A thoughtful commentary on Madame Bovary in Tales from the Reading Room.
Here is my defense of Emma Bovary--left as comment... but do read the TfrRR piece TfrRR piece. Worth the trip.
When I first read Madame Bovary, I carried the image of Emma's peasant hands (described in her first meeting with Charles) through the whole novel. I saw those hands as she lay dying.
They were for me, emblem of everything she passionately (and foolishly) wanted to escape. And perhaps not so foolishly. She was seduced by a belief that there might be more to life than those from whom she inherited those peasant hands had known, but lacked the capacity for self-reflection, the critical faculties that might have exposed the illusions (didn’t Henry James blame Flaubert for giving Emma such a limited consciousness–and thereby leaving the reader lost in a fictive universe that would never rise above the banal capacity of her mind?).
I think James missed what Flaubert was about. Missed his design. Emma’s passion failed to gain her the redemption she sought–not because the books she had been steeped in were less “real,” less worthy of imitation than the greatest works of artistic invention (and here is Flaubert’s irony!)–but because art is not life, and imaginative redemption (I’m sure he included religion in this class) cannot be translated or imitated by life without betraying both life and art.
In my reading of Emma, far from despising her, I admire her. She is a tragic figure because she had neither the intelligence, nor education, nor the innate sense of irony that might have taught her the truth… that there is no escape, no redemption in life, but in that passion itself, given form in thought, in art, in the disciplines of mind–for no end beyond the production of intellect and imagination itself.
Emma failed, but she alone of all the characters in the book, is worthy of our respect… and of our sorrow at her failure.