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The READ: Why Is Emma Bovary So Maligned and Misunderstood?

Emma Bovary is one of the most abused heroines of the modern novel. It’s not enough for her to lose her mind in love for an unworthy man; to squander her fortune and suffer the terror of mounting debt; and, finally, to die in a prolonged, painful suicide by arsenic. No, she must also be cruelly misunderstood by Kathryn Harrison in a weird piece in The New York Times Book Review that has generated a steady seething of online dissent. Harrison and the Book Review have been jointly taken to task for the piece’s failure adequately to assess the novel’s boutique new translation by Lydia Davis. But equally hard to understand is Harrison’s pitiless condemnation of its protagonist.

Harrison’s review has been seen as a missed opportunity for the Times: an exercise in ego-stroking rather than a genuine intellectual contribution. I couldn’t agree more: It’s ludicrous for Harrison to make blurb-worthy statements about the quality of Davis’s work without offering any textual evidence to back them up. She writes that Flaubert “would have to agree his masterwork has been given the English translation it deserves,” but says nothing about the implied inadequacies of the previous versions (such as the popular Penguin Classics edition done by Geoffrey Wall). Nor does she offer a single bon mot as evidence of Davis’s inspired choices. Instead, we get a rehash of the usual praise of Flaubert as a brilliant stylist, his ability “to, godlike, summon life from words on a page.”

But why would this god of literature waste his time on the character that Harrison describes? “Readers cannot like Emma Bovary,” she confidently tells us, “and yet they follow her with the kind of attention reserved for car wrecks….

How can a covetous, small-minded woman, incapable of love and (as she feels no true connection to anyone) terminally bored by her life, fascinate us as she succumbs to one venal impulse after the next? … Fatally self-absorbed, insensible to the suffering of others, Emma can’t see beyond the romantic stereotypes she serves, eternally looking for what she expects will be happiness…. Emma doesn’t have character flaws so much as she lacks character itself. She’s a vacuum, albeit a sensitive and sensual one, sucking up every ready-made conceit.

Emma Bovary, “incapable of love”? This is truly a bizarre interpretation of perhaps the most famous adulteress in Western fiction. Of course, one of the novel’s primary currents is its stern anti-romanticism: Flaubert takes Emma to task for her fatal infatuation with love above all else, garnered primarily from her reading of cheap novels. But, if Emma is something of a vacuum for pre-fabricated clichés, she does not exist in one. Her condition, Flaubert makes clear, is hardly unique: She represents bourgeois French nineteenth-century society, in all its small-mindedness and materialism. As Davis writes in her introduction, Flaubert was “holding up a mirror to the middle- and lower-middle-class world of his day, with all its little habits, fashions, fads.”

In a letter to Louise Colet, his lover and confidante, Flaubert did indeed write that his goal was to “write a novel about shallow, unsympathetic people in a dreary setting, some of whom make bad choices and come to a horrific end.” And yet, despite his frustration with Emma and her decisions, despite his pitiless portrayal of her limited conversation and imagination, he is hardly unsympathetic to her. As he also wrote to Colet, “Irony takes nothing away from pathos.” If Emma Bovary were truly just a shallow woman who comes to a bad end, she could never have become the subject of what is arguably the greatest French novel of the nineteenth century, the novel that set the course for realism forever after.

Could it be that Davis’s noticeably cool new Bovary led Harrison to her strange conclusions? Davis has said that she felt no special affinity for the novel; rather, Viking approached her with the idea for a new translation. The author of minimalist short stories, Davis would seem an unlikely match for Flaubert, with his love of metaphor and obsession with detail. In comparison to previous versions, her Bovary is decidedly stripped down—to the extent that she occasionally dampens some of the novel’s humor and irony.

Take one particularly wonderful line that shows just how dull-witted Emma’s husband is. In Davis’s version, it reads: “Charles’s conversation was as flat as a sidewalk, and everyone’s ideas walked along it in their ordinary clothes, without inspiring emotion, or laughter, or reverie.” As flat as a sidewalkwalked along it … ordinary clothes: the language is plain and uninspired. It’s even a bit plainer than the original: La conversation de Charles était plate comme un trottoir de rue, et les idées de tout le monde y défilaient dans leur costume ordinaire, sans exciter d’émotion, de rire ou de rêverie. In Flaubert’s sentence, the ideas do not simply “walk”; a better rendering for défilaient might be “paraded.” Davis’s version loses something by flattening out the ironic image of commonplace ideas flamboyantly on parade.

Elsewhere, however, Davis captures with precision the sensitivity of the novel’s language, in which Flaubert subtly expresses his sympathy for Emma’s plight. He repeatedly uses images of drowning or suffocation, for instance, to demonstrate the desperateness of her situation. When Rodolphe, one of her lovers, first meets Emma, he thinks: “Poor little woman! That one’s gasping for love like a carp for water on a kitchen table.” This isn’t a beautiful image, but it is faithful to the original (Ça bâille après l’amour, comme une carpe après l’eau sur une table de cuisine), which depicts Emma as quite literally dying for love. Later, at the dénouement of their affair, Emma is again shown to be in mortal danger:

He no longer spoke those sweet words to her that had once made her weep, nor did he offer her those fervent caresses that had once driven her wild; so that their great love, in which she lived immersed, seemed to be seeping away under her, like the waters of a river being absorbed into its own bed, and she could see the mud.

Again like a fish in water, Emma lives steeped in her love, and the undulating motion of the sentence, which mimics the movement of the water “seeping away,” reinforces her terror at the ugliness of its dwindling (“she could see the mud”).

In the end, Davis’s version—which is faithful to a fault, even to the extent of preserving awkwardnesses and infelicities that other translators have silently smoothed out—ultimately demonstrates her own empathy with Emma. When she takes one of her few liberties, it happens to be in rendering one of the novel’s most famous lines—and she does so in a way that works to emphasize its universal qualities. When the passage begins, we are again watching Rodolphe, though this time the novel itself gently expresses a judgment on his deficiencies. First, we are privy to his reflections on Emma and the many women of his past acquaintance. “He could not perceive—this man of such broad experience—the difference in feelings that might underlie similarities of expression,” the novel tells us. “Because licentious or venal lips had murmured the same words to him, he had little faith in their truthfulness ….” (It is clear from these lines that Flaubert is hardly judging Emma as “licentious” or “venal”; in contrast to Rodolphe’s past mistresses, her love is truthful.) The passage continues:

… one had to discount, he thought, exaggerated speeches that concealed mediocre affections; as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest of metaphors, since none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity.

Note the subtle shift in perspective in this sentence: from Rodolphe’s warning to the narrative’s immediate contradiction of it. Well familiar with the hazards of beautiful talk, Rodolphe no longer believes it can convey true emotion. But the novel itself takes the opportunity to remind us of the inadequacy of all human speech: “none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows….” The original is in the third person: “puisque personne, jamais, ne peut donner l’exacte mesure de ses besoins, ni de ses conceptions, ni de ses douleurs”—“since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs.” By using the first person plural instead—“our needs … our sorrows”—Davis generalizes it to apply to all humanity, as Flaubert surely intended.

This vision of the limits of language is particularly plaintive coming from a novelist known to sit at his desk for twelve hours at a stretch, mercilessly editing his work till it met his own exact specifications. As Flaubert famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”: If Emma’s metaphors are empty in comparison with the fullness of her soul, which of us could do better?

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. 

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