07 March 2013

We Must Not Touch Our Idols

We must not touch our idols; the gilt sticks to our fingers.

I just finished reading Madame Bovary. (Phew!) It took a long time. It took three sleepless nights to get through the last part. By the end of the third night, I was crying. Flaubert had me. For whom were these tears, you might ask? For Charles Bovary, Emma’s husband. 

So what if Charles is common, unsophisticated, not intellectual? He is a good man. He is kind, hardworking, loyal. That’s the most important thing, isn’t it? That’s all one can ask for from a man—from a spouse. Few deserve Charles. Emma doesn’t. I certainly don’t. (Not that it’s a matter of what one deserves.) But it’s funny because I wrote recently to a friend about how I could identify with Emma, who is irresponsible and a total romantic, who lapses into boredom, sickness, and depression whenever reality fails to match her ideas. (It’s awful, but that’s me. I touch idols until inevitably they cease to be idols.) And yet in the end it was Charles for whom I was suddenly rooting. It was for him that I was suddenly feeling.

One of the most interesting things about the creation of Madame Bovary is that the first English translation of it—that which I read—was produced by Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx. If you’ve read the novel, the story of Eleanor’s death will sound horribly familiar. She was sickened by, among other things, a love affair: this was with socialist campaigner Edward Aveling. So sickened was she that she decided to send her maid Gertrude to the chemist for chloroform and hydrogen cyanide. Eleanor swallowed the poison in the privacy of her room. Unlike Emma, however, she actually had time to pen a final billet-doux. “Dear, it will soon be all over now,” she wrote in her suicide note to Edward. “My last word to you is the same that I have said during all these long, sad years: love.”

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