That Classic Twist

There are many reasons to love classic literature--the chance to escape to another time and place; the sheer feast of language and character; or perhaps, more pragmatically, the opportunity to multitask personal development with entertainment. But of all the things that keep me re-reading “the classics,” the most important is that they have such a direct connection my everyday life. They are (dare I say it?) so very relevant.

Part of what makes a work a “classic” is that it captures something about the human experience that remains true regardless of time and place. The story may be set in a backwater town of Judea, the hustle and bustle of London, or South Africa during apartheid, but the characters’ struggles are my struggles, their joys my joys. On the pages of literature, we see the truth about ourselves.

Classics also have an uncanny ability to predict the future. Every so often, you’ll stumble across a section of text so timely, so applicable that you have to look up for a moment to recover your sense of temporal balance. I’ve even found myself flipping to the front of a book in order to double check the original publication date. It’s not that the authors have some mystical, prophetic gift; it’s simply that they understand their own times well enough to predict the natural result of them.

I had one of these experiences this last week while reading Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. In its day, Madame Bovary was scandalous; a story of wanton love, an adulteress, and a church too ineffective to save her from herself. Flaubert was even brought to trial on grounds of corrupting public morality. But instead of promoting immorality, Madame Bovary is a profoundly moral piece of fiction that shows the consequences of an overly romanticized view of the world. Emma Bovary may be remembered for her adultery, but her main problem was her dissatisfaction with the mundane realities of life. Compared to the dream world she’d discovered in her novels, her doctor husband was too simple, lacked ambition, and would never be able to satisfy the longings of her own deeply-complicated, emotionally superior soul.

It is the perfect warning to a generation of women whose vision of marriage has been shaped by romantic comedies, reality dating shows, and the promise of “true love.”

But of all the things that Madame Bovary reminded me of—including the danger of disdaining the mundane—it’s those prophetic comments that kept me reading. At one point of the story, Emma’s husband Charles is deciding whether to support her request for music lessons. (In reality, she’d suggested the lessons as a guise to cover her weekly rendezvous with her lover.) Not knowing this, Bovary weighs the benefit of them and is finally convinced by these words from Homais, the local chemist:

One should never let any of the faculties of nature lie fallow. Besides, just think, my good friend, that by inducing madam to study, you are economizing on the subsequent musical education of your child. For my own part, I think that mothers ought themselves to instruct their children. That is an idea of Rousseau’s, still rather new perhaps, but that will end by triumphing. I am certain of it, like mothers nursing their own children and vaccination.

And there you have it: Flaubert predicted homeschooling, attachment parenting, and the conversation about vaccinations. Forget mommy blogs; go read a classic.