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Bad Readers in Madame Bovary and Lolita

Bad Readers in Madame Bovary and Lolita

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Peter Lehu 8 December 2003 Bad Readers in Madame Bovary and Lolita Neither Flaubert’s Emma Bovary nor

Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert easily fulfills his or her desires; the few times that either does, the fulfillment never lasts long. Emma bounces from lustful affairs to marital devotion to religious fanaticism but always finds herself distracted by a new desire, bored by the old one, or both. Humbert attains his beloved nymphet but can only hold on to her for so long and even when he has her, he is only truly fulfilled during the sexual act. This crucial similarity between these two antiheroes is not mere coincidence. Nabokov’s protagonist recognizes his similarities to his fictional predecessor as he composes his memoir. At in the opening of Part II of Lolita, as Humbert begins his travels with Dolores, he consciously imitates Flaubert’s narration. Humbert repeats, “Nous connûmes,” translated as, “We came to know,” to echo in his own life the indifference with which Emma moves from distraction to distraction throughout her life (145). He follows the signature phrase with lists of banalities found along American highways, reminiscient of similar lists found in Bovary: in the rhetoric of the counselor’s speech at the agricultural fair and in the clerk’s ravings at the Rouen cathedral. Humbert, the narrator, takes note of the meaningless rhetoric, and Emma, the narrated, merely ignores it; nonetheless, in both novels the lists represented the outside world in sharp contrast to the protagonists’ monomaniacal passions. Though the characters operate from vastly different frames of reference in vastly different environments, Humbert’s and Emma’s relationships to the written word bear similarities.

Emma and Humbert live in worlds in which their happiness, with its unreasonable preconditions, is fleeting and, therefore, both characters go though periods in which they recognize their desires as unattainable. Despite their crucial differences, the characters are similar in that they both weather these periods of unfulfillment by escaping their hopeless realities in the same way-- by immersing themselves in fictional worlds. At certain times in both novels, Emma and Humbert become avid readers. Emma reads superficially, vicariously living out the clichéd, sentimental events of trite romance and adventure novels. Humbert reads French literature like a scholar and a writer, hunting out allusions and studying rhetorical technique. But though the two characters read differently, they read for the same reason. Humbert’s reading habits bear resemblence to, and considering Nabokov’s familiarity with Bovary and awareness of Emma bad reading habits, may even be patterned from those of Emma; both read unsafely, immersing themselves in texts to compensate for unfulfilled desires. In Madame Bovary, Emma is characterized by her penchant for reading and it affects her relationships with the other characters in the novel. The humdrum provincial life in Yonville leads Emma to boredom, depression, and even physical malady. Charles Bovary and his mother decide to prevent Emma from acquiring the “evil books” she reads, presuming that they are the cause of her sickness. This proves to be a mistake. Immediately following her estrangement from books, after spying him as she sits bookless at a window, Emma makes the acquaintance of Rudolphe, her future lover. As Flaubert writes of their passionate affair, he makes no mention of Emma returning to her books. Emma only reads when her passions are not otherwise engaged.

This reading trend is clear from the beginning of the novel. As a student at a SaintGervais convent and during the first months of her marriage to Charles, Emma reads incessantly, “devour[ing] long chapters between tasks,” “soil[ing] her hands with the dusty remains of old reading rooms,” subscribing to women’s magazines, and “bring[ing] her book to the [dinner] table” (56, 75). One day, in what proves to be a turning point in the novel, Emma in exasperation decides that she has “read everything” (79). She stops reading and the events that eventually lead to her extramarital relations immediately begin to transpire. Instead of losing herself in fiction she idly looks out her window where a handsome man’s head appears, foreshadowing her future vice (81). In her idleness and boredom Emma becomes ill, prompting Charles to move his wife to Yonville where she meets a fellow bibliophile, Léon. In her new house, Emma sits at home alone, but instead of reading she “watches the villagers walking along the sidewalk” (108). Emma and Léon share their love for books and they read together. Further convincing Emma that the world of fiction has the potential to become her reality, Léon buys her a cactus after a new novel popularizes the plant (110). She falls in love with Léon and for a number of pages Flaubert forgoes any mention of reading or books (117). However, Léon soon leaves for Paris with dreams of leading “the life of an artist” and Emma is once again found “with the shutters closed and a book in her hand” (126, 132). When Emma is without hope and there is no possibility of escaping her provincial life and dull husband, she turns to books for relief. Unfortunately, while books occupy her, they also distort her expectations of reality. One hundred years later, Humbert Humbert, the creation of an author quite familiar with Flaubert’s novel, follows suit. Humbert, writing his complex narrative from a prison cell,

