LiteraryLadies #10: Emma Bovary

Emma Bovary is one of the most influential female characters in literature, behind Moll Flanders, Edna Pontellier & Anna Karenina . While I don’t love Emma, her pathetic attempts at a magical life make her tangibly pitiable; I end up rooting for her every time I read it. For a role like Emma Bovary, an actress with some flexibility is necessary, because the novel begins when she is a teenager and ends when she is about middle-aged. I thought Elizabeth Banks would be good for the role:
banks-1

I chose Banks for a few reasons– one, she’s beautiful, and I always imagined Emma’s beauty as too big for the tiny market town she resides in. Two, she has that classic, ageless loveliness that has the ability to look young and naive or mature and vampy with a change of neckline and some extra rouge. Third, her versatility as an actress is important for a role like Emma Bovary: she must simultaneously portray a woman who is utterly unhappy, swamped in guilt for that unhappiness, “ripe for seduction” (as her later lover called her), and flagrantly apathetic about the consequences her behavior has on anyone but herself.

Emma is a dreamer & a romantic, having read a great many novels during her time in the convent school. With more education than many women of her time, her proclivity to dissatisfaction is organic: she can see past the provincial delights of the stultifying market town in which she resides, past her bumbling husband’s mediocre attempts at love, and past the practically-written-in-stone mores of mid-19th century France. When even motherhood’s veiled secrets escape her, she is left listless and depressed, falling to affairs and insurmountable debts.

Emma Bovary

If Madame Bovary were set in today’s society, there would have to be some superficial changes to the plot. For example, I feel like Emma must be more of a “kept woman” than she is in the original story. In the novel Emma’s husband Charles Bovary has a second-rate medical license; since things are more regulated now, he could simply be a nurse, or a physician’s assistant– something that doesn’t require the same amount of school as an MD.

Their life together should be comfortable, but not luxurious. Modern-day Emma would constantly be looking at catalogues and browsing the internet for things lovelier and more decadent than they can afford. She is prim and childlike in the beginning of their marriage– and her daughter does nothing to alleviate the boredom and sadness that has seeped into her life– in fact, motherhood seems to make Emma’s dissatisfaction even greater. The novelty of having a child wears off quickly for her, and she begins to torture herself with the first of two ill-fated affairs.

The second affair, however, proves to be her undoing. Emma is enamored of and ensnared by the rakish Rodolphe Boulanger– in my version, he is a more successful version of Charles Bovary– perhaps a plastic surgeon or something equally superficial– and a womanizer, of course– a la Christian Troy in Nip/Tuck. When he abandons her on the eve of their elopement by leaving a cursory apology at the bottom of a basket of apricots, Emma falls apart. She is ill and unmanageable, even briefly turning to religion before discovering her true love: Shopping.

The collage above is meant to show Emma’s decadent tastes– while she is beautiful and loves luxurious things, I never pictured her to have a very sophisticated palate. Her clothes would be expensive but over-the-top, her closet overflowing with things your mother might have worn clubbing in 1987. The debts pile up quickly, and before she knows what has happened to her, she is begging money off of the men she’s used and who have used her, including Rodolphe. Without a penny and with no man to save her, Emma attempts to take her own life with arsenic, but ends up dying slowly, painfully, and without the dignity of anyone thinking it was an accident. A fitting– if messy– end for a woman whose disregard for those around her brings down her entire family.

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