Love Stories Used To Be More Tragic

Adelle Waldman wonders whether older books about marriage and romance are more powerful because “their protagonists contended with societal repression, instead of merely struggling with their lovers and with themselves—with their conflicting desires and changing moods”:

“Madame Bovary” isn’t really a didactic story of a woman who is tragically stuck in a bad marriage—though there is enough of that in the novel so that generations of college freshmen can spin essays about the bad old days and the subjugation of women. The book itself paints a rather more complicated picture of Emma’s situation. Most of the novel’s true admirers prize it for reasons less likely to make for neat five-paragraph essays: because of the lovely yet unsentimental precision of Flaubert’s prose, because of his shrewdness about his characters—the way he exposes what is trite and bourgeois, as well as what is real and often inexpressible, the way he forces us to simultaneously recoil and pity—and because of his relentless depiction of the dullness of provincial life and the hypocrisy of those who at first appear to be less dull, more cosmopolitan. Very little of this feels dated to me.

It could still be, however, that the power of “Madame Bovary” is amplified by the social and historical backdrop. That Emma was trapped in a marriage that, officially, could only be dissolved by death (although she was willing to run off to Italy with Rodolphe) perhaps raised the tension and gave Flaubert an ideal canvas on which to exercise his other talents.