The first time I read Madame Bovary, a few summers ago, my reaction was basically: Oh! It's readable. (Meaning: it's not written in the archaic language I'd been expecting.) And I liked it. Which is about all I remember now of the experience.
Earlier this summer, I reread it and felt some sort of sisterly affection for Emma. I sympathized with her. But I read her existence mostly as one of three Madame Bovarys, and I thought a lot about "fate" and how, for Emma, there weren't a whole lot of options for what a Madame Bovary could be. Then I met with Rachel and Ed and listened to them talk about the bourgeoise and provincial life and the balcony-and-manure scene. I pretty much always fail to see the humor in anything, so the comic element in their conversation was for the most part lost on me. Alas. After that discussion, though, I went home and reread Madame Bovary and tried to read it as if I, too, thought Emma an empty-hearted, empty-minded joke of a character at whose expense Flaubert had made ironic fun. Even still, I thought more of Emma than that. She's complicated, I believed, really she is! She's a fully realized female character! I left it at that but skimmed one last time, just to mark the passages detailing (those evil) romance novels that ruin her life.
Ever since Don Quixote, my historical list has been a veritable whirlwind of characters ruined by reading: Pamela is accused of having stuffed her head full of romantic novel foolishness, which is the cause of her hysterics; Francesca and Paolo end up in hell for reading about Lancelot and Guinevere; Tristram never lets us forget we're reading his book; Rousseau confesses everything about everything he's ever read, ever; Maria's books are a sort of balm to soothe a hurt, but only because what else is there to do when your husband's thrown you into an insane asylum?; Frankenstein's ruined by his education just as Doctor Faustus was ruined by his; Lockwood reads Cathy's diary and shrieks when her ghost appears, then goes back to Thrushcross Grange and writes in his diary, which in turn ruins us (can you keep it all together by the end?), not to mention Anne Carson; Moby-Dick's infected by about 80+ texts and a sub-sub library before we even get to "Call me Ishmael"; Esther's full of fairy tales she retells on the way to Bleak House; the Underground Man just can't even with Chernyshevsky's crystal palace — because really, what is to be done?; Dorian goes down thanks to the "yellow book," within which Des Essientes goes wild about the Satyricon; the governess's screwy story on those pages turning in hands we never see again is super creepy; young Marcel involuntarily remembers a whole childhood of reading. . . .
And now, also, Anna (Karenina), who wastes no time finding a train after that fateful ball and desperately rushes home (with her red bag! Honestly, Tolstoy leaves no detail to whimsy; even the figurative pistol in I.VII literally goes off in IV.XVIII). And we're told: "At first she could not read" — because she was distracted by all the activity around her. But later:
Anna read, and understood what she read; but the reading, that is, the necessity of entering into the lives of other people, became intolerable to her. She had too keen a desire to live for herself.
At this point, we might be thinking: Ah, she's rejecting books! But no:
She read how the heroine of her story took care of the sick: she would have liked to go with noiseless steps into the sick-room. She read how an M.P. made a speech: she would have liked to make that speech. She read how Lady Mary rode horseback, and astonished everyone by her boldness: she would have liked to do the same.
Which, basically, she does from that point forward (astonish everyone by her boldness). And now that I've finished Anna Karenina, I can't help but think that Emma Bovary really is empty-hearted and empty-minded. Anna's so full of life. She saves, she reasons, she plays, she flirts, she dances, she runs, she reads, she thinks, she mothers, she lies, she loves, she confesses, she leaves, she lives, she fears, she struggles, she dreams, she dies, etc. And all around her all the characters in all the locales all over the country are all full of life and fully realized, too. Like Bleak House, Anna Karenina is a sweeping panoramic view of a nation in a revolutionary time, a kaleidoscopic, epic in scope, weaving of the stories of the many lives ruled by blood, marriage, society, government, history, and protest, and the subsequent unweaving and re-weaving of those many lives with necessary births and deaths along the way. Madame Bovary is not. "Manure!" I understand now.
So what are we to make of all our reading about characters reading and being ruined by reading mostly romance novels? To be honest, I don't really know. I guess, at this point, I just keep thinking: Isn't every novel a romance novel? If not, why do we insist upon asking students: What do your characters want? Desire, longing, yearning, wanting, needing — these aren't limited to "romantic" content or even content period. They're the structural scaffolding on which we build and layer our stories. Our characters either get what they want (comedy), or they don't (tragedy). And everything until the end is romance (a twenty-year journey home, a dance, a game, a nightmare, a dream) filled with obstacles — which is (isn't it?) to say: plot.