Tag Archives: reality brings no romance

Reality Gives No Romance: Emma Bovary and Blanche DuBois

13 Jan

In this post I will explore the similarities between two literary characters: Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary and Tennessee Williams’s Blanche DuBois. January seems like the best time to tackle this topic when we are waiting for blossoms, romance and promises of spring, or at least I am. “Reality brings no romance” is a line from a song “Walk me to the bridge” by Manic Street Preachers.

madame-bovary-1991Isabelle Huppert as Emma Bovary (1991)

In his 1857 novel “Madame Bovary”, Gustave Flaubert expressed loneliness, longings and provincial claustrophobia with eloquence that surpasses that of any other writer before or after. Flaubert found inspiration in a newspaper article, and by writing this book, he wanted to prove to his friends that style is more important than the theme itself, adding that he was himself repulsed by the subject of adultery.

Every page of this novel is wrapped in silent melancholy, and the story offers neither the happy ending nor the solution; the countryside offers nothing pure suffocating boredom, while the city brings cheap pleasures and shallowness. This book is everything Morrissey sang about; lost dreams, impossible loves, boredom, small town frustration. Where The Smiths used just three or four minutes to say what they had to say, and coated it in whimsical, cheerful catchy tunes, Flaubert fills more than three-hundred pages with longings and disappointments. Emma’s story is a real ‘from despair to where’ one, to quote the Manic Street Preachers now. From despair – to death, it seems for her. If there’s one line from a pop song that describes her life perfectly, it’s this one by The Smiths: “I was happy at the height of the drunken hour but heaven knows I’m miserable now.”

Source: here.

“Each smile hid a yawn of boredom, each joy a curse, each pleasure its own disgust; and the sweetest kisses only left on one’s lips a hopeless longing for a higher ecstasy.”

“Emma lost weight, her face became pale and gaunt. With her smooth black hair, her big eyes, her straight nose, her birdlike walk and the silence that had now become almost constant with her, did she not seem to be passing through life without touching it, bearing on her brow the mysterious mark of a sublime destiny?”

Who is Emma Bovary, anyway? And why is she so negatively portrayed in popular culture when she is so realistic, everyone suffers that melancholia and boredom occasionally, so why deny it? Emma Bovary is a young and beautiful woman whose exceedingly romantic, verging on sentimental, disposition is all due to reading too many sentimental novels at convent where she was schooled. Her views on life, love and marriage are shaped almost exclusively by what she has read in those novels. She marries Charles, a simple minded country doctor, because she sees in him a potential rescuer from the boredom of her life. Soon, she becomes disappointed because nothing turned out like she wanted it. Charles is happy living in a small town, while she withers and daydreams of Paris – “She wanted to die. And she wanted to live in Paris.” A sense of unfulfilled longing lingers throughout the novel.

Here are a few quotes about Emma’s boredom in marriage:

Before the wedding, she had believed herself in love. But not having obtained the happiness that should have resulted from that love, she now fancied that she must have been mistaken. And Emma wondered exactly what was meant in life by the worlds ‘bliss’, ‘passion’, ‘ecstasy’ which had looked so beautiful in books.

“‘Then the appetites of the flesh, the craving for money, the melancholy of passion, all blended together in one general misery. (…) Her drab surrounding drove her to dreams of luxury; marital tenderness prompted the desire for a lover. She would have liked Charles to hit her, that she might have just cause for hatred and revenge. She was surprised sometimes at the hideous ideas that occurred to her. And all the while she must go on smiling, hearing herself insist that she was very happy, pretending to be so, acting the part.

“She was so sad and so calm, so gentle and yet so shy, that by her side you felt under the spell of a frosty charm, just as you shiver in church at the scent of flowers mingling with the feel of cold marble. … But she was filled with lust, with rage, with hatred.”

