I don’t normally get too worked up by statements like these: “No other institution has been so brutally attacked by the Romantic imagination as marriage and the family, an assault that continues unabated in popular culture today.”

Sure, there are attacks against marriage and family, but I figure a lot of these “assaults” are more of an inside job than an outside job.

But the writer who said the above statement cited the book Madame Bovary, so that caught my eye and I couldn’t help but pay close attention to what he said (the essay is long and kind of a snooze except for the Madame Bovary part).

As you may know, Madame Bovary was written by Gustave Flaubert in 1856 and, like Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, details the life of a happily married woman who gradually becomes unhappy, falls into adultery, and meets with a most unhappy end.

In this Touchstone magazine article, Nathan Schlueter says the five features of “Romantic Escapism” portrayed in Madame Bovary are reflected in modern marriage (both in the men and the women) all too often:

1. Disordered Imagination – Art and media have an impact on our imagination and Flaubert shows how the romantic novels of the day shaped Emma Bovary’s disordered imagination:
Before marriage she thought herself in love; but since the happiness that should have followed failed to come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And she tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words bliss, passion, ecstasy, that had seemed so beautiful to her in books.

2. Itinerancy – Emma Bovary quickly became bored married to a country doctor and thought happiness awaited her in the city.

I love this line: “She wanted to die, but she also wanted to live in Paris.”

Who hasn’t experienced some level of itinerancy, whether in making frequent moves for one’s work, or in smaller ways, by taking lots of vacations, switching schools, churches, neighborhoods, houses all in the pursuit of greater happiness.

3. Consumerism – Today advertisers and marketers lure us into new identities by giving us an endless array of goods and, until recently, sub prime mortgages and easy credit made it too easy for people to live above their pay grade. It was no different in Emma Bovary’s day:

Emma lived all absorbed in her passions and worried no more about money matters than an archduchess.
4. Adultery and promiscuity – Eventually Emma Bovary only felt alive when in the throes of an affair, but then came the inevitable: “She was as sick of him as he was weary of her. Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.” Oops.

5. Existential escapism – Such escapism sometimes ends in suicide, as in the case of Emma Bovary. As Schlueter said:

Like the Romantic heroines who have gone before her (Dido, Iseult, Juliet), Emma finds in her death by suicide both the liberation from and the consummation of her Romantic desire. Yet her dying words suggest that this end is anything but Romantic: “God it’s horrible!”
The presence of any one of the above in a relationship is a red flag. When there are 4-5, well, the relationship is pretty much toast, I suppose.

So what’s the antidote to this Romanticism?

It’s not realism, says Schlueter, which is just as bad as Romanticism. “What is required is a truly realist imagination, one that captures and reveals the extraordinary quality of ordinary life.”

In other words, the capacity to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.

What is wanted… is a poetry rooted in the romance of domesticity, which reveals the real beauty of ordinary life within limits and shows the dignity of what it means to be what Wendell Berry calls a “placed person.”

I do take issue with Schlueter on one point, near the end of his essay, where he disagrees with a father who advised his newly-married daughter to keep her job, “just in case.”

Schlueter seems to think this implies a lack of trust in her spouse but apparently he’s oblivious to the economy and the need for most people to have two incomes. There are times in most marriages when one person is underemployed, unemployed, going through a midlife crisis, etc. and the other has to pick up the financial slack. That point reminded me why I don’t read Touchstone magazine much. :D

But I am going to reread Madame Bovary again soon, as those quotes reminded me how wonderfully pithy Flaubert can be. I’ll also try to be more grateful that I’m a “placed person” and remind myself and my girls more often to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.

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