The Machinations of Desperation
Writer's comment: Don’t allow my witty prose to deceive you: this essay is still about a TV show. But why would an intelligent and charming man opt to write about a soap opera with a predominantly female following? This question was posed to me in far less flattering terms by many friends. I was impressed by the similarity between two sensationally popular works that provoked large public outcry due to content. It has become cliché to say that our lives are profoundly influenced by the vague movements of the media and to blame them for whatever “moral decay” is in style at the moment. Whatever your view on the subject, it remains clear that both of the works discussed herein are imitating life, and that many people are simply not comfortable with that fact. Over 100 years after Madame Bovary’s publication, people remain in denial about the roles that sexuality and conflict play in the human drama. Just as water pressed into steam drove the ancient engines of Flaubert’s age, repressed conflict continues to drive the human stories of our own. Many thanks to Gail Finney for her kind words of encouragement and for letting me get away with this.
Instructor's comment: Alex Addley wrote this essay for Comparative Literature 168B: “Realism and Naturalism,” which studies novels by Dickens, Zola, Flaubert, and Kate Chopin as well as plays by Ibsen and Strindberg in an effort to illuminate the two very vexed period concepts announced in the title of the course. Alex entered the course late but read Dickens’s novel Hard Times over a weekend in order to catch up with the rest of the class—and then some. His comments in class typically “took things further,” combining keen insight into the text at hand with an element of wry humor that his classmates appeared to appreciate thoroughly (as did I). To aid the class in writing this final essay I distributed a list of possible topics. Alex was one of the few students who instead chose to write on a subject of his own devising. The essay reflects his recognition, evident throughout the term, of the ways in which nineteenth-century European literature anticipates features of contemporary American culture, both high and popular. His paper can stand as a useful reminder that we are rarely as unique as we think we are.
—Gail Finney, Comparative Literature
What is desperation? Is it a personal evil that dwells at the root of the human psyche ? Or conversely, is it the result of the often overwhelming external pressures of the human condition that manifest themselves in every time period and social class?
To pursue this question we look to the character of Emma Bovary, whose desperation spans one of the greatest books of the Realist era, Madame Bovary. Emma is a brutal worst case scenario of marital entropy, from the first underwhelming day to her last writhing moments under the affliction of arsenic. Since Emma is often characterized by cruelty, callousness, and suffering, her life at first seems unfit for comparison to the countless other women in similar situations. In order to gain perspective on Emma’s relation to the larger body of women, we turn to literature in its modern form: television. The show Desperate Housewives chronicles the married lives of four modern women and explores how desperation arises for them. In examining these characters, which span over a hundred years of social development, we begin to see a pattern. These women do not suffer from some inner evil that drives them to outbursts, as many men have casually theorized. Rather, the demands of society, effects of upbringing, and constant strains of marriage provide more than enough pressure to drive anyone to desperation. It’s exhausting enough just writing about it.
The opening of one episode of Desperate Housewives provides a rather neat recapitulation of Emma’s ideological upbringing:
Martha Huber waited her whole life for something to happen to her, something exciting. As a child, she hoped to be kidnapped by a band of pirates. As a teenager, she dreamt of being discovered by a Hollywood talent scout. As a young woman, she fantasized that a handsome millionaire would sweep her off her feet. But the years had flown by, and still, nothing exciting had ever happened to Martha Huber. Until the night she was murdered. (Desperate Housewives Episode 112, 2005)
Although Martha Huber is not a main character in the show, her story brings to mind the fact that both Emma’s era and the modern one are very much suffused with the spirit of Romanticism. A sort of relentless optimism occupies the childhoods of those not born into poverty, and stretches long into their adolescence and early adulthoods. Like the tissue paper covering the engravings that Emma treasured while a guest of the convent school, this wispy hope floats with little effort. However, life and gravity both press on, and conversely the slightest pressure can blow this precarious hope off balance. Emma and two of the Housewives are victims of this optimistic upbringing of great expectations, and the resulting maudlin existence is doubly crushing. Emma’s optimism sprang from her books. In the show, we have Gabrielle, who was blessed with beauty; we also have Lynette, who had a promising career before her marriage and maternity. All of these women had some form of excitement in their lives. However, especially in Emma’s time, it was naïve to think that this excitement could last forever. Like Mrs. Huber, they were all waiting to be swept away by something grander than themselves; because of the freedom allowed to men, they naturally looked to a man to occupy this role. A man is “free to range the passions and the world” (Flaubert 105), a major part of why Emma is so dismayed at “[Charles’s] dullness written right there, on his coat” (120). The women discover that their husbands are not the kings they hoped to marry, and they become understandably prone to lashing out. After all, no young girl dreams that her future husband will work long hours day after day, leaving her at home alone—and a lack of sexual and emotional satisfaction is bound to emerge after such a precipitous plummet from imaginary heights. Often such a disappointment will inspire the displacement of passions onto another man: Emma provides an extremely literal example of this by demanding that her lover Leon dress like portraits of Louis XIII. Of the three women mentioned here, two go on to cheat on their husbands—a sure sign that a Romantic youth is a harsh primer for adult reality.
