniz Ezgi Kurt studied French Language & Literature at Hacettepe University, Media & Cultural Studies at Middle-East Technical University, and Cultural Studies at Tilburg University. She writes since childhood and tries to mediate the knowledge academically. She worked as a translator and a teacher. As a fiction enthusiast and a passionate gamer, she writes on videogame culture, visual media and pop-culture. After living most of her life in Turkey, she now resides in Netherlands.