Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Madame Bovary and brain science

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Madame Bovary and brain science

Reading MADAME BOVARY in 2009 is very different from reading it in 1970 or so, the first time I met Flaubert. While classics are classics for a reason – they stand the test, you can read them at 16 or 60 – too often they are quarantined in our school syllabus and then put them aside in favour of Ruth Rendell (not that she’s any slouch, her psychological novels under pen name Barbara Vine have the same clotted despair as Madame Bovary).

What makes Emma Bovary so compelling to me today is how uncannily she illustrates what I’ve been reading on brain science. To recap: Charles and Emma Bovary are a couple living in a dead-end village in Northern France in the mid-1800s. Charles is an increasingly corpulent country doctor who likes nothing better than to come home and doze by the fire. Emma is a dissatisfied romantic who takes long walks by the seashore and reads Parisian magazines. She finds her husband’s conversation “common as a street pavement,” but the real problem is that he doesn’t see there is a problem.

“If Charles had but wished it, if he had guessed it, if his look had but once met her thought, it seemed to her that a sudden plenty would have gone out from her heart, as the fruit falls from a tree when shaken by a hand. But as the intimacy of their life became deeper, the greater became the gulf that separated her from him…”

“He thought her happy, and she resented this easy calm, this serene heaviness …”

“…she was eaten up with desires, with rage, with hate.”

Now, compare Charles and Emma to Jennifer and Brad, a “typical” dysfunctional couple of the early 21st century. They are one of the case studies described in a new book on neuropsychology, SEX ON THE BRAIN, by Daniel Amen.

According to Dr. Amen, women’s brains are always “thinking, thinking, thinking,” while men’s brains are naturally “sleepy.”

“Jennifer wanted more talking, time and attention. Brad wanted more peace