As part of my Before I’m 30 challenge, I read, over the last few weeks, both Madame Bovary and Great Expectations. Neither sat particularly well with me, and both for the same reason, so I’m reviewing both here in a single blog post. The reason is in the title of the post – I thought both main characters were eminently unlikeable.
This classic tale tells of an orphan, Pip, who through a series of strange circumstances first finds a trade as a blacksmith’s apprentice and then learns that he has “great expectations” of a future inheritance from an anonymous benefactor. He soon learns to live the profligate life of a gentleman as he gradually sheds his associations with the gentle souls of his past, Joe (the blacksmith) and Biddy (a level-headed young lady). He throws his money at improving the prospects of his roommate and friend Herbert and his heart at an “ice princess” whose heart will never respond. But then an escaped convict from his distant past comes calling, and all Pip’s hopes dissolve. (Summary by Mark F. Smith)
Published in book form in April 1857, the novel focuses on a doctor’s wife, Emma Bovary, who has adulterous affairs and lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of provincial life. Though the basic plot is rather simple, even archetypal, the novel’s true art lies in its details and hidden patterns. Flaubert was notoriously perfectionist about his writing and claimed to always be searching for le mot juste (the right word)”. (Summary from Wikipedia).
I didn’t enjoy either of these books because I had absolutely no sympathy for either of the main characters. Not because they weren’t nice – the Count of Monte Cristo certainly isn’t nice, and I thoroughly enjoyed his tale- but rather because not only did neither Pip nor Emma have any redeeming qualities, they weren’t even interesting in how they went about being thoroughly terrible people.
Pip is selfish, self-absorbed and completely up himself, having great expectations and an obsessive, possessive love for a girl who has absolutely no interest in him romantically. By the end of the novel, he hasn’t really redeemed himself at all – his attitude towards Biddy in particular made me roll my eyes, and feel like Pip saw women as things to be owned, rather than people in their own right. Even when the novel ends, I didn’t have any sympathy for Pip. His apparent redemption, which happened entirely off-page, was not enough to undo the years of horrible, careless, selfish behaviour which dragged others in his orbit into debt, misery, and even death.
Similarly Emma Bovary, a dull, lifeless character whose only trait was being dislikeable. Her constant malcontent at where her life has brought her is exacerbated by her gender and station in life, and her actions in seeking release from her dull, quotidian life brought me no pleasure to read about.
I hated both Emma and Pip, and consequently didn’t really enjoy either of their books. Great Expectations, at least, had some intrigue, and one truly good character (Awh, Joe, I love you) as well as some interesting side characters (Miss Havisham takes the dramatic breakup to new extremes) so I had a bit more good feeling for Dickens than Flaubert. Perhaps as an examination of human consciousness, introspective and thoughtful novels about the need for everyone to have something to strive towards, or an inspection of the blindness of unfailing love, these novels have some redeeming factors, but it wasn’t enough for me to enjoy either of them.
Great Expectations: Three Stars ***
Madame Bovary: Two Stars **