is obviously well-read. Yet, throughout his memoir he rarely recalls reading. (As any student of literature can testify, these are not the typical recollections of a literary scholar.) Indeed, the times in Humbert’s life that he focuses on in the novel are not times when he is reliant on books to compensate for unfulfilled desire. As a child Humbert is read to by his father (10). The young Humbert goes to a library, but only to look at sexual photographs from a human anatomy book (11). After his painfully celibate relationship with Annabel Lee, Humbert develops his nymphet- obsession and at the same time shows a new interest in reading. In college his studies are “meticulous and intense,” and he switches his major from psychiatry to English literature, “where so many frustrated poets end as pipe-smoking teachers in tweeds” (15). Humbert describes himself as “a creature of infinite melancholy”; he lusts after young girls, but due to society’s conventions he is limited to ogling them from afar (16). Like Emma, Humbert, in his misery, turns to books. Literature keeps Humbert occupied, employed, and offers him solace in his deprived (and depraved) state. As in Emma’s case, it does not take long before Humbert, the professional reader, finds what he thinks will be relief from his misery when he meets a potential lover. He recounts a scene that took place soon after he met Dolores Haze in which he is trying to read but is interrupted by the thirteen-year-old. He recalls her teasing him and writes, “the book like a sleigh left my lap” (55). Pages later his lap is inhabited instead by Dolores. Despite his academic profession, this is the last instance that the reader finds Humbert with a book in his hand until after Dolores is abducted by Quilty. Without his nymphet Humbert is again in abject misery and turns back to literature: “I wrote many more poems. I immersed myself in the poetry of others” (257). Indeed, after he murders Quilty Humbert spends his

time in his jail cell writing his story and filling it with literary allusions. He even complains about the poor selection of literature in the prison library (31). By the end of the novel, literature serves another function for Humbert: by writing his own, he hopes to immortalize his bond with Dolores. Unlike Emma, he realizes that the fictional and real worlds are very separate places and at the end of his life chooses to live solely in the former. [still needs work] Emma and Humbert are not the only characters in the two novels who use reading to compensate for imperfect realities. Though he is too simple-minded to successfully make use of reading, the young Charles Bovary makes attempts at educating himself through books. He is a diligent worker at school and listens “with all his might...as if it were a sermon” when his classmates recite their lessons (27). He skims a book of philosophy at the study hall (32). Unlike Emma, Charles satisfies his desires in his real life when he marries and abandons reading, which is of little use to him anyway. After marriage the pages of his medical books remain uncut and he regularly falls asleep after five minutes of reading the Medical News (52, 78). Charles finds what he is looking for through other means. Charlotte Haze, also the spouse of an unfulfilled romantic, follows Charles’ example. She falls deeply in love with Humbert, and after recounting their marriage he writes, “The novels I had found her reading when I moved in were now replaced by illustrated catalogues and homemaking guides” (78). Books of fiction serve as distraction when she is alone but once she marries Humbert, whom she idealizes and deludes herself about in the same way that Charles does Emma, she is content to turn her mind to domestic superficialities. Both Charles and Charlotte (they even has similar names) have similar longings to each other and to their spouses (even if theirs are more realistic and

attainable) and until they marry, books serve as an attractive substitute to them for the affection and societal approval that comes with marriage. In both novels it is easy to make the same mistake as Charles’ mother and blame literature for the destructive, immoral behavior of Emma and Humbert. It seems as if the novelists are suggesting that people who like to read for pleasure also have a propensity for self-serving evil. Of course, that Flaubert and Nabokov would be using literature to make the claim that literature can have a deluding influence is contraindicative. Furthermore, it has been shown that the characters in these two novels turn to reading because of their psychological conditions, and not the other way around. Not only are Emma and Humbert bad people, they are bad readers, but these prove to be separate problems.

Works Cited Flaubert, Gustav. Madame Bovary. Trans. by Mildred Marmur. New York: Signet Classic, 1964. Nabokov, Vladimir. The Annotated Lolita. Ed. by Alfred Appel, Jr. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.

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