Thursday, August 14, 2008

Bovary and Frankenstein: Peas in a Pod



Emma Bovary and Victor Frankenstein, though hailing from two starkly contrasting literary periods or genres, share at least one great similarity: always thinking of themselves, both wish to do or become something that is much more grandiose than their societal station or anyone’s common moral ethics of the day will allow.

Frankenstein is a classic example of the typical egg-headed poindexter of the Romantic era. He is reclusive, brilliant, high-minded, and, to make an understatement, ambitious. After all, your average humanist would not be nearly mystical, eccentric, or ingenious enough to dig up human remains out of sundry grave yards and magically turn them into a composite and living creation. On the other hand, however astronomically brainy Frankenstein is, it’s hard to imagine a Sancho Panza or other typical “fool” who would be foolish enough to put together a living, breathing, and potentially destructive creature, without calculating the risks of creation or even contemplating the creature’s future. Indeed, so caught up is Frankenstein in his own genius and ability to become the veritable god of a new “species” that he flees (oddly, without a screech) from the “wretch” which he took months to create in a brief, shocked, and terrorized flight much like the air-headed protagonist of Michael Jackon’s popular music video “Thriller.” How could any self-proclaimed or at least self-imagined mastermind be so short-sighted as to believe that his gaudy creation would instantly turn picturesque, charming, and beautiful just like Easy Mac? It seems rather apparent from this pathetic example that Frankenstein’s great hubris (or idiocy, you decide) is his self-absorption and absolute disregard for others. Perhaps the most ironic and yet sadistically hilarious exposé of Frankenstein’s self-centered nature occurs over various chapters as he continuously assumes that the monster is going to murder him on his wedding night, “Au contraire, Victor!” Even in the midst of his hyperbolic grief, Frankenstein can think of no one but himself. What is difficult to decipher, though, is whether Shelley is aiming at the heart of everyday Romantics themselves or simply at the egocentric characters that they often promulgate.

Flaubert’s Madame Bovary seems to depict generally the same egocentric hubris with Emma Bovary; just that Flaubert does it by portraying an average Joe Shmoe rather than a super-mysterious and insanely eccentric Isaac Newton figure. Truly, everything about Victor Frankenstein is grandiose. From his upper-class education, idyllic family life, to his charming German accent, Frankenstein is the portrait of a Romantic genius. Emma Bovary, on the other hand, is a simple farmer’s daughter and a former convent member. (Not to mention that she’s French, what could be more or-di-na-ry than that!!) Her day to day lifestyle (before she meets our bedazzling protagonist, Charles) is monotonous and boring. Yet, somewhat like Frankenstein, Emma has been searching through old classics and dreaming, almost always dreaming, about some dashing rogue, prancing onto the scene, mounted upon his muscled stallion, ready to whip her off her feet and carry her away into the dazzling sunset. Unlike Frankenstein, Emma has to sit and wait a while to get a taste of la pura vida (the good life); and when she does, like Victor, she finds it invigorating and virtually irresistible. Of course, big dreams Emma waxes eloquent in her mind about one day acquiring the perfect love, living the highlife (no, not like the beer ads), and finally achieving Nirvana (although she never uses that term). Flaubert presents us with at least four separate instances and often intervals where Emma presumes that all of her big dweams will come twue. She first presumes that Charles will be her knight in shining armor. As is no surprise, Charles charms her for about a day or two and then loses his flare (or at least Emma’s appeal). Next, Emma has a euphoric encounter with an enchanting nobleman as she dances the night away and later relishes his cigar box as though it were the very Holy Grail. Like our previous example, this experience eventually crumbles and leaves Emma with nothing but fantastical dreams and aspirations. Finally, and much abridged, Emma has her two end-all-be-all affairs with two separate gentlemen, each of whom she at first considers to be everything that she ever wanted in a man or in a love. It goes without saying that these fantasies burn to ashes as Emma reaps the reward of crushing debt and well-publicized humiliation as a compensation for her infidelity, selfishness, and insatiable appetite. She finally takes arsenic to end it all and as one translation reads, she “cease[s] to exist.”

Both Flaubert and Shelley masterfully paint two caricatures that are odiously self-interested, self-serving, and unappeasable. One is a genius who seeks power, fame, and glory. The other is a shrew who seeks self-gratification, unheralded ecstasy, and the “finer things” of life. Both egotists wreak havoc on themselves and on the ones who love them as they selfishly ignore the devastating consequences of their actions and think only of their own success and unparalleled euphoria.

2 comments:

Chris said...

I wouldn't call Frankenstein or Madame Bovary caricatures by any stretch. I think they are both deeply involved and very aware and by no means silly or two-dimensional characters. While Frankenstein may have been somewhat capricious I don't think that the story is so much about hubris as it is about humans and technology. What exactly is our relationship to tools? (just like in 2001: A Space Odyssey). As for Bovary, she doesn't fit into the life she seems destined to have (and you don't have very much movement in European societies, especially in the past). Frankenstein doesn't simply plod ahead with the same caprice as before seeing as he destroys the female monster before it is finished. Likewise, Bovary doesn't simply disregard her husband, but she constantly tries to pull herself out of her station in life and her risks have tragic consequences. Not to say that I completely disagree with what you are saying, but hey, don't we all have a dream, oh Abogado?

Cougar Abogado said...

Gentle reader, one thing to keep in mind about these gems of papers is that I'm relegated to write about specific and narrow topics. They aren't always meant to be a synopsis of the entire piece in question. For example, the topic for this paper was, bum ba ba dum: 3. One of the recurring themes of literature is hubris, or a tragic flaw, usually connected to arrogance or blindness. Select two characters from our readings and discuss their specific hubris.

Haha, not that you completely disagree, though, eh?

Well, I guess we'll see if my graduate-student professor completely disagrees (HOPEFULLY NOT!). . .