Friday, 1 March 2013

Puppy Love: Emma and Lėon

The Bovarys move. Charles decides that a change of scenery is necessary to calm Emma's nerves and cure her vapours. Their new hometown Yonville is located precisely twenty-four miles from Rouen: "We leave the high road at La Boissière and keep straight on to the top of the Leux Hill ..." Mentioning place names (the forest of Argueil, the Saint-Jean Hills) and positioning us with the narrator on the journey ("Before us ... ", "Here we are ...") (Part 1, Chapter 1) Flaubert is doing his best to bring us right into the landscape and into real France. Moreover, the narrative states that "Since the events about to be narrated, nothing in fact has changed at Yonville." (Ibid.) This does not only suggest the immutable nature of sleepy French country side, but it also that we could today walk into the setting of Emma Bovary's life. Unlike many earlier novels, setting their scandalous events in the town of X or the village of Y, Flaubert is rooting his story firmly in reality.

 During the move from Tostes to Yonville-L'Abbaye, three significant things happen, if we choose to read them as significant. First, Emma's greyhound - that token of chivalric romance - runs away (Part 2, Chapter 1). Secondly, in the carriage with them travels Monsieur Lheureux, a draper. Thirdly, a little later we learn that the plaster curė has fallen from the removal load and shattered to pieces on the pavement (Part 2, Chapter 3). Emma believes the move to Yonville and sleeping in a strange place is "an inauguration of a new phase in her life." (Part 2, Chapter 2) All of the three little details above would seem to support this notion.

The night the Bovarys arrive in Yonville, a young notary's clerk joins them for the evening meal at the inn. Lėon is "a good deal bored in Yonville" and keen to sit down with the new arrivals. Emma and Lėon get on like a house on fire. The narrative very neatly dovetails the discussion around the table showing Emma and Lėon talking to each other ignoring the others (Part 2, Chapter 2). Again, Emma confesses she loves to be thrilled. When Lėon tells her he appreciates poetry because he thinks "verse more tender than prose, and that it moves far more easily to tears." Emma replies: "I, on the contrary, adore stories that rush breathlessly along, that frighten one. I detest commonplace heroes and moderate sentiments, such as there are in Nature." (Part2, Chapter 2) No soppy poetry for Emma, she prefers sensational stories.

"Thus side by side, while Charles and chemist chatted, they entered into one of those vague conversations where every chance saying brings you back to the fixed centre of a common sympathy. The Paris theatres, titles of novels, new quadrilles, and the world they did not know; Tostes, where she had lived, and Yonville, where they were; they examined all, talked of everything till the end of dinner." Part 2, Chapter 2).

Like two teenagers in the company of dull adults, Emma and Lėon stick together. "Thus a kind of bond was established between them, a constant commerce of books and of romances." (Part 2, Chapter 4)

Motherhood does not distract Emma. Berthe Bovary is born outside of the narrative and is sent to a carpenter's wife to nurse. The idea of motherhood attracts Emma only fleetingly and she simply does not like her child very much. This is evil; it was evil in 19th-century France and it is evil today. Mothers are expected to dote on their children. At no stage in the novel does the narrator say that Emma is a bad mother. The relationship of Emma and Berthe and their encounters are superb examples of Flaubert's narrative method of showing us what happens but not explaining anything (see particularly Part 2, Chapter 6). Maybe Emma is to be pitied as she is lumbered with a child she has no feelings for, a child she is incapable of loving. Maybe she is to be despised for her lack of maternal instinct. You decide.

Emma hoped for a boy. This is one of the more explicitly 'feminist' moments in the novel:

"She hoped for a son; he would be strong and dark; she would call him George; and this idea of having a male child was like an expected revenge for all her impotence in the past. A man, at least, is free; he may travel over passions and over countries, overcome obstacles, taste of the most far-away pleasures. But a woman is always hampered." (Part 2, Chapter 3)

If Emma cannot be a man, strong and free, the next best thing is to have a son and somehow experience manly freedom through him. This reminds us of Madame Bovary Sr, Charles's mother. That is exactly what she did - ran her son's life until she was ousted by his love for Emma. Maybe Mme Bovary Sr would have been happier going to the medical school herself, rather than squeezing her hapless son through it.

Lėon is very much a male version of Emma. He usually "maintained that reserve which partakes at once of modesty and dissimulation." He is not interested on politics, he has "some accomplishments" - a term usually reserved for the skills of young ladies - a little watercolour painting, a little music, and he "readily talked literature" (Part 2, Chapter 3). After a walk with Emma, noted by the gossips of the town, Lėon wonders to the hills: "he threw himself upon the ground under the pines and watched the sky through his fingers. 'How bored I am!' He said to himself, 'how bored I am!' He thought he was to be pitied for living in this village" (Part 2, Chapter 3).

It is inevitable that these two bored romantics would get emotionally entangled. Lėon falls in love with Emma. The narrative charts this fall nicely describing Lėon's feelings but again not explaining them. Again, as throughout the whole narrative, Flaubert's technique of showing us how the characters feel, but not explaining those feelings, makes us feel alongside them. In this way, this technique seeks to have a sensational effect.

