Sunday, December 4, 2011

Why Madame Bovary is the worst movie/book for school kids

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Madame Bovary, written by Gustave Flaubert, is the classical story of people who can't tell what they need from what they want. In this case, it's an overly ambitious desperate housewife (Emma Bovary played by Jennifer Jones in the 1949 classic) who decides that happiness is all about having affairs with rich men and bankrupting her husband. The literary merits notwithstanding, I'm surprised that this is used as a textbook in schools. It's a little tricky here because the overall message - "grow up" - makes perfect sense for the students in their late teens. But when we go a little deeper and look at other characters and how their lives play out in conjunction with Madame Bovary's vagrant tendencies, we begin to see a very disturbing message - That message is not that "growing up" is about having a realistic view of the world and learning to let go of wants/dreams that are no longer practical. Rather, that's just what we "want" to learn from Emma's life. The real message here is that one must be selfish and seek one's happiness at the expense of others. Let me explain why it is so...


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Now, don't get me wrong, there is no doubt that Emma Bovary pretty much destroys her life with her somewhat naive but vagrant tendencies to seek what she can't have, resulting from her dissatisfaction with her real life and the tendency to delve in her childhood fantasies. She does need to realize her limits and find happiness in what she has in real life, and stop chasing her impossible dreams. Now, whether the idea of sucking it up and ignoring her dreams, would bring her any more happiness than actively working towards them, is open to debate. We can assume that she is unhappy because she basically doesn't have a firm footing, but what about her husband (Charles Bovary played by Van Heflin in the 1949 classic)? He certainly seems to have a firm footing on reality. He knows his limits both personally and professionally. He doesn't take unnecessary risks, doesn't give into illusions of grandeur like Madame Bovary does. His personality and understanding of the world is just what Madame Bovary needs. But then we see that his own sufferings come from a similar issue - his need to "grow up", albeit in a different way.

Charls Bovary loves Emma and that's where all his misery comes from - his belief in true love. He loves Emma and doesn't let go even though he can see that Emma is all but destroying his life. She is extravagant to the point of driving him into debt, she's not a good wife, she
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cheats she doesn't even care for her own child! But he stays simply because of his idea of "true love" when a more logical action would be to marry someone more "normal" who really loves him and his child. It'd be a selfish thing to do but it'd solve all his problems and would provide a better home for his child. So, in a way he also needs to "grow up" and realize that idealistic notions sound great on paper but might not work in real life. Sucking it up and moving on is fine when the problems just can't solved, but one has to play selfish and protect oneself sometimes at the expense of others.


Talking about selfishness, Leon Dupuis (played by Alf Kjellin in the 1949 classic), the moneylender Lheureux (played by Frank Allenby in the 1949 classic), the aristocrat Rodolphe Boulanger (played by Louis Jourdan in the 1949 classic) seem to be more "grown up". Rodolphe Boulanger knows what is good for him and doesn't let his emotions get in the way of his work. He
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knows that ha's falling in love with Madame Bovary. But he also knows that it will not really work out. He also sees that, in a way, he is responsible for destroying Emma's home. So, he makes the right decision and leaves her. We have to understand that his actions, harsh as they are, are meant to push Emma away so that she realizes the truth and goes back to her family. We also need to understand that leaving Emma is a painful decision for him as well because he does love her enough to be willing to burn his old letters and going out of his way to get closer to her. But he knows that getting carried away by his emotions will only cause misery. Finally, when Rodolphe figures that whatever he had with Madame Bovary is over, he cuts her completely off and refuses to even provide some monetary help. In essence, Rodolphe Boulanger does everything what Madame Bovary's husband Charles should have done - be selfish, disregards others completely when they are not needed and move on to his own better life.

The moneylender Lheureux, on the other hand, is even higher up the food chain when it comes to having a firm footing on real life. He is a ruthless businessman, is probably the most selfish character in the story, and has absolutely no regard for other's pain and suffering. He doesn't run an honest business either, he pretty much tricks Madame Bovary into loans at rates that he knows her husband Charles can't possibly afford (Yes, that's what a loan shark is, if you were wondering). Later he just sells the debts off and leaves Madame Bovary at the mercy of another loan shark who doesn't give a whit about Madame Bovary's home and family. We can see that he is pretty much the worst character in the story. But going back to the message that the teens are expected to receive - Is Lheureux "grown up"? It seems he is the one who comes out of it all with good profits and absolutely no suffering whatsoever.


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Goes without saying that Lheureux, and to some extent the aristocrat Rodolphe Boulanger, would appeal to anyone looking for "life lessons" in this story. The "life lessons" being - Be Selfish. Use others for your personal gains. Don't worry about morality & ethics.....All in all, Madame Bovary sends a very strong, and I daresay, very disturbing message about the winners and the losers in the real world.