Monday, January 14, 2008


Before marriage she thought herself in love; but the happiness that should have followed this love not having come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words, felicity, passion, rapture, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Right now, I am sixty pages into this classic literary novel. Personally, I am not fond of Flaubert’s writing style, which, using countless words and paragraphs in the process, relies more on telling than showing during the course of the story. However, I am impressed by his achievement in setting up and dealing with a very interesting issue when it comes to love and marriage: unsatisfied expectations.

In a previous posting, I addressed the issue of motivation. In that posting, I inserted the following passage by Lois J. Peterson: “If [the character] is pursuing something as specific as a new watch, a job or a trophy, identify the bigger need it represents.”

In the case of Madame Bovary, Flaubert efficiently identifies Emma’s bigger need of romance in the excerpt above; the next chapter, which immediately follows this sentence, then explores in great detail all the reasons behind her need. Growing up, she spent some time in a convent, under the tutorship of nuns. It was during this time that Emma discovered books, where she then learned of different landscapes, animals and social classes. In her readings, she developed a Cinderella ideal regarding love and marriage, believing more in the written page than in the real events of life itself. She suffers from the same malady expressed by Neal Simon in Biloxi Blues: people tend to believe what they read. If someone went to so much trouble to write it, then it must be true. With writing, then, comes responsibility. The same can be said regarding the act of reading.

Unfortunately for Emma, Charles Bovary is on the opposite end of her ideal spectrum. In time, dissatisfaction draws her eyes to the world around her. As a result, comparison sets up court and opens an intellectual dialogue in her heart, which is evidenced by the following passage:

She asked herself if by some other chance combination it would not have been possible to meet another man; and she tried to imagine what would have been these unrealized events, this different life, this unknown husband. All, surely, could not be like this one.

While I have much more to read, I can’t help but anticipate that Emma’s unrealized expectations will motivate her future actions in the story. And while her unrealized expectations concern love and romance, as a motivator the same issue can affect people in other aspects of their lives.

During an interview, the new employee, an aging single mother of three, sees the bright and cheery side of her prospective boss. However, it only takes a few months--after the employment honeymoon is over--for her to see the evil Mr. Hyde behind the mask of the good Dr. Jekyll. Every day brings a new assault on her intelligence and her values. What once seemed like the answer to her prayers has now taken a turn for the worse, and she desperately begins looking for a way out. But it’s a new job. Looking for something else so soon will only look bad for her. As a result, she considers an opportunity to have a new boss, but keep the same job. Maybe she sabotages him by revealing that he’s having an affair with the department head of human resources, a single woman with platinum blonde hair and a cute little figure. It isn’t true, of course, but haven’t they shared one too many lunch hours together? She decides it is just plausible enough to serve her purpose. And while the HR department head will be collateral damage, she’s young and can more easily find another job.

A happy couple buy into their first house, and then the unspeakable happens. A convicted sex offender buys the house next door. This isn’t supposed to happen, is it? Whatever happened to living happily ever after? And how can they have children when a monster lives just over the fence? They can’t sell. Who wants to buy a house next to a sex offender? They can’t rent for the same reasons. But what if something were to happen--something like an auto accident? The fool does ride a motorcycle, after all. And aren’t motorcycles dangerous? Sooner or later, everyone has to lay it down. Why not make it sooner?

Setting up the unrealized expectation should be easy. Reading the local newspaper--a daily blotter of disappointment, these days--will give an author plenty of ideas. How the character responds to the unrealized expectation, how he struggles to achieve Nirvana, and at what cost, can make up the heart of a good literary story.


  1. Have you seen the film "Little Children"?

  2. No, I haven't seen the film. What is it about?

  3. Ironically, part of the plot revolves around a registered sex offender moving into a suburban neighborhood --AND-- the lead female character in the film (Sarah) joins a book discussion group that is reading Madame Bovary. There is a wonderful scene in the film where Sarah defends Madame Bovary to the other women in the group:

    Sarah Pierce:
    I think I understand your feelings about this book. I used to have some problems with it, myself. When I read it in grad school, Madame Bovary just seemed like a fool. She marries the wrong man; makes one foolish mistake after another; but when I read it this time, I just fell in love with her. She's trapped! She has a choice: she can either accept a life of misery or she can struggle against it. And she chooses to struggle.

    Mary Ann:
    Some struggle. Hop into bed with every guy who says hello.

    Sarah Pierce:
    She fails in the end, but there's something beautiful and even heroic in her rebellion. My professors would kill me for even thinking this, but in her own strange way, Emma Bovary is a feminist.

    Mary Ann:
    Oh, that's nice. So now cheating on your husband makes you a feminist?

    Sarah Pierce:
    No, no, it's not the cheating. It's the hunger. The hunger for an alternative, and the refusal to accept a life of unhappiness.

    Mary Ann:
    Maybe I didn't understand the book.

  4. I have a simple solution to the sex offender next door and its ingredients are oily rags and a book of matches