Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sarah Palin, the Madam Bovary of Alaska

Bovary, Emma--a memorable, iconic character; a prime example of the way causality and determinism trigger responses in a front-rant character; a person who became disenchanted with her life, then attempted to effect change.

Emma is everything you could want in a character. She has a vision, which she seeks at accelerated levels to achieve; she has a mounting sense of frustration because her stratagems do not produce their intended goals; she has a growing sense of dislike for her husband, Charles, because of the fact that he, of all those with whom she has contact, wants nothing more than to please her. The fabric of life is Emma's romantic vision. Emma's behavior and attitudes comprise Charles Bovary's romantic vision. They are coevals in an existential train wreck.

Compare and contrast Emma Bovary with Mr. Stephens of Kazuo Ishiguro's remarkable The Remains of the Day: Each means no harm to others. Although each causes some collateral damage along the way, Emma is an absolute disaster in the totality of her effect, bringing her feckless husband to the state of utter inability to cope with life, while Mr. Stephens, although unintentionally breaking Miss Kenton's heart, has mostly damaged himself. He is, in fact, Charles Bovary writ larger than Bovary himself. Emma has romantic visions of enhanced social position and the exciting life she imagines will result from that position. Stephens has the romantic notion of achieving the enhanced plateau of being one of the best butlers ever. In fact, Stephens has served Lord Darlington, a conspicuous supporter of Hitler in the pre-World War II years, and who now, at the beginning of the novel, is reduced to serving a status-conscious American. Both Emma Bovary and Stephens are extreme examples of naive narrator, each intelligent enough to see beyond the surfaces apparent to them but each is resolutely unwilling to do so.

As Mark Twain notably did with his parodic treatment of Walter Scott-type romanticism and chivalry in such works as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer, Detective, and Huckleberry Finn, Emma Bovary's creator, Gustav Flaubert, took Emma's reading habits as a vehicle he rode into the literary sunset. Emma's early readings only seemed to whet her appetite for the things she considered to be missing from her life. In a real sense, the more she read, the more her sense of reality was shunted off to the side, allowing the vast interior of her fantasy life to expand to the point where it overrode any possibility that reality would survive. In a fitting irony, Emma Bovary identified herself with Anna Karenina, pursuing suicide as the appropriate way out of the nightmare of circumstance she had created for herself. But here, too, Emma was betrayed by illusion. Anna Karenina's death was over in a brief moment. The drama of Emma's death was painful and protracted.

For more reasons than exquisiteness of character delineation, Madam Bovary is consistently cited as one of the five or ten major novels in any language at any time, but the complexity, inner struggles, and outer agenda inherent in Emma Bovary make her a tempting height to aspire when bringing a character onto a page in a story. Flaubert is famously remembered as saying that Emma Bovary is he. He might as well have said Emma Bovary is story.

1 comment:

Marie Cloutier said...

Very interesting. I haven't read either book in years so I can't comment substantively but I love the idea of Stephens and Emma as related. Both live in a fantasy world that collapses and leaves them bereft.