Book Review: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

While we’re talking about books about doctors, here’s another good one for you:  Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

Madame Bovary is the story of Emma Bovary and her corruption and dissipation as she attempts to pursue an ideal of romantic love inspired by pop culture, and of her husband Charles who cannot be deterred in his love for her no matter what indignities and infidelities she may commit.  Set in the countryside of 19th century France, the story begins with Charles’s first day of school and continues through his growing-up years to his first marriage to a woman he didn’t love, and then to his marriage to Emma Bovary after his first wife dies.  Charles is totally devoted to Madame Bovary, but she is unable and unwilling to receive his love because it does not fit in with her ideas of what romantic love is supposed to be like–ideas which were not her own at all but which came strictly from society and pop culture.  She has affairs with other men, ruins Charles and herself financially through her extravagance, and finally gets sick and dies a grisly death.

Madame Bovary attained a huge measure of notoriety when it was placed on trial for obscenity by public prosecutors in 1857.  This notoriety propelled it to bestseller status and it went on to become one of the most influential novels ever written.

It is common advice for writers to write about what they know, but Flaubert carried this to an extreme in writing Madame Bovary.  If he could not write something from his own experience, he sought the experience out that would enable him to do so.  In writing the scene about the Vaubyessard ball, he lamented that he had not been to an actual ball in a long time.  In order to write the scene about the agricultural fair, he actually went to one.  In order to write about the clubfoot episode, he sought the advice of his brother Achille, and when his answers proved unsatisfactory he went and sought out the information he needed independently in medical texts.  When Flaubert was writing, he sought to actually become his characters by projecting himself into them.  Here is a quote in which he describes this process:

What a delicious thing writing is–not to be you any more but to move through the whole universe you’re talking about.  Take today, for instance:  I was man and woman, lover and mistress; I went riding in a forest on a fall afternoon beneath the yellow leaves, and I was the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words he and she spoke, and the red sun beating on their half-closed eyelids, which were already heavy with passion.

One of the chief thrusts of the story is about the adulteries of Madame Bovary and the eventual ruin that she comes to as a result.  If that was all there was to the story, it would not be a very good story.  A good story does not simply project negatives in order to induce people to avoid them; it must have something positive to offer as well.  And the positive in this story is Charles Bovary.  One may fault him for stupidity in remaining devoted to Madame Bovary even when she was dead set on ruining him through infidelity and extravagance, but at the end of the day Charles is the only character in the story who emerges with a measure of grace and humanness.  Charles loves Madame Bovary to the end, no matter what; the tragedy in the story is that she is unable to receive the love which he was so freely and generously willing to offer her.

What Is Lent and Why Should We Bother With It? An Ash Wednesday Primer

As I write this it is Ash Wednesday evening.  (Actually it is about an hour after midnight so it isn’t Ash Wednesday anymore, but I don’t care.  Deal with it.)  And my purpose in writing this is quite simple:  I want you, my fellow evangelicals, to acknowledge and show an increased respect for the season of Lent.

Lent is not very big among evangelicals, for the simple reason that evangelicals have a serious and profound distrust of anything liturgical.  This distrust stems from the lingering influence of the Puritans, who were all about simplifying belief, worship, and practice as much as possible.

As a former Catholic who was turned off by excesses in Catholic belief and practice, I get the Puritan emphasis on simplification.  I do not believe that Scripture and tradition are to be viewed as equally authoritative, but instead that tradition ought to be judged and held in check by Scripture.

We evangelicals are in no danger whatsoever of falling into the same ditch as our Catholic brethren who have elevated tradition to a place of equal authority with Scripture.  Instead, we have fallen into the ditch on the opposite side of the road.  We believe that we who live in the present moment are the end-all, be-all of what God is doing in the world, and we are completely clueless as to our place in the grand scheme of what God has done throughout the 2,000-year history of the church.

I would like for us to get a clue.  That is why I am taking this opportunity to plug Lent. Continue reading “What Is Lent and Why Should We Bother With It? An Ash Wednesday Primer”

Les Miserables 2: An Upright Man

We began by looking at Les Miserables from a 30,000 ft view.  We looked at the story itself, at the life of Victor Hugo, at the history of France during the time period in which the story is set, at the spiritual overtones which are present in the story, and at what (if anything) the story has to say to us in this day and age.  Now, we are ready to start digging in.

When Les Miserables begins, the very first character we meet is a bishop named Monsigneur Bienvenu.  His full name was Monsieur Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel, but rather than attempt to struggle through all that, most people just abbreviated it M. Myriel.  While he served as bishop, his parishioners called him Monsigneur Bienvenu.

