Each fall, I teach “Madame Bovary” to my graduate writing students at
Hunter College, and each fall I read it with them. My course is called
Introduction to the Modern: The Role of Compassion. So we look at
modernism, and how it disrupts the literary world, and at compassion,
and how it expands the soul. I ask my students a fundamental question
about intention: Does Flaubert want us to feel contempt or compassion
for his characters?

My students have strong views on this, and I do, too. One student
declared his response to Charles Bovary. “I can’t stand him,” he said,
explosively. “He’s such a loser.”

“You blame him for that?” I asked. “No compassion?”

“He’s so dim,” he said. “He doesn’t notice Emma’s feelings, he doesn’t
notice she’s having affairs, he doesn’t notice his whole life is ruined.
Look, I just loathe him, O.K.?”

Maybe Flaubert intends for us to loathe the characters: he was famously
disgusted by everything around him. “I feel waves of hatred for the
stupidity of my age,” he wrote to a friend. Later, he wrote, “My
characters are completely commonplace.” Certainly, the townspeople of
Yonville are petty and narrow-minded—but Flaubert doesn’t tell us how to
feel about them. “I do not want my book to contain a single subjective
reaction, not a single reflection by the author.”

He tells us little about Emma when we first meet her, in her father’s
kitchen. She’s quiet, demure, domestic. Flaubert tells us what she does,
but not what she thinks, or even how she looks. Instead, he describes
what’s around her: “The parasol, of dove-gray iridescent silk, with the
sun shining through it, cast moving glimmers of sun over the white skin
of her face. She was smiling beneath it in the mild warmth; and they
could hear the drops of water, one by one, falling on the taut moiré.”
Through a literary sleight of hand, Flaubert confers beauty by
transference, creating an aura of subtly erotic loveliness around Emma.
He makes us imagine her beauty.

There’s a long literary tradition of heroines who are both beautiful and
virtuous; we believe Emma is beautiful, so we assume she’s good. But
disruption is Flaubert’s game, and he explodes the trope of beauty and
virtue: Emma is not good, she absolutely refuses to be good. The female
students tend to be the most critical of her. “She’s so selfish,” one
complained. “She’s such a materialist,” another said. “She’s so shallow,
so superficial. She’s just interested in social status.” And the worst:
“She’s such a bad mother.”

All of this is true. So how will we engage emotionally? Because we do,
people are still reading this book a hundred and sixty-one years after its
publication. One woman told me that her grandmother was reading it with
her; they held their own book group, every week, to discuss it. One
student—a guy—admired Emma’s aristocratic lover, Rodolphe. “That breakup
letter he wrote was really beautiful,” he said.

A woman in the class stared at him. “You thought it was beautiful?” she
asked. “I wrote in the margin, ‘Fuck you.’ ”

He made a U-turn. “O.K., he’s a dick.”

Flaubert wants to challenge us. “This will be the first time, I think,
that a book makes fun of its leading lady and its leading man,” he wrote
a friend. He won’t give us a traditional protagonist, brave and
virtuous, who is triumphant in the end. He won’t let us admire Emma.

More surprisingly, for a novelist, he blames her downfall on novels.
When she was at convent school, Emma was spiritually inclined; she
considered a religious vocation. But she lost interest in the Church
when she began reading contraband romances that had been smuggled inside
in an old lady’s pockets. Emma learned that she could escape from the
real world into fiction. She learned about midnight trysts, stolen
brides, passion and glamour. She learned that romantic love was a
crack-cocaine high, tingling, ardent, and never-ending. This was an
adolescent’s dream, impossible to realize, but no one told Emma that.
(Her mother was dead.) She believed it; it became her ideal; it ruined
her life.

Disruption is an extreme sport for Flaubert. He’s created a leading lady
whom he challenges us to despise. But does he despise her?

I think he can’t decide; I think he changes his mind.

Because Flaubert also loves Emma. She’s vain and selfish, shallow, all
those things, but she’s also oddly innocent, a visionary. When Emma
realizes that her romantic dream won’t come true with the loyal,
plodding Charles, she views her marriage as a failure and plunges into
despair. But when she meets the handsome, aristocratic Rodolphe she sees
another chance at passion. Tremulous, hopeful, vulnerable, she falls in
love. Reckless, ecstatic, she meets him in her garden at night. She runs
across the fields at dawn and arrives in his room breathless, and
smelling like a spring morning. Her dewy skirts, her thin boots, muddy
from the fields, her pounding heart and shining face: it’s hard to think
that Flaubert feels anything but tenderness for this Emma. Compassion.

Rodolphe breaks her heart.

Now she’s become cynical, but Emma still pursues her dream. She becomes
the engine of the narrative: vital, inventive, unstoppable, careening
toward her end. When, at last, she admits failure, she makes a hero’s

Once she has (spoiler alert) taken poison, Flaubert slows the action and
abandons ambivalence. It becomes impossible to judge Emma, because now
we are at one with her, inside her mind and body. We understand that she
is doomed, as we experience the fear and majesty of what’s to come. Her
death is worse than she’d imagined—slow and hideously painful. Emma
struggles; she is calm. She screams and begs. She is given the last
rites, she says goodbye to her family.

She feels the cold begin to rise from her feet.

Each year, when I read about that rising cold, I feel I am in Emma’s
body, sensing the march of death as it moves through me. I feel a
growing terror that reminds me that we are all human.

The slow approach of Emma’s death is like the tolling of a dreadful
bell. She transcends her earlier selves; her shallowness, her
recklessness, and her selfishness become insignificant. Her humanity
becomes greater than her flaws. She is dignified by the immensity of her
journey and the fell majesty of her destination. Her fragility becomes
vividly clear; there is no refuge from the body.

If we felt no sympathy for Emma before, we feel it now. Flaubert spares
neither us nor himself. As he wrote the scenes of her death, he became
ill. At our last class, I told my students that Flaubert asks us to
accept a heroine who is deeply flawed; one who pursues an impossible
quest and loses everything; one who is indefatigable and fearless.

At the start, Flaubert encourages us to judge her. But by the end he
asks us to consider what it means to sacrifice everything for a dream.
He asks us to consider human dreams and their worth. He asks who among
us are heroes. He asks us to consider the human body, which is such an
intimate partner in our lives. How Emma’s body, so strong and vigorous
in her pursuit of love, finally compels a dreadful reckoning over which
she has no control.

I asked my students to consider Emma in this way, and to ask themselves
these questions. And to see if they felt compassion for her now.

The woman who’d accused Emma of social climbing said, slowly, “Now I
feel bad.”

The student with the grandmother sighed.

“This is huge,” she said. “This book is huge. It’s about everything.

Which was just what Flaubert, the disrupter, had intended.