In Gustave Flaubert’s nineteenth-century novel, Madame Bovary, the author presents us with a remarkable portrait of the good-husband-as-failed-lover when he shows us Charles Bovary, the heroine Emma’s husband.

In first meeting Charles, Emma’s father thinks that “Charles [is] rather a wisp of a man, to be sure, not quite the son-in-law he could have wished for. But he was said to be steady and thrifty, and well-educated,” and following the old adage that you should marry your son when you will but your daughter when you can, he accepts Charles’ proposal to marry his daughter. Charles is a classic “second-best” husband.

Initially, Emma is very pleased with married life, but then subtly things change. Flaubert tells us that Emma can “hardly persuade herself that the quietness of her present life was the happiness of her dreams.”

Flaubert captures the essence of the doomed relationship: the more devoted to his wife Charles becomes, the less respect she has for him. Charles would give Emma “great smacking kisses on the cheek, sometimes a chain of little ones all the way up her arm from finger-tip to shoulder. And she pushed him away with a weary half-smile, as you do a child that hangs on to you. 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 words 'bliss', ‘passion', 'ecstasy', which had looked so beautiful in books.”

She is disappointed in her husband because he is not everything she imagined a man should be, since Charles “couldn't swim, or fence, or fire a pistol, and was unable to explain a riding term she came across in a novel one day. Whereas a man, surely, should know about everything; excel in a multitude of activities, introduce you to passion in all its force, to life in all its grace, initiate you into all mysteries! But this one had nothing to teach; knew nothing, wanted nothing.”

In short, Emma is angered that she cannot look up to her husband. The thing that most infuriates her, however, is that “He thought she was happy; and she hated him for that placid immobility, that stolid serenity of his, for that very happiness which she herself brought him.”

If she is enough to make him happy, the reasoning goes, then he can’t be all that wonderful.

So instead Emma turns to romantic fantasies the way that young men might turn to pornography to satisfy a craving for the unrealistic, if not for the downright impossible.

Emma feeds her imagination on novels. Her favorite stories are “all about love and lovers, damsels in distress swooning in lonely lodges, postilions slaughtered all along the road, horses ridden to death on every page. . . . rowing-boats in the moonlight, nightingales in the grove, gentlemen brave as lions and gentle as lambs. . . . invariably well-dressed, and weeping like fountains. . . She would have liked to live in some old manor house. . . . leaning on the parapet, chin in hand, watching a cavalier with a white plume galloping out of the distant countryside on a black charger. She was at this time a worshiper of Mary Queen of Scots, and had an enthusiastic veneration for all illustrious or ill-fated women.”

The images are still familiar; anyone who has read or watched a contemporary romance will recognize all the elements.

The romance writer of today is advised by specific guidelines issued through the various publishing houses that she or he must, as one set of guidelines states, “Create a heartwarming and exciting love story. The writer’s job is to get the heroine and hero together, keep them together, make sparks fly, put obstacles in the path of true love, and finally resolve the complications and end the story on a high note with a satisfying ending.” In addition, the romance novelist must provide for the heroine--and, by extension, for the reader who identifies with the heroine-- a male protagonist who is “virile, masterful, and attractive. . . . He is tender and sensitive. . . While he need not be rich, he must be successful at whatever he does.”

Clearly these texts are supposed to provide an escape into fantasy for the reader, and allow her to imagine her way into a world where the men are powerful, tender, adoring and available. The reader is meant to float away on her imagination, freed from the cares of daily life and better for her flight into fancy.

But instead of giving Emma a way out of her tedium, these stories only reinforce it. 

Given a dose of adventure by these books the way a physician might administer a dose of methadone in order to keep an addict stable, Emma uses romance as a drug to alter her consciousness. Romance can be a form of narcotic for a certain kind of woman, and Emma is the embodiment of the woman whose life can be shattered by too heavy a dependence on fantasy. 

The damage done by Emma’s addiction to romance is fatal to her. But the emotional aftershocks of the romantic tradition are felt even by those who grew up only overhearing, instead of actively seeking out, such tales. The images we carry with us from our childhoods concerning love, marriage and romance (not necessarily in that order) stay with us, in shadow or in substance, well into our adult lives.

Sometimes the earliest stories we hear remain the most powerful, whether they're from classic books, from Disney or from streaming a romantic series on the screen.

And, in many real lives, romance writes checks that reality can't cash.

~~Adapted from Perfect Husbands and Other Fairy Tales

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