Whenever I imagine Emma Bovary, I imagine her either wistfully strolling the paths of her garden with sad apple trees, half-dry pink hydrangeas, worn out wooden fence, moss and wet soil in the morning after a rainy night; or standing by the window, dreamy and beautiful, with a look of pain, disappointment and longing all at once in her dark eyes, as rain drops slide one by one on the outer side of the window, sighing “Everyday is like Sunday, everyday is silent and grey…”

This quote explains well why Emma hated life at the countryside and never relished in natural beauties around her:

If she had passed her childhood in the back room of a shop somewhere in the middle of a town, she might now have awaken to the lyric call of Nature, which usually reaches us only through the medium of books. But she was too familiar with the country: with the bleating of the flocks, with the dairy and the plogh. Acustomed to the peaceful, she turned in reaction to the picturesque. She loved the sea only for its storms, green foliage only when it was scattered amid ruins. It was necessary for her to derive a sort of personal profit from things, she rejected as useless whatever did not minister to her heart’s immediate fulfilment – being of a sentimental rather than artistic temperament, in search of emotions, not of scenery.

And all the time, deep within her, she was waiting for something to happen. Like a shipwrecked sailor she scanned her solitude with desperate eyes for the sight of a white sail far off on the misty horizon. (…) But every morning when she woke she hoped to find it there. She listened to every sound, started out of bed, and was surprised when noting came. Then, at sunset, sadder every day, she longed for the morrow.

And so they would follow on, one after another, always the same; innumerable days that brought nothing.

She gave up playing the piano. What use, with no one to hear her? Since she could never play at concert, in a short-sleeved velvet gown, lightly caressing the keys of an Erard and feeling the murmurs of ecstasy wafting all about her like a breeze – it wasn’t worth the boredom of practising.”

She left her drawing-folios and her needlework lie in the cupboard. What was the use? What was the use? Sewing got on her nerves.

‘I’ve read everything,’ she said to herself.

So she sat there holding the tongs in the fires or watching the rain fall.

If matters had fallen out differently, she wondered might she not have met some other man? She tried to picture to herself the things she might have been – that different life, that unknown husband. For they weren’t all like this one. He might have been handsome, intelligent, distinguished, attractive, as were no doubt the men her old school friends has married… What would they be doing now? Living in town, amid the noise of the streets, the hum of the theatre crowd, the bright lights of the ballroom – the sort of life that opens the heart and sense like flowers in bloom. Whereas for her, life was cold as an attic facing north, and the silent spider boredom wove its web in all the shadowed corners of her heart.

Blanche DuBois

Tennessee Williams’s characters are known for their complexity, and his plays turned into films are wonderful. Needless to say, I am a big fan. “A Streetcar Named Desire” was published in 1947 and is an example of Southern Gothic. The main character, Blanche DuBois, an ageing southern belle, is a soft-spoken, well-mannered, polite, dreamy, theatrical, exceedingly romantic and gentle person, who, due to her own nature and personal losses in her youth, is left vulnerable, emotionally needy and slightly psychologically unstable. There’s also something childlike about her naivety and idealism. She is a wonderful literary creation, portrayed beautifully by Vivian Leigh in the film from 1951, and another one of Tennessee Williams’ fabulous, layered, mysterious and decadent characters.

The play is set in the French Quarter of New Orleans; Blanche has just arrived and takes a streetcar named “Desire” to visit her sister Stella and her husband Stanley. The contrast between Blanche’s magical aura and the poverty and roughness of Stella and Stanley’s life is immediately noticeable. Blanche with her soft blonde curls, her long flimsy gowns with thousands of shimmering flounces that play the most charming melodies of Tchaikovsky, her pearls and roses, her rouge and her old love letters, her perfumes and soft shawls. Blanche constantly insists on creating an aesthetically pleasing environment and nurturing the dreaminess that she perpetually inhabits; she takes long baths and dresses most exquisitely despite Stella’s poor situation, insists on covering the bare lamps and keeping a boudoir lightning. She says herself: “I can’t stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action.” Her well-mannered, educated and polite nature are odd compared to the brutish nature of Stanley and his friends.

