One of my students is sort of an expert on French literature these days. Zola, Balzac, Flaubert. The whole thing is rather impressive. She has been analyzing one particular scene in Madame Bovary for a while now, looking at how Flaubert uses the hotel room where Emma and Leon meet as a way to basically call Emma out on her affectations and pretensions. And pretty much insinuate that she is a stupid cow it appears. We have had some laughs over the excerpt: “arrow-headed [curtain] rods,” “big balls [gleaming on the fender],” “big, pink” conch shells… And spent a good deal of time trying to come up with lots of synonyms for tawdry, cheap, and a general lack of sophistication, the premise being that the room in which Emma finds herself ensconced in the glory of romantic love is really just a cheap imitation of her ideals, and really rather poorly thrown together. I made my student laugh when I said I felt sorry for Emma because she reminded me of someone who goes to Vegas and says (in my best Britney drawl), “Oh my gaww! Lookit! It’s jus’ so beautiful! Lookit all how niiiiice it is!”
The room is described at once as plain, frivolous, tranquil, passionate, delightful, intimate, faded, splendid. My student said thrown together. I said hodgepodge. She raised her eyebrow. I said, “It’s like a full-on Monet.” She said, “What?”
Emma Bovary has colored her expectations by her own illusions/delusions/desires (we are still debating whether or not Emma is stupid or delusional, or really, sort of typical in her fantasies – the debate seems to fall along an interesting age divide – she seems perfectly plausible to me as I compare her to a lot of people I know, not so to my seventeen year old counterpart who sees her an inept idiot.) Emma’s perspective, based primarily on her adoration of what Geoffrey Wall calls sub-literary trash, seems so pathetically transparent when you look at it in the abstract. But she does not look at things in the abstract (due to inability or choice, I do not know) and so she colors entire chapters of her life with sweeping strokes of grandeur.
Emma sees connections, suggestions, and relationships between things that the audience, and certainly Flaubert, see as completely unrelated at best and in direct opposition to Emma’s reality at worst.
So, is this a lack of discernment or an astute ability to synthesize? This question has got me all perplexed.
Do I suffer from an inability to discern when, through the course of an hour lesson, I can call up images of Las Vegas, French literature, Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, impressionist art, Britney Spears, and the singular significance of a specifically placed comma? Or am I a master of synthesis? I can only hope that I am not contributing to the production of ‘sub-literary trash’ (though I LOVE the label) but still I see such a need for abstract analogies sometimes that it makes me wonder. It is the age old quandary of the sum versus the total of the parts. I suppose one’s goal makes all the difference. For now, I think I am sticking with the hodgepodge effect. Realistically, I am not sure I could stop at this point.
Tai: Do you think she’s pretty?
Cher: No, she’s a full-on Monet.
Tai: What’s a monet?
Cher: It’s like a painting, see? From far away, it’s OK, but up close, it’s a big old mess. Let’s ask a guy. Christian, what do you think of Amber?