First "Lėon did not know what to do between his fear of being indiscreet and the desire for an intimacy that seemed almost impossible." (Part 2, Chapter 3) He talks of Emma endlessly (Part 2, Chapter 4). He goes through all the agonies of a first-time lover, afraid to declare his devotion "always halting between the fear of displeasing her and the shame of being such a coward." (Part 2, Chapter 4)

Emma does no recognize these symptoms at first. "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." (Part 2, Chapter 4).  After an afternoon outing in February with the Homais family, the penny finally drops. Emma contrasts the charming appearance of Lėon, with his bare skin of his neck showing, with that of Charles and his "look of stupidity" and the knife he carried in his pocket "like a peasant."

"Yes, charming! Charming! Is he not in love?" she asked herself; "but with whom? With me!" (Part 2, Chapter 4)

Emma is pleased by this conclusion, "her soul filled with a new delight." (Part 2, Chapter 4). The very next day, she receives a visit from M. Lheureux the draper, who comes to tempt her with his wares and even offers her credit. Emma does not buy anything and feels virtuous. When Lėon visits, she continues to be good and makes a point about her many duties in looking after her house and her husband. "What madness!" is all Lėon can say. Emma maintains her role of a good wife: "her talk, her manners, everything changed. She took interest in the housework, went to church regularly, and looked after her servant with more severity." (Part 2, Chapter 5) Even Berthe is brought home from the nurse. Charles loves this, "his cheeks flushed with feeding, his eyes moist with happiness" (Ibid.).

The narrative does not explain why the discovery of Lėon's love for her should suddenly turn Emma into an 'angel in the house.' This is a conundrum: why is their love not consummated?

For both Emma and Lėon imagination seems more powerful and satisfying than reality. Emma appears so "virtuous and inaccessible" to Lėon that he loses all hope; "he placed her on an extraordinary pinnacle." She goes through an apotheosis, becomes an unobtainable goddess. (Part 2, Chapter 5). Similarly, Emma "sought solitude that she might with the more ease delight in his [Lėon's] image. The sight of his form troubled the voluptuousness of this meditation." (Ibid.) She prefers an imagined Lėon to the real man.

Emma is "eaten up with desires, with rage, with hate." "Then the lusts of the flesh, the longing for money, and the melancholy of passion all blended themselves into one suffering." (Ibid.) She is in a desperate situation: she is keeping Lėon at bay, loving him and knowing that he loves her. Her hatred is focused on Charles:

"What exasperated her was that Charles did not seem to notice her anguish. His conviction that he was making her happy seemed to her an imbecile insult, and his sureness on this point ingratitude. For whose sake, then, was she virtuous? Was it not for him, the obstacle of all felicity, the cause of all misery and, as it were, the sharp clasp if that complex strap that buckled her from all sides?" (Part 2, Chapter 5)

Emma is firmly caught between "desire that draws her" and "conventionality that restrains." (Part 2, Chapter 3). She is trapped in a marriage like any average 19th-century, middle-class woman. She dreams of running away with Lėon, but she does not dare seriously contemplate leaving the safety of Charles. At the same time, the narrative also lets us see her relationship with Charles as the driving force behind her turmoil, rather than her desire for Lėon. The way the image of Lėon seems more desirable to Emma than the man, suggests that he is just a catalyst, something to bring to the boil the dissatisfactions of her marriage.

Emma's psychology and motivations can be interpreted in several ways in this part of the narrative. Her apparent virtuousness, her refusal to declare her feelings to Lėon, her hatred for Charles, all create a mix of emotions and reactions which produce a complex character. Emma feels more real because she is not easy to figure out. It is not important to 'explain' her but it is important to recognize Flaubert's success in creating a fictional character with considerable depth; there are internal workings in Emma that we do not need to see or understand for them to make her feel real.

The emotional tensions give Emma physical symptoms: "She was left broken, breathless, inert, sobbing in a low voice, with flowing tears." (Part 2, Chapter 5) We feel for Emma, the narrative is able to convey her panic and her frustration as she thrashes against the bonds of respectability and religion. It seems a tragedy that Emma is tied to Charles, when she and Lėon seem to suit each other so well and are in love. How sweet life could be if they were free to head off to the sunset together - or would it? Any union of these two young air-heads would probably end in disaster. But for a short while at least, the reader's sympathies are with them. The narrative has shifted that sense of sympathy quite cleverly from poor Charles with a difficult spouse to poor Emma imprisoned in a stifling marriage with true love almost within her grasp.

Lėon is man, therefore he can move on. He "was weary of loving without any result; ... He was so bored with Yonville." (Part 2, Chapter 6) Lėon begins to imagine an artist's life in Paris, with blue velvet slippers and a guitar. And once he has conquered his fear for such "a new condition of life," he packs his bags and goes (Part 2, Chapter 6).

Lėon's memory slowly fades in Emma's mind and "Then the evil days of Tostes began again." Emma becomes restless and starts spending. (Part 2, Chapter 7). She becomes a customer of M. Lheureux. The only cure for this that Charles and her mother can come up with is to stop her library subscription and "the poisonous trade" of the librarian. (Ibid.) A more efficacious remedy, however, appears in the form of Monsieur Rodolpho Boulanger of La Huchette. As on so many occasions, medicine is also poison.

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