Madame Bovary, it me
3 min read

Madame Bovary, it me

If Moby-Dick is about where oil comes from, Madame Bovary is about credit card debt. Of course, they hadn't invented credit cards in 1856, so instead Emma Bovary has a smiling man called Lheureux who keeps bringing lace to her house and telling her to pay him later. I'd never considered reading Madame Bovary until a friend recommended it to me, because I'd thought it was about adultery, and that kind of thing bores the shit out of me; it's still boring here, but Flaubert's genius lies in making boredom into something fascinating and tragic. One more comparison: Nabokov said Lolita was inspired by the story of a gorilla who was taught to draw, but could only sketch the bars of its cage. Flaubert's Madame Bovary is about an elephant, swaying back and forth in its small enclosure, so hungry for enrichment that it bobs its head just to make the world move a little.

Lheureux's name means "happy." He's described as a draper, or cloth merchant, but he seems to deal in everything: slippers, trinkets, riding whips, anything you might buy to treat yourself a little. Although a successful man with his own business, he specializes in house calls, ingratiating himself with anyone who has a bit of disposable income, tempting them with goods that suit their taste, and – when they balk at buying something – handing it over with an expansive shrug and telling them to pay him later. The bills come due all at once, at which point he helpfully advises you on how to take out a mortgage, or have a relative sign a power of attorney that will give you access to their money. Although Emma Bovary thinks she is too savvy to fall for Lheureux' tricks, he succeeds in bleeding her into bankruptcy, and it is this, not her affairs, that drives her to her death.

This isn't a startling precursor to online shopping, but a reminder that tech is rarely very original, and online shopping is using a very old playbook. Like Amazon or Etsy, Lheureux has a clumsy sense what you want, aided by a deep understanding of people like you. He lets you browse from home, and if you can't pay for the goods, he'll just give them to you – provided you can pay later in four easy installments. Even his name is reminiscent of Amazon, whose smiling logo promises not your happiness, but its own.

Flaubert famously said "Madame Bovary, c'est moi " ("Madame Bovary, that's me"). The man fell all over himself to assure you that he felt a deep sympathy for the object of his satire of rural life. I believe him, too. Emma's dreams of love and riches are stage sets, deliberately underdrawn, the products of a big imagination starved almost to death. Her tastes are deeply basic. She is the victim of the lowest-rent Casanovas, real sad-sacks who do have beauty, and sometimes money, but haven't got two brain cells between them. She's smarter than any of the men who woo her, but falls for them for the same reason that she falls for Lheureux' bits of tat, the same reason we all buy bits of tat: they alleviate her boredom and depression. Flaubert writes about boredom and depression – of being seduced by a man doing asinine MST3k at a sleepy agricultural fair, because at least someone else seems to notice that this agricultural fair sucks – like someone for whom Boredom and Depression are brothers and boon companions. Spiritually, he has absolutely married the worst doctor in France. When he says "c'est moi," he means "it me."

I know I risk sounding like I'm trying too hard to make Madame Bovary hip, the way a publisher will put out a graphic novel adaptation of something that doesn't need a graphic novel adaptation, or how in the '90s, it was in vogue to set a Shakespeare plot in a high school. As with the bit about online commerce, I really mean the opposite. Madame Bovary feels "modern" because it draws on things that are old. Debt is an old trick. It is a way of hacking people, drawing out their value by playing on their sadness. Emma believes in the good life, in the fantasy of wealth that debt offers her. She earnestly wants a man and a home to make her happy, but she can't help wanting more, even though her imagination has been kept so small that she can't think of what "more" might look like. Here, as always, Lheureux is happy to help.