Literature and ethics
learning to read with Emma Bovary
Gustave Flaubert's first novel Madame Bovary—now considered one of the most significant novels of the nineteenth century—is a relatively straightforward story about a small-town adulteress who lives beyond her means, and eventually kills herself when her debts become unmanageable. At its time of publication the book was considered scandalous and subversive: Emma Bovary is a creature of desire, a married woman who undermines the sanctity of marriage. While the novel observes realistic conventions, it also provides a coded account of the end of Romanticism itself, revealing more about the percipient Flaubert than even he knew: his letters suggest a writer nauseated by his own creation, a woman of limited intelligence and incoherent taste to whom he nonetheless extends sympathy and pity. What is remarkable about the novel is that Flaubert—who was very much a "moraliste" regarding his own society, which he regarded as hypocritical and hollow—refused to sit in judgement on Emma Bovary. Her longing for tawdry ideals, men other than her husband who might be worthy of love, and for "what had looked so beautiful in books' suggests why, like Cervantes' classic Don Quixote, Madame Bovary is also a novel about an imagination distorted by what it has read: it is both modern and old-fashioned in exploring the ethics of reading itself. What seems a solution for its main character in the boredom and eroticism of her provincial life is actually part of her problem. Emma wants to be a character in a world that only recognises her as a type. And her very modern way of being a character is to consume: her palpable sacrifice to her "ideals' is held over to the end of the novel even as she learns how to make ever more sophisticated statements about who she is. Until it is no longer possible to defer payment on the dream.
Bamforth, I. (2014)., Literature and ethics: learning to read with Emma Bovary, in P. Macneill (ed.), Ethics and the arts, Dordrecht, Springer, pp. 9-19.
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