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What Madame Bovary Taught Me About Reading

I think I may be the only person in the world who didn’t know how Madame Bovary ends. Like Anna Karenina’s train suicide or The Awakening's closing drowning, Emma Bovary’s death by arsenic remains one of the great cultural referents for end-of-novel suicides. To everyone else, at least. Assigned the novel in a nineteenth-century history class this semester, I dutifully skipped the plot-spoiler introduction, remaining blissfully unaware of Emma’s iconic end as the book unfolded. Until AWP, that is. I have no objections to the panel, which was on the state of the contemporary novel, nor do I remember the exact context of the remark. It was an aside; the panel itself had nothing to do with Flaubert’s famously obsessive work. “It’s just like Madame Bovary ends, remember?” one of the panelists said, and as if in one of those horrifying slow-motion cinematic takes, I raised my hands to my ears. “You know, where she kills herself with arsenic?” Alas, my ears had not been sufficiently covered: I was ruined.

But that’s not what this post is about. It’s actually about what I learned from the novel. I tend to like novels that are instructive in some way; when I read, I want to learn how to live my life. Madame Bovary is such an instructional novel, in spite and because of its much-vaunted realism, Flaubert’s corrective to the romantic and moralizing novels of his predecessors and contemporaries. The instructions I took from the novel relate to my consumption of the novel itself: Madame Bovary taught me a lesson about how to read.

Emma Bovary is famous for her romantic delusions—many of which, we are led to believe, come straight from the novels she reads. “She would have liked to live in some old manor,” the narrator tells us after Emma reads Walter Scott, and she “dreamed of the little bamboo house” featured in Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul and Virginia. She listens—though only “the first few times”—to the readings of iconic Catholic texts at her convent, drawn by the “sonorous lamentations of romantic melancholy” in them.

Emma’s literary fantasies seem excusable, at first, perhaps even beneficial for an adolescent. But as she grows older, her reading habits don’t change. She seeks in Balzac and Sand “the imagined satisfaction of her own desires.” At an operatic dramatization of a novel she has read, Emma wants only to be loved like the tenor loves the soprano. By now, the narrator tells us, Emma has realized “the pettiness of the passions which art exaggerated.” If Emma blames art, she shouldn’t. Sure, Flaubert is critiquing the anti-realist novel, but that doesn’t mean there’s any harm in reading these novels. Instead, the danger lies in how Emma reads.

Emma’s “reading habits corrupt her vision of the world and her conduct of her life,” A.S. Byatt concludes. Emma’s failure stems from reading only for her own personal gain. Emma "only wants what she can incorporate easily into the stereotyped repertoire of her fantasies,” Geoffrey Wall writes in his introduction to the 2002 Penguin Classics edition. Reading itself isn’t a commodity for Emma (unlike her husband Charles, who keeps volumes of the Dictionary of Medical Science on display, pages still uncut), but it is a means to commodities. It’s not only that Emma can never have the objects, lifestyles, and relationships depicted in the books she reads, it’s that reading only for what she wants represents an act of tremendous intellectual and emotional impoverishment. Emma doesn’t love books, she loves what she can get from them. Reading, for Emma, is window shopping.

I don’t mean to condemn window shopping; there’s nothing wrong with it, once and a while. I’m certainly guilty of it myself. I’ve wished for Holden Caufield’s snarky charm; when I watch Mad Men, I wish for the stylish luxury the show embodies. But Madame Bovary reminds me that I have to be careful not to let commodification overtake my reading. After all, there are so many other reasons to read—for enlightenment, for transport, for lyrical pleasure. If I read only with what I want in mind, I might end up like Emma Bovary: an unhappily married adulterer who can’t even sustain the romance of a dramatic suicide. If only I hadn’t found out about that last part so soon!