There’s something so fragile, delicate, nervous about Blanche, you can’t point your finger on it, but you feel it. As if her inner life is a butterfly trapped in a jar, fluttering hopelessly and heating the glass to no avail. In the play Tennessee Williams wrote a note: “Her delicate beauty must avoid a strong light. There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth.” Blanche is delusional to the end, fragile like a moth, beautiful and dreamy, refusing to open her eyes and see the world the way it really is, accepting the hand of a stranger, with an eerie smile on her face, saying: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” A moth is broken and quenched at last.

“Physical beauty is passing – a transitory possession – but beauty of the mind, richness of the spirit, tenderness of the heart – I have all these things – aren’t taken away but grow! Increase with the years!”

One of my favourite lines by Blanche:

“Don’t you just love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn’t just an hour – but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands – and who knows what to do with it?”

Source: here.

The rest of my days I’m going to spend on the sea. And when I die, I’m going to die on the sea. You know what I shall die of? I shall die of eating an unwashed grape. One day out on the ocean I will die–with my hand in the hand of some nice looking ship’s doctor, a very young one with a small blond moustache and a big silver watch. “Poor lady,” they’ll say, “The quinine did her no good. That unwashed grape has transported her soul to heaven.

What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.

vivien leigh as blanche 1

“I’ll tell you what I want. Magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misinterpret things to them. I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it! – Don’t turn the light on!”

This dialogue is my particular favourite:

Stella: You needn’t be so cruel to someone as alone as she is.

Stanley: Delicate piece she is.

Stella: She is. She was. You didn’t know Blanche as a girl. Nobody, nobody, was tender and trusting as she was. But people like you abused her, and forced her to change.

So, what is it that, in my view, connects the two heroines? Firstly, they are both highly imaginative and prone to melancholy and self-pity. Both follow a religion of beauty, dreams and magic. They are big aesthetes, their surroundings and appearance means a lot in keeping their dreamy vision of the world. Emma initially tries to keep away her disappointment away by decorating the house and indulging in pretty fabrics and shawls, but no amount of material possessions can fill the emotional void both heroines feel inside. They are misfits, they aren’t accepted in their communities because they are different, not realistic and down to earth. And lastly, both are emotionally and psychologically unstable.

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John William Waterhouse – Lady of Shalott: I am half-sick of shadows

3 Sep

English painter John William Waterhouse was born in Rome in 1849; the same year the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in London. So, he wasn’t a member of the original Brotherhood, but his style and subject matter show that he embraced their aesthetic and continued the themes ranging from Shakespeare to Arthurian romances and mythology. He created a world of beauty and dreams that served as a refuge from grey and harsh reality for Victorians who were such escapists. Waterhouse portrayed the legend of the Lady of Shalott three times, in 1888, 1894 and 1916. Although the version from 1888 is by far the most popular, today we’ll take a look at the other two.

John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot, 1894

“Who is that?”, Elaine stood up quickly, abandoning her tapestry, and in two-three steps approached the window of her lonely tower, with long curious, thirsty glances soaking up the beauty of the sights never before seen directly. Her long velvety hair spilt in dozens of cascades on her back, like a shimmering murmuring waterfall, reaching her waist. Yearning, fear and gentle admiration coloured her pale, beautiful face. Never before have the beams of sun, nor the moon, drops of rain or spring zephyrs caressed it. Her white gown, its flimsy sleeves and dozens of silk petticoats, shines like the moon on the night sky against the darkness of her tower, but its gentle rustling is too far from the ears of a lovely knight who happened to be passing by. “Who is he?”, wonders Elaine, stepping forward with one leg, but leaning on the chair with her hand as soon as the words of the ancient curse run through her mind. Golden thread that wrapped itself like a snake around her dress seems to warn her too about the consequences of her actions… but Elaine can’t resist! She resisted gazing for so long, relying on shadows, pale reflections of the world in her mirror, but today the temptation to look was too irresistible, for she saw a knight riding from Camelot, passing her tower by, his armour glowing in the sun, his coal-black curls flowing underneath his helmet; it was none other than Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom
She made three paces thro’ the room
She saw the water-flower bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
       She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
       The Lady of Shalott.” (*)
***

