When Emma Met Lily

Each time I return a book to its shelf after having read it, I’m suffused with a wonderful feeling of accomplishment. And that joy is all the more multiplied in regards to literary masterpieces.

I’m proud to say that my literary diet, in the recent few months, has included among fiction and non-fiction writing, two classics: “The House of Mirth” and “Madame Bovary.”

Drum roll.

Given that the protagonist of both these novels is a woman and that they both delve into the complex interplay among romance, marriage, and money, they lend themselves to a tally, albeit to an amateurish one.

Given that the protagonist of both these novels is a woman and that they both delve into the complex interplay among romance, marriage, and money, they lend themselves to a tally, albeit to an amateurish one.

“Madame Bovary,” written by Gustave Flaubert, in the mid-19th century, is set in a small French provincial outpost near the town of Rouen, in Normandy.

Published nearly 50 years later, in 1905, “The House of Mirth,” by Edith Wharton takes place in the glittering salons of Gilded Age New York.

Both Flaubert’s heroine, Emma Bovary and that of Wharton, Lily Bart, are beautiful, elegant, and educated women, who like to be surrounded by expensive damask, ornate Boulle clocks, fashionable attires, crystal chandeliers, and other accoutrements of a luxurious lifestyle. And there perhaps, their likeness ends.

Lily, a mild-mannered, jeune fille à marier, aspires for social ascendancy by way of a fine marriage to a wealthy, well-placed bachelor.

Emma, on the other hand, is an ill-tempered and coldhearted married woman, who dreams ardently of a flight from the dull monotony of her marital life with a man, who in her eyes is coarse, dull, and witless. While Lily cherishes a man of both letters and affluence, all Emma seeks is lurid lust.

Neither could cut their petticoats according to their cloths, making frequent extravagant purchases that were beyond what their purses would permit.

But where Lily racked up big bills mostly by mingling with the card-playing, pomade-scented grandees and stylishly-coiffured ladies, who hosted splendiferous soirées, Emma’s expenses weren’t ratcheted up by her association with high society per se, but by her adulterous affairs.

She squandered her husband’s income in buying lavish gifts for her beaus, in arranging secrets trysts, in grooming herself, and in keeping a tastefully decorated home that was well above her station in life.

Flaubert tells his readers that when Léon Dupuis “could not pay all the expenses himself, [Emma] would liberally make up the difference, which happened almost every time.”

When her cash flow ebbed, she began buying on credit. She signed one promissory note after another and failed to make good on her surmounting loans. Lily’s money troubles weren’t so much the creation of her greed as they were the result of her misplaced trust on her friend’s husband, a Wall Street financier, via whom she’d invested in the stock market.

Not that either of these women can be faulted for their absolute lack of knowledge of money matters, but it can be argued that it certainly exacerbated the effects of their poor life decisions.

Emma’s profligacy eventually raised the Bovary household’s debt-to-income ratio to such a frightening level that it led her home to be seized. Lily, no less better off, became easy prey to her lascivious creditor, who offered to relieve her off her financial burden in lieu of sexual favors.

One would expect a woman, who’d fallen into a debt quicksand to rein in her expenses. But no, Emma pursued her carnal pleasures with more ferocity than ever before, even entreating both her lovers to lend her cash. None obliged. When all doors slammed on her face, as a last ditch effort, she seduced the tax collector into helping her out of her woes.

A woman possessed of far greater self-respect, when Lily learned that she owed money, not only did she curtail her expenses dramatically, she also took up working as a milliner to recoup that sum.

Unable to cope with the prospect of being exposed as a defaulter and a fallen woman, she took her life by consuming arsenic. Lily committed a suicide as well so as not to compromise her scruples.

Where Lily died an honorable pauper, Emma rendered her husband and her little girl, paupers, leaving them emotionally shattered and in deep penury.

Wharton’s heroine is someone a reader comes to feel sympathetic toward, even respect. Flaubert clearly didn’t want his audience to regard his lead character as such.


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