Tag Archive | Mme Bovary

Mme Bovary as Literary Example of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Claims

npg_npg_1237_larges640x480-1

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), mother of Mary Shelley, was a feminist author who wrote in 1792,  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, an exhaustive critique of women’s education in her time, and their consequent place in society. To a contemporary reader, Wollstonecraft’s feminism may be similar to Christian or conservative feminism: she bases women’s right to education on its importance to be a good female Christian, that is mostly, to be a good wife and daughter, and, simultaneously, she exalts the virtue of chastity. Wollstonecraft’s text gives to the reader a good insight of what might be going on in genre relationships at the end of the 18th C. The author repeatedly shows her distress with the position women were left to: objects of desire. The lack of intellectual education was the cause, according to the author, of adultery and debauchery in marriage and within the family, affecting the whole of society. Women’s education taught them to be superficial limiting themselves to elegance and in being worshipped by men, or, and that is the dangerous point for Wollstonecraft, by seducers: ‘The sensualist, indeed, has been the most dangerous of tyrants, and women have been duped by their lovers, as princes by their ministers, whilst dreaming that they reigned over them’.

Understanding is placed as touchstone of domestic virtue and social freedom, while mere female slaves will never really understand their duties becoming thus completely vulnerable and morally weak. Wollstonecraft claims that her contemporary females obeyed without understanding, and, mostly were flattered by their husbands-to-be which supposed that once passion finished, the wife may be in need of another flatterer. If there is an author Wollstonecraft attacks is, easily to imagine, Rousseau who created the ‘angel of the house’ which pervaded the whole 19th C and beyond. Rousseau related knowledge with evil, therefore women should not need the reasons but the aims they were intended to achieved. Wollstonecraft’s reply is: ‘The great misfortune is this, that they both acquire manners before morals, and knowledge of life before they have from reflection any acquaintance with the grand ideal outline of human nature. The consequence is natural. Satisfied with common nature, they become a prey to prejudices, and taking all their opinions on credit, they blindly submit to authority. So that if they have any sense, it is a kind of instinctive glance that catches proportions, and decides with respect to manners, but fails when arguments are to be pursued below the surface, or opinions analyzed’.

Women, follows the author, only learn to imagine and dream with romantic and passionate love; they are taught how to please and expect a perpetual worship from their husbands for the rest of their marriages without any need for intellectual affinities or friendship. The relationship between imagination and adultery, as well as the exaltation of feelings in women brings close the figure of Mme Bovary, especially in this comment: ‘I own it frequently happens, that women who have fostered a romantic unnatural delicacy of feeling, waste their lives in imagining how happy they should have been with a husband who could love them with a fervid affection every day, and all day. But they might as well pine as single, and would not be a jot more unhappy with a bad husband than longing for a good one’. Mme Bovary is a work from 1856, and it is the work of adultery par excellence as the obsessive nightmare of the bourgeoisie. Flaubert describes a situation and a character which Wollstonecraft warned against more than half a century earlier.

Another treat of Emma Bovary is her fetichism and need for consumption, consumption to improve her body, her appearance once she is completely led astray by her multiple affairs. Emma’s debt can be seen as an unlimited desire for physical self which is fed by an unstoppable need for being desired. Wollstonecraft argues women were enslaved to their bodies because they were made weak since childhood paying not enough attention to their health, this situation endured her subjection: ‘Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adore its prison’.

Wollstonecraft finally relates the private with the public sphere, a very Victorian idea: the good inside makes the good outside. The notion of Victorian privacy was crucial (and still is, just look for example to the American relationship between politics and private life) to a welfare state, and here are already some thoughts on that: ‘Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers – in a word, better citizens’.

The author also criticizes the difference in what is expected from men and women: while women are insisted in being chaste, men are forgiven for their lust. Mme Bovary could only die, as it does Anna Karenina or Effi Briest, but there is no a bit of social critique to their lovers. However, as Tolstoi exemplifies in his book The Kreutzer Sonata, male promiscuity affects as much as female the wellbeing of marriage; being women the only bearers of the fault was of course naturally unfair but the conclusion of the whole system of thought Bourgeoisie society depended on.

The creation of the Angel of the House

The-First-Kiss-of-Love-La-Nouvelle-HeloiseJulie, ou la nouvelle Heloïse is a Rousseaunian work of 1761, a novel of these, a fictional work which aims to be witness of its author’s ideas. Rousseau is not a simple character: if it is true he is an enlightened it is also true that he had his particular ideas very different from some of his contemporaries as for example, Voltaire. Rousseau exalted reason but also feeling, criticized religious dogmatism and praised virtue to an heroic degree. Julie is an idea, a model, it is indeed a female perfection: what a woman should be. No less important is, I think, what joins the name of Julie, la nouvelle Heloïse, not very considered by its critics, as far as I know, but something I intend to insist on. Rousseau had no need to call his novel as he did, it may very well be called only Julie without implying a change in the text as it is all based on her and its aim is, as I said, to show us Julie’s perfection. But he did make a reference to the story of the medieval lovers, Heloïse and Abelard, and this fact will not leave me rest till I find why. Up to now, I consider the possibility that Rousseau, as enlightened, intended to create the woman of virtue, born in the 18th century as a reply to Heloïse, a woman of the medieval age, that is, for Rousseau, an obscure and catholic period. If Heloïse succumbed to Abelard’s seduction being, Rousseau would say, perverted and, as he actually said, dishonest – I guess for being faking her religious feelings all her life -, Julie is the new Heloïse: chastity, virtue, reason and honesty are her adjectives, which, of course, may be those of the Enlightenment according to Rousseau.

And here it is: the angel of the house. Julie has a limitless heart full of goof feelings, she  is full of virtue marrying her father’s candidate against her will and being able to love her ‘lover’ chastely; but she will also love her husband eventually being an impressive wife and mother. The text dedicates a part to describe how Julie manages the house, every single detail is in her mind, and this house is, indeed, as heaven. But all that was not enough for Rousseau, Julie dies saving her son’s life, and as her husband notes, she is la martyre de l’amour maternel. Even after her death, it is possible to feel her spiritual presence in the house, that is, as an ever present angel. Victorians will love this female expression, and we see how Victorian critics need to repetitively talk of the angel of the house, something which will die at the turn of the century with Modernism. But before that, I think Flaubert already puts in danger this glorified creation of the woman; and I think that a very interesting point. Some critics say Flaubert to be a proto modernist, some even dare to affirm he is a modernist, I do prefer the first option. One of the moments in Mme Bovary where it is possible to see this path towards Modernism is the moment of her death. Emma like Julie dies in bed, but unlike Julie the description of her body is terribly realistic – and a great piece of modern art . If Julie does not loss her perfection while dying, Emma does, indeed one can see the putrefaction of her body, her decay. Is this decay not the the end of the angel of the house and the advent of the new woman? May not the difference between the two dying bodies be the expression of one type of woman and the other?

To finish, I wish to note that if Rousseau presented a new Heloïse against Heloïse, one was real, not the other. Heloïse was a real woman with a real story, Julie did not exist: the angel of the house was a creation which filled for years and years an idea of femininity: Julie is never angry, never does wrong, never feel weak, never falls into temptations, she always wins her passions, and always remains happy.

I am definitively Heloïse.