Victor Hugo begins by giving us the history of Monsigneur Bienvenu’s life prior to serving as bishop, in the way of filling us in on the gossip that was going around about him back when he started out.  He was the son of a Superior Court judge, and he devoted the early part of his life to worldly pleasures.  But when the French Revolution broke out, that spelled big trouble for him and his family because of his aristocratic position.  He and his wife fled to Italy, and there she died, leaving him no children.  With all the turmoil in his personal life stemming from the loss of his wife and home and family, and from the terrors which were taking place back home in France during the 1790s, who knows what happened next?  All we know is that by 1804 he was back in France and he was a priest.

He started out as cure of Brignolles.  By then he was already an old man living in seclusion.  But right around the time of Napoleon’s coronation, some business or other related to his parish (no one remembers exactly what it was) brought him to Paris, where he just happened to cross paths with Napoleon.  Napoleon saw him and remarked, “Who is this good man looking at me?”  To which he responded, “Sire, you are looking at a good man, and I at a great one.  May we both be the better for it.”  Talk about choosing one’s words well; the end result of this encounter was that Monsigneur Bienvenu was appointed bishop of Digne.

Victor Hugo employs some of his sagacious wit in describing Monsigneur Bienvenu’s arrival in Digne, where he “had to submit to the fate of every newcomer in a small town, where many tongues talk but few heads think.” Continue reading “Les Miserables 2: An Upright Man”

Featured Link: The Not For Sale Campaign

In my previous post I raised the issue of human slavery, which, despite all illusions to the contrary, is very much alive and well in our day and age.  I mentioned that this issue is alive and well in many parts of the world, from the sweatshops of south Asia to the child soldiers of Uganda to right here in the dear old U. S. of A.

So today let me direct your attention to an organization which is rising to confront this issue head-on.  The Not For Sale Campaign is an organization which is dedicated to raising awareness of slavery and human trafficking in our day.  It is a movement of people from all professions and walks of life who are united in the desire to see an end to slavery in our time.  There is much that you can do to help raise awareness of this issue, and the website is chock full of ideas and resources for you to get involved.

So bop on over and check out the Not For Sale Campaign, and join the fight to end slavery in our time.

What (If Anything) Does Les Miserables Have to Say to Us Today?

For the past few Les Miserables posts we have been looking at it from a 30,000 foot level.  (It has been a while since I’ve posted anything on Les Miserables; you can go to the sidebar and look for “Les Miserables” under Categories and that will bring up a listing of all the previous Les Miserables posts so that you can refresh your memory.)  Before we dive into a more detailed look at the story, I wish to consider one more issue from this macro level:  Les Miserables was written by Victor Hugo and addressed primarily to his fellow countrymen in 19th century France.  But what, if anything, does it have to say to us here today, in 21st century America?

One of the marks of great literature is that it is timeless–though it is primarily addressed to a specific people living in a specific place at a specific time, there is something in it that is applicable in some form or fashion to all people in all times and all places.  So what does Les Miserables have to say to us in our present place and situation? Continue reading “What (If Anything) Does Les Miserables Have to Say to Us Today?”

Is That a Hole in Your Soul Or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

I just finished reading a Tony Hillerman mystery in which the villain was a New Mexico landowner who started out as a geologist working for an oil company.  He was looking for oil, and in the process of finding it he also found a huge uranium deposit.  The uranium would have been worth much more than the oil, and he did not want to see it go to waste, so he arranged to have the oil well blown up and all the workers killed in an apparent drilling accident.  He remade his identity, came back a couple of years later and bought up the land when the oil company’s lease on it had expired, mined uranium to his heart’s content and became hugely rich and powerful.

The whole mystery hinges on the fact that this man had two completely and totally separate identities.  There was the old self–who he was prior to the apparent drilling accident, and the new self that he made himself into afterward.  He took this so far that all that remained of his old self was a few artifacts which he kept hidden in a strongbox in a secret vault.

I think a lot of evangelicals do the same thing.  We divide our lives into two completely watertight compartments:  our lives “before Christ” and our lives “after Christ”–that is, before or after we made the decision to begin a relationship with Jesus Christ–or “got saved”, to use the correct evangelical terminology.  We justify this arrangement using verses such as 2 Corinthians 5:17 (“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”) or Ephesians 2:1 (“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world…”) or Colossians 1:21-22 (“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.  But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight…”). Continue reading “Is That a Hole in Your Soul Or Are You Just Happy to See Me?”