by Andrew Barber, English Faculty
Madame Bovary: Provincial Manners, Gustave Flaubert’s debut novel published in the 1850s, is remarkable for a myriad of reasons. It was immediately controversial due to its sensual realism and has lived a healthy life as a Western classic, occasionally breaking into the ‘greatest novel of all time’ conversation. But for a 17 year old senior in his public high school in South Carolina, its impact was more pointed.
In Flaubert’s book, Emma Bovary, our misguided protagonist, spends her life reading popular novels that promise every woman a life of romance and high-living. When her actual marriage does not live up to those promises, she goes about taking drastic—and immoral—action to remedy that fact. Her desperate search for romance drives her into the arms of Rodolphe Boulanger, a wealthy, stylish landowner. After four years of a secretive affair, Rodolphe ditches Emma on the eve of their planned escape. As Rodolphe decides to abandon her, he takes Emma’s last letter, cries out ‘What a lot of rubbish!’, and places it in a cabinet full of letters from other abandoned lovers.
As a high school student, that scene struck me with immediate fear. I saw in Rodolphe an echo of my own desire to be praised and adored. I also saw how easily such a desire could become dehumanizing, self-serving, and deeply hurtful to others. After graduation, as I navigated relationships throughout college, that image of the cabinet full of heartfelt, abandoned letters haunted me.
If you had approached me in high school and said, “Andrew, you value the praise of others too much”, I might have ignored you. But put that critique in a story like Flaubert’s, and you might just get past the ‘watchful dragons’ which so often keep us from self-examination.
In the Bible, when the prophet Nathan comes to convict King David of his sins against his own people, he uses a parable to do it. Stories are so powerful because they can take us outside of ourselves, even if only for a moment. But stories are not only for convicting us of our failures. They can also bind us together in a common mission and call us to hope and love for our neighbor. Part of what has made the past few years so politically contentious has been a reevaluation of our national story. What is the American story? And how do I fit into it? Who are the heroes? Who are the villains?
When COVID-19 was dominating the news this past summer, my wife, a family friend and I found odd solace in ’90s movies. Every week we would pick a new one and revisit the decade. Part of the reason we did this, I believe, was that the ’90s were a period of time in which we Americans were relatively optimistic about our political destiny and believed in our institutions, and the decade’s movies portrayed that optimism. Even a movie like Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men, about a criminal court case against a military conspiracy, was ultimately reassuring in that it was the military itself that discovered and prosecuted the conspiracy. In this distrustful era, it has been helpful to remember that things were not always this way; that America could, once again, build institutions that people believed in.
As the impact of COVID-19 stretched on and a tumultuous election loomed, I imagine that I am not the only one to take comfort in old stories. I have been looking for reassurance from the past, since I so rarely find that in the present.
Outside of the true story of the Scriptures, the story I find the most helpful for this moment in time—told by the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri—is Dante’s Inferno. As a young man growing up in Florence, Dante’s life was set up for tremendous success. He was a war hero, a poet, a politician, and a family man. He had put in the time and had every reason to expect a successful future.
And yet, due to the political machinations of the Pope, he was exiled away from his city, community, and family. He briefly became part of an attempted counter-insurgency but, ultimately, gave up hope of entering back into Florence. To cope with this devastating blow, Dante created a fictitious version of himself who must travel through celestial realms to finally reach salvation through unification with God. Dante’s Divine Comedy begins thusly:
‘Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself/ In dark woods, the right road lost.’
Many years back, while I was teaching John Milton’s poem On My Blindness, a student of mine blurted out that if he ever went blind, he would kill himself— a comment exaggerated in the way students sometimes speak. But behind the shock-value of the statement was this sentiment: if things don’t go the way I want them to, if what life holds in store for me is suffering instead of success, I choose death.
Dante’s dark woods symbolizes suicidal longing. Stripped of all he has ever known, Dante faces the same decision: suffer? Or die? As he tries to leave the forest, he is repelled by three ferocious beasts. It is at this point, with Dante in a state of total despair, that Virgil, the great Roman poet and author of The Aeneid, comes to guide Dante through Hell and onwards to Heaven. It is an interesting pick; when given a free choice of historical figures, the author Dante didn’t choose a religious authority or philosopher to guide his avatar. He chose a storyteller.
As Dante and Virgil wander through Hell, they sometimes meet residents who have lived full lives and had great successes. And yet there they are suffering in Hell, asking Dante to update them on the state of Italian politics. The ridiculous irony of these men and women, in Hell for their sinful rebellion against God, still caring about their particular political party’s success or failure, is not lost on my students. The Divine Comedy is meant to show us that any sense of mastery over our own lives is an illusion. Many of the characters in Dante’s Hell believed, in life, that they were masters of their fate. They did not realize that they were wandering through dark woods, the right road lost. I believe Dante would dare to suggest that even back in 2019, before COVID-19 was even a thought in anyone’s mind, many of us were wandering that same dark road.
One day, the pandemic will be a memory and, possibly, our national politics will become less tumultuous. But in the meantime, it seems as though we are being asked to remember that we are not the author of our own stories. That we do not, as David Brooks might say, write our own lives insomuch as we are summoned to live them, despite frequent disappointment and suffering. And, as we explore this brave new world, hopefully our best stories will be there to confront our vices, remind us of the possibilities of virtue, and walk us through Hell to the loving God beyond.