Tuesday Tome Week 18 – Madame Bovary

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I read Madame Bovary painstakingly. It took me longer than a week because I had to put it down over and over again. I was not sure I could finish it. It pains me to see characters – especially women – making foolish mistakes again and again. When I finally came to about 80% of the book, – yes, I read it on my Kindle – I started enjoying it. Why? Because Emma Bovary was finally hitting rock bottom.

Madame Bovary

I don’t like reckless behavior, whether in real life or in literary fiction. I understand why Susan Wise Bauer included this novel in her list of 32 best novels to read from Western literature. It is the first novel chronologically which puts an end to Romanticism and starts Realism as a current in literature.

Gustave Flaubert shocked many people with the realistic depictions of every day life and the adultery Madame Bovary engaged in while married to Charles Bovary, a country doctor in Yonville, France. Flaubert even got sued over the book, which shocked the sensibilities of many in the 19th century.

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Anyway, I am glad I read it because (1) I read it in French, in the original, and I saw it as a way to practice my French; (2) now I can tell you about it; (3) I can keep going down the list in The Well-Educated Mind without feeling like I skipped over something; (4) it is always good to finish what you start.

And (5), I found several pearls – any book has them, you just have to be willing to look for them. The pharmacist was one of the few characters who ends well by the time the story is over. He said a few things and just the way he was, the way Flaubert described him, I gained insight into somebody I know – we won’t mention any names.

So Emma Bovary reads too many romantic novels for her own good and wants to live her life on an emotional high. The daughter of a farmer, she gets sent to a Catholic convent for education. As a Protestant, I have never thought sending children to a Catholic school is a good idea and this book proves it – and this 200 years ago! Of course, we are dealing with fiction, but art imitates life most of the time.

The books we read and what we make of them can really influence our thinking. No wonder many Puritanical educators do away with fiction altogether. They don’t know how to handle them or how to teach them to their children.

Our heroine Emma Rouault marries Dr. Bovary, a widower, and becomes completely disgusted with her husband because he is not refined. She craves expensive goodies and launches into not one but two affairs (not simultaneously) with men who could not have been more different from each other. The woman is confused to say the least and ends her own life in the most horrible way, by eating arsenic. Her daughter becomes an orphan not long after that, as Dr. Bovary dies of a broken heart once he finds Emma’s love correspondence with the two men – although he told one of the men that he did not hate him.

So what’s the good in such a novel? First of all, the form. Flaubert invented the art of telling it like it is – a reaction against the Romantic novels up until that time. It is not by accident that Emma’s sad life and tragic end are caused by reading romantic novels. Secondly, if you can read it in French, it would help you tremendously. Don’t stop to look up every word you don’t know. As long as you can get the gist of what is happening, move on. Thirdly, read it so you can count yourself warned – adultery and living beyond your means never take you down a good path. At least Flaubert did not reward Emma by letting her live on and somehow glorifying her mistakes.

For me, “tout à coup” remains the main expression I learned after reading Madame Bovary. I saw it many, many times throughout the book. I should have counted it. Glad it’s over though.

Tuesday Tome Week 9 – The Scarlet Letter

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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s masterpiece is set in Puritan New England. If you, like me, have only seen the movie, you should really consider reading the book. I have said this before and I will say it again: there is no comparison between immersing yourself in a book and watching a movie adaptation thereof.

The Scarlet Letter


This is only 272 pages, so it’s not as intimidating as Don Quixote or Anna Karenina, so really there should be no problem from that standpoint. If you are familiar with King James Bible language, again, the dialogues in this book should not pose a problem. It is actually very neat to read something in that kind of English which is not the Bible – though Scriptural references are peppered throughout.  Continue reading »

Hester Prynne and her daughter, Pearl, as well as the rest of the characters, evolve through the book, which stretches over seven years. She is, of course, found pregnant well after her husband has gone to sea, and must wear an “A” for “adulteress” embroidered on her dress at all times.

When the Puritan leaders consider they should take her daughter so they can educate her instead of her own mom, it made me think of compulsory education laws. Thankfully, we have options in the US, as homeschooling is legal in all 50 states.

I liked the metaphors hidden in the names: Hester’s husband is “Chillingworth” as if he is worth a chill coming down your spine every time he appears in the book. Pearl’s name refers, of course, to the pearl of great price – Hester has lost everything in this life as she gained Pearl.

