“After school, you come out, and you sit under that tree there, and you read. Last week, it was Madame Bovary, and this week it’s Moby Dick.” – Dean, Gilmore Girls
Dean utters the above quote in the Gilmore Girls pilot, which helps establish Rory’s character: She’s the girl who prefers reading to engaging in the usual high school hijinks. The fact that Dean notices Rory and her reading list reveals, well, his excellent taste, really. He also admits to her, “I thought, I have never seen anyone read so intensely in my entire life. I have to meet that girl.” And this is one reason Dean has always been my favorite of Rory’s boyfriends.
So about “Madame Bovary”: First published in 1856, the novel tells the story of Emma Bovary, a provincial doctor’s wife who is dissatisfied with her life and seeks to fill the emptiness she feels by having affairs and racking up loads of debt. She’s never satisfied with anything, and everything bores her. Basically, it’s the existential cat videos, but with opposable thumbs and not as amusing.
As you may have intuited, I find this novel incredibly annoying. That said, I believe it’s an important novel to read, for two reasons.
First, the writing is gorgeous. For this reread, I chose Lydia Davis’ translation, and it is breathtaking. This is not hyperbole. I often found myself signing at the beauty of her prose and could not tear my eyes away from the page ... even though I was thinking, Ugh, Emma is so frustrating! And I wanted to go Cher-in-“Moonstruck” on her and holler, “Snap out of it!”
This leads to the second, more significant reason to read “Madame Bovary”: It’s a potent cautionary tale about what happens when our imaginations fail, when we lose our sense of wonder, and when we forget to appreciate the simple gift of being alive.
Emma is the embodiment of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s sage observation that “Many of us pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that we hurry past it.” In her endless search for gratification and feeling, Emma allows herself to fall into things—marriage, motherhood, affairs, debt. But she remains at a remove from her experiences, as if she’s evaluating them before she has even allowed herself to live through and understand them. Boredom (and/or laziness and/or self-absorption) drives her choices, but those choices lack substance. They’re reactions rather than active, thoughtful decisions.
As I’m constantly reminding myself, the work of living is the work of finding meaning, of seeing the absurd and laughing at it, of acknowledging the problematic but not being subsumed by it. In “Madame Bovary,” we see what happens when that work is left untended to, and that is definitely a lesson worth learning!