Good literature draws us near and shines imagined light on hidden corners of our common nature. In retirement we have time to occasionally relax with a good book and examine some of our own unlighted places.
One appealing aspect of course is that most dedicated reading occurs in a favorite chair, and who is to know if a reader sometimes dozes off? That’s part of retirement too.
I recently read Madame Bovary, written by Gustave Flaubert and published in mid-nineteenth century France. The book is often on lists of great novels, and it concerns a theme that is always in fashion—adultery in marriage. At the same time, it goes deeper than adultery and treats aspects of human nature that bear heavily on today’s world.
The story narrates nine years in the lives of Emma and Charles Bovary as they progress from newlyweds to death—Emma’s by suicide and Charles’s by an apparent broken heart.
Charles, a countryman in the middle of his school class, was sent to study medicine by his mother. He understood nothing of what he studied, yet worked at it like an ox pulling a wagon. He took two tries at medical school, finally passing his exams to be a medical practitioner, which was not a full MD but allowed him to practice rudimentary medicine.
After medical school, when Charles was about 22, his mother selected his first wife, a 45-year-old widow with a regular income from her former husband’s estate. The estate turned out to be negligible, which caused a scandal. Charles’s family became angry, and his wife soon died amidst the embarrassment.
Meanwhile, Charles had been tending the broken leg of a farmer, whose daughter, Emma, had caught Charles’s eye. Soon he was in love, and he won Emma’s assent and her father’s support.
Emma’s mother passed away some years earlier, and Emma was raised on the farm by her father. Emma kept house when not attending a convent school at which she learned dancing, geography, drawing, needlework, and a little piano. She was prepared for fashionable society, but Charles was destined to practice in the French countryside.
Emma was a dreamer, reveling in romantic fantasies—gloomy forests, broken hearts, vows, sobs, tears and kisses, skiffs in the moonlight, nightingales in thickets, men as brave as lions yet gentle as lambs. While Emma fantasized, Charles plodded through routine days of medical practice. Her fantasies grew more daring as her life with Charles grew more sedate and boring.
Neither Charles’s dullness nor his devotion to Emma ever wavered. But Emma’s fantasies and eventual financial extravagance bloomed into full-blown obsessions. She worked herself into physical symptoms from boredom, and Charles was never able to diagnose the cause.
The couple moved for Emma’s health, and in the new location, she found romance outside her marriage, first one, then another. She also let a wily merchant lure her into purchases she could not really afford, building up debt. Charles saw nothing of Emma’s growing addictions and the consequent doom, preferring instead to believe his own desires, that she was a faithful, dutiful, yet ever-so-beautiful middle-class wife.
Lessons for Today
Living one’s dreams, soaked in fantasy, unhinged from practical guides—it seems we all know such people, and to varying degrees at varying times, we see the tendencies in ourselves. We have national obsessions with credit, both personal and public, and our televisions are saturated with sex and violence amidst tales of sentimental goodness prevailing over evil.
We live easily in worlds we desire where we see mostly what we want. In politics especially, it seems we hear mostly what fits our ideologies, ignoring inconvenient facts and analyses. On a more personal level, we buy things we can’t afford, pamper our children, and idealize our own ordinary behavior like shopping for vegetables at farmer’s markets instead of supermarkets.
We have written indirectly about this problem in Risk Retirement for a Loved One?, and Offering Responsible Help, where we described how requests for help from loved ones can put a retiree’s finances at risk. Responsible help embodies looking at problems realistically, recognizing not only what fits our desires, but also the facts that lean toward other conclusions. It would be unwise to continually bail out a relative who has become a chronic debtor.
Rare are persons who can regularly suspend their desires and see things more or less dispassionately. Emma and Charles carried their pipe dreams until they became impossible to sustain, then they chose death over living with reality.
The true depths of their obsessions aren’t appreciated until a reader finds, on the last page, that their young daughter, whom they never taught even to read, ended up living with an aunt and virtually indentured in a cotton mill as a child laborer. Such is the power and consequence of untruth.
In the comfort of my favorite chair, looking out over part of our small forest, I wonder where in my own beliefs are the hidden corners of falseness.