One sight was enough for this beautiful, naive, vulnerable lily-maiden to fall in love. Her heart ached not solely for the handsome and distant knight who innocently passed by her tower, unaware of her sad destiny, but for the music, lights and liveliness of Camelot, for people and their chatter, but her curse was never to feel the world, but to gaze at it passively in the mirror, a stale reflection was to replace the vibrancy of reality. The moment she left her tapestry, drawn to the window like a moth to the light, she felt her soul overwhelmed with love and the same moment her world fell apart for the curse has come upon her, and she cried.

 As I’ve already said in the introduction, Waterhouse painted three different portrayals of the sad life of the Lady of Shalott, but thematically and chronologically they go into different directions; the first painting, from 1888, shows Elaine floating to her death while the last one, from 1916, shows her contemplating over her life of isolation. I am certain that, had he painted three more, they would all be as imaginative, dreamy and original. This is the first, and the most famous 1888 version of which I wrote about here. It is a true gem indeed and a symbol of Pre-Raphaelite artistic vision:

So, in the last painting of the series, we see Elaine before her downfall; she’s sitting above her tapestry, taking a rest, her hands behind her head, staring dreamily into the void, while through the window we see the magnificent grey towered castle of Camelot whose red roofs shine in glory. Elaine looks wistful, but not determined, she’s lost in thoughts but not yet ready to act, with her rosy cheeks and rosy dress she looks like a lonely rose in a long-forgotten garden, and I can see a spider weaving a veil of silver and dew around her gentle petals, hushing her heart, lulling her to sleep and forget reality. This is what Lord Tennyon, a beloved poet of the Victorian era, tells us of Elaine’s life of isolation and longing:

She hath no loyal knight and true,
       The Lady of Shalott.
 
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often thro’ the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
       And music, came from Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead
Came two young lovers lately wed;
‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said
       The Lady of Shalott.
***
Loneliness is making her tired and restless, her eyelids grow heavy, her gaze weary, while the pale face reveals that she is curious, impetuous, nervous…. but she is naive and knows nothing of the world, and yet she longs for something she can’t describe and pines for memories that not belong to her, sighing and whispering to the stale air of solitude “I am half-sick of shadows!” Oh, poor little maiden, will her life be wrapped in a pensive veil of gloom forever?

John William Waterhouse, I am half-sick of shadows, said the Lady of Shalott, 1916

“I watched life and wanted to be a part of it but found it painfully difficult.” (Anais Nin)

Everyone speaks of an unlived life, and through reading Jack Kerouac’s novels of wild adventures, drinking, promiscuity, and also of self-indulgences and extremes of rock stars, I’ve created in my imagination this glamorous, yet false, vision of a life lived to the fullest, but as I grow older I am more of an opinion that adult life is very sad, and that world is a confusing and scary place, one I’d rather not venture. While gazing at Elaine in her lonely tower, I can’t help but think “Don’t gaze through the window, don’t long for Camelot, there’s nothing for you there!” So, for me, the legend of the Lady of the Shalott brings to mind the conflict between living life and daydreaming. I am so fond of daydreams because they are so sweet, and life is so often so unfulfilling and sour. How to live and be truly happy when life crushes all your ideals just like the sea waves crush the rocks on the shore? And is a life spent in daydreaming a wasted one? “To be or not to be?”, Hamlet asked himself. To live or to daydream, that is the question!

How do you feel about Elaine’s destiny, and the conflict of life vs daydreams. Share your thoughts with me.