The past aside, the pressures of marriage in and of themselves can be enough to break even a kind woman. Like the precarious chemical structures that make up a human body, a marriage requires a great input of energy and perfect balance to stay intact and functional. Emma’s marriage is lacking this serene harmony from its first page, as she waxes melancholy about her husband Charles’s lack of sophistication, his conversation “flat as a sidewalk” (48). Complacency, or the lack of adjustment to it, seems to be the largest enemy of the marriages in Desperate Housewives and Madame Bovary. The husbands of Emma and the Housewives Susan and Gabrielle are all stricken terribly by this. Perhaps the negative reactions to routine married life are due to differences in gender expectations; for men, marriage to a desirable woman is a victory, a prize that signifies their triumph over life, and the ability to settle down and satisfy their physical needs and biological anxieties. Charles “came to esteem himself… for having such a wife” (49), while Emma complains of having “my house and my husband to look after—a thousand things” (125). Upon entering a marriage, the woman’s anxieties of home and family have just begun. Without some notable effort on the part of the spouse, this disparity of expectation will eventually mount to such an extent that desperation can be the only result.
Like the spoiled Gabrielle, Emma has been practically abandoned to her own thoughts and devices by her husband. The pregnancies of both women intensify the feeling of being bound to routine, especially in two who are far from maternally inclined. Neither are dim enough to surrender to monotony, so they begin adding value to their lives by purchasing objects of gratification. It seems that because they have the financial means to do so, these women become increasingly reliant on object-oriented satisfaction. They avoid having to think about the stifling and oppressive realities of their married lives, thinking instead about the joys that a specific object can bring. This mental orientation which seeks pleasure-objects is clearly one that would also be conducive to adultery—for what is a lover but an object which can provide both emotional and physical satisfaction, and at a fraction of the cost of material pleasures. The only drawback is that unlike a necklace, a lover must not be displayed openly to society, for fear of the hue and cry it would no doubt provoke. Instead, a lover breeds lies that foment their own pressure and help the marriage to completely seal its hapless subject in desperation.
Although we say that a housewife is confined to her house, this is not the complete truth. She always has the open forum of society to escape to, with its various pleasures and ideas that tantalize the imagination. However, open society is not only a forum for ideas and amusement, but also another means for desperation to accumulate faster. Outside the home, the husband is vulnerable as well, and his wife in turn will suffer because of how society responds to his actions. In Desperate Housewives, Rex, a doctor, is not getting the satisfaction he needs at home from his wife Bree. After his wife discovers his excursions with a prostitute, hilarity and crisis ensue, putting a great deal of strain on an already difficult marriage. Unlike Emma and the other Housewives, Bree is more than willing to engage in no end of “forced smiles and perfunctory love-making” (Desperate Housewives, Episode 114), because she believes that is what polite society would appreciate. The subtle balancing of gender roles occurring over the past century has directed some glare at men as well, who are no longer free to travel outside of marital bounds without fear of reprisal. That a man can be driven to desperation by the same means as a woman shows that no inherent female sin or condition is to blame. When the rest of the neighborhood discovers the prostitute’s little black book, Brie feels the mortifying, scornful gaze of society and realizes just how tightly she and her husband are bound. Emma, too, feels overwhelmed by the social and financial obligations surrounding her after she buries him in debt, up to the point when her emotional and financial debts inspire her suicide. Both Bree and Bovary’s Emma are enamored with the idea of elegant civility, but are tortured by the realities of society’s menacing glare. Although Emma discusses the dynamics of living in a restrained society with her first lover Rodolphe, she remains largely unaware of “the mediocrity of provincial life, so suffocating, so fatal to all noble dreams” (163).
People may accuse television of being overly melodramatic, but the events in a modern television show are scarcely more so than a book written in the Victorian era. Where Madame Bovary ends with a desperate suicide, Desperate Housewives begins with one. The ideas, the situations, and the characters flow seamlessly despite the century-plus gap between them. We see the characters’ painful desires and emotional destitution, and the surrounding circumstances that leave them so few choices. When pain is portrayed so deftly, the medium becomes less important. That is why Desperate Housewives, though not an artistic equivalent to Madame Bovary, is enough of a spiritual one to warrant a comparison of the ways in which the world can strip down the surface of a woman to little more than pure desperation. To make liberal use of his own words, Flaubert may have the language to melt the stars, but Desperate Housewives does very well with dancing bears and a cracked kettle.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. First Vintage Classics Edition, 1992. Translated by Francis Steegmuller. Edition first published by Random House, Inc., New York, 1957.
Desperate Housewives. Episode 112: Every Day a Little Death. Writer: Chris Black. Director: David Grossman. First Aired: ABC 1/16/2005.
——. Episode 114: Love is in the Air. Writer: Tom Spezialy. Director: Jeff Melman.
First Aired: ABC 2/13/2005.