Madame Bovary and Don Quixote

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“Our ability to read and understand any particular novel is enhanced by our knowledge of other novels and by our awareness of the history and theory of novels”.

Our ability to read a novel is most certainly enhanced by our knowledge of other novels. To draw meaning, and feel emotion, from such novels we must understand their relationship with the world they are based in, the world we know, through lived experience. The mimetic content of a novel, or its themes and ideas, are thought about in terms of their relation to our understanding of the world around us, how well it imitates that world or conflicts with it.

Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is a classic nineteenth century novel with a unique and memorable central character in Emma Bovary, who is shown in a realistic and convincing social setting. Emma Bovary’s “present day reality,”1 the setting of her life, her values and ideas, are described in rich and vivid detail. Although we use terms like ‘realism’ to describe this kind of novel because of its detailed depiction of daily life, what we are offered by these novels is not ‘life,’ but an image that is the creation of both the author’s raveling of life into fiction and the reader’s unraveling of fiction with life.2 There is the possibility for us to see novels as apart from real life because we consider them in regard to the real world. Fiction should not be seen as an exact reflection but as an imagined version, just as point of view is shaped by our endeavors to see the world in such a way as to make sense of it as we do when reading a novel. As readers we look for realistic characters and life-like stories to engage and thrill, something that is relatable. We want creators to bring forth characters who are three dimensional, complex and flawed so that they seem more real, more believable.

‘The novel is one bright book of life. Books are not life. They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble.’3 Novels not only evoke a short term emotional response in readers, they also affect our long term emotional responsiveness - a point presented by writers themselves since at least Don Quixote. Novels can have an impact on our own lives as far as they alter how we feel about other people and situations and effect what we are motivated to do in our personal and social lives.4 As the pitifully amusing Don Quixote shows us, this can occur through our construction of conditions we find ourselves in. Guided by stories the way we process reality might turn windmills into enemies, or as in the case of Emma Bovary, render us disappointed with everyday life. Literature not only represents and arouses emotional experience in the reader, it can contribute to the formation of our emotional responses. As Don Quixote shows, literature itself is a useful source of information regarding said contribution. Along with Don Quixote, Madame Bovary is famous for its criticism and analysis of literature as a source of romantic misunderstandings of the world.

An older man and rich farmer, Alonso Quejana, spent the majority of his life reading novels about medieval times and courageous knights. Adopting the name Don Quixote, and the code of chivalry, he began to believe that he was one of the knights from his tales. Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes claims throughout his satirical Don Quixote that his novel is based on the documented evidence detailing the history of real people. The inclusion of average people in Don Quixote, characters such as shop owners, barkeepers and shepherds, was radical and mostly unprecedented. Don Quixote embodies naive unworldly idealism and a romantic vision that see him the mocked throughout the tale: Six maids took off his armour and acted as pages, all of them trained in their parts by the Duke and Duchess, and instructed in their behaviour towards Don Quixote, for his hosts were anxious that he should really believe that they were treating...
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