I found the book heavy in atmosphere but rather realistic for I have been exposed to Puritan-like environments. And I have seen the kind of humiliation inflicted on Hester in these “holy places” although not for adultery and not in the form of a scarlet letter. I would rather not give details but suffice it to say that Hawthorne is not far from the truth and, unfortunately, these attitudes still prevail in the 21st century in some places. Is it any wonder that some have been turned away from faith because of such people?

Pearl’s personality is identical to that of one of my children’s. This is why we read books: so that we can put into words our reality. I would have never known to describe this child of mine as being elf-like or impish or fairy-like, but Hawthorne helped me out and for that I am thankful. When we can put something we experience into words we own it and know how to deal with it better.

All in all, a classic read and very much worth your time. Here and there the writing gets a tad difficult but then, out of the blue, you find a pearl – a truth about human nature, for instance. But then you knew that reading is like mining for gold, right?

Tuesday Tome Week 6 – Jane Eyre

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Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is a masterpiece. No wonder then that of all the things the Bronte sisters wrote, Susan Wise Bauer included only Jane Eyre into her list of 32 novels produced by the Western world since the genre was created, around the 1600s. Jane is way ahead of her time. She makes herself the equal of a man (a wealthy gentleman, too) – great feat in 1847! – through conversation and wit and attitude.

Jane Eyre

But Jane Eyre is more than just an early feminist. She is a Christian who is grappling with injustice, hypocrisy, delusion, and missionarism in the people around her. Some have said this book is anti-Christian because of characters like Mr. Brocklehurst and St John Rivers. These men seem more like caricatures, but have you not met hypocritical characters in your local congregation? Have you not met exalted young missionaries who are deluded into thinking they are doing God and the world a favor through their daily sacrifices? I know I have met my fair share of such people. So this book spoke to me on a very personal level.  Continue reading »

I have also enjoyed reading the development of Jane herself. This book is written as an autobiography, so we hear Jane speak in the first person. She takes us on a journey about her life from the time she was 10 until her late 20s.

And then, there is the love story between Jane and Mr. Rochester. I will not give away much of the plot, but suffice it to say that it is fascinating. Personally, I have never liked men my father’s age in a romantic way. But I know several women who enjoyed relationships with men who were older by 13-25 years. In that aspect, I did not “get” Jane. Everything else about the evolution of their relationship though was very believable and I could come to terms with.

I liked how Charlotte Bronte described the landscape and the rest of the characters. I enjoyed looking into the metaphors hidden in the names of the different places Jane stayed at: from Lowood to Ferndean, the author hid a message and a description in each location name.

This has been such a powerful book, I need a break from fiction for the next week, so that I can still bask in the atmosphere of Jane’s universe while I read a nonfiction book.

By the way, I watched the 1970 production of Jane Eyre, which is available for free on Amazon Prime, but did not like it very much. A lot was left out of the book – big chunks, which gave a lot of insight into the development of Jane’s thoughts and feelings. Several things were changed from the book, to fit a simpler plot. It is really not worth your time unless you want to have a visual of what some of the scenes might look like – and even then, would you not like to stick to what your mind imagined by reading the book?

This movie is definitely not a replacement for reading the book. Oh, and you can get Jane Eyre free on Kindle. Your local library probably carries it too, in the Classics section.

The Well-Educated Mind

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When I purchased my copy of The Well-Trained Mind three years ago, I thought I would never be interested in The Well-Educated Mind. I thought I would be reading right along my children as we followed suggestions from The Well-Trained Mind. Who would have time for anything else? I was wrong.

The Well-Educated Mind

The book for homeschooling parents who are thirsty for more

Not that I find myself with “vast chasms of time” on my hands, to use Thomas Jefferson’s expression. But I got my kids on track with their assignments from The Well-Trained Mind and now I find myself curious, hungry, and eager for filling in the gaps in my own education. When I heard The Well-Educated Mind was being revised and re-published in October 2015, I placed my pre-order in September and waited (im)patiently for it to come out.  Continue reading »

Right from the introduction, I was very impressed. The book offers tremendous information about how to read a book. I read How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler last summer and learned a lot, but The Well-Educated Mind offers more precise advice, better organized ideas, and information geared specifically toward the homeschooling parent. Sorry, Mr. Adler!

I have already started down the list of 32 novels, which are listed in chronological order and have been chosen for their meaning in the history of novel evolution. I keep The Well-Educated Mind nearby and refer to it often, as I am still learning how to mark each book and how to read it on the three levels of classical education. And while I do not have the time to do everything Susan Wise Bauer recommends, I think I follow 90% of her suggestions in this book.