Saturday, September 25, 2010
The de-Romanticization of Adultery: Emma Bovary and Renée Saccard
Zola’s La Curée was published in 1872, around 15 years after the notorious publication of Madame Bovary. It’s clear, in writing a novel centered on adultery, that Zola was playing off Flaubert’s work. Like Flaubert, Zola had to deal with censorship when the book started being published in a periodical.
There are some obvious differences, of course. Zola is dealing with the swank set in Paris and Flaubert with the humdrum provincial life of rural Normandy. And while Flaubert is documenting simple adultery, Zola compounds the act with quasi-incest (stepmother). After all, in the Paris of La Curée, garden-variety adultery is almost expected. Nevertheless, the stories are remarkably parallel.
The heroine of both books, Emma Bovary and Renée Saccard, were seen as scandalous in their day. Both women, restless and without responsibilities or direction in life, throw themselves into sensuality as an escape from boredom. They are in principle childless – Emma basically abandons hers, Renée loses hers to a miscarriage. At the same time as they are fooling around, as if to punish their unromantic husbands, they become fanatical consumers of luxury, far beyond what the household can afford, driving their husbands into bankruptcy (Bovary) or its brink (Saccard).
Both risk discovery by flaunting their all but public lovemaking. Their adultery should be obvious to their husbands, but one husband (Bovary) is too naïve, the other (Saccard) seems indifferent, deliberately look away for his own purposes. Both women are far more intense in their cravings than their more detached lovers. They eventually grow tired of that unrelenting neediness, in the end abandoning them.
Both novels skirt the edge of melodrama. Both heroines see their would-be tragic destiny foreshadowing in a visit to the theater. For Emma it is the crazed Lucia di Lammermoor that she projects herself onto. For Renée it is the incestuous Phèdre that she obsesses about, performed in the melodramatic style of the age.
When finally abandoned, Emma swallows arsenic. Instead of a swift and Romantic death, she suffers several days of severe and rather repulsive illness before she dies– a fate far from the pathos of the trashy novels Emma is addicted to.
For Renée, the act of self-destruction comes not at the end of the novel, but rather at the end of the first chapter. If Phèdre, who swallows poison to end her guilty life is tragic, Renée is simply bathetic. Her self-poisoning takes place in the sensual overload of the hothouse of the Saccard mansion. Feeling depressed and abandoned, she bites into the poison-milk-oozing “Tanghin de Madagascar”, and faints dead away, apparently dead. We later learn that she was quickly cured and that the dramatic gesture had no real impact. As in this case, when through the novel Renée tempts fate, fate does not seem very moved to do anything. In the end, she dies not of some jealous fury or headlong self-immolation, but rather of meningitis, a death dismissed in one sentence at the end of the book. The main interest is one who would pay off her outstanding debts. In both novels, the romantic passion is undermined by the very real question of who pays.
Money, which has no place in romantic fiction and very little in melodrama, is fatally important, far more than the sex, which would seem to be the main thene. Both ladies are lured into debt by fashion/cloth merchants, who tempt the ladies into extravagant debt that, in the end, has to be discharged by the husbands. Financial manipulators, whether on a provincial petty-bourgeois level or in the most spendthrift layer of Paris society, is the equivalent of the Furies or the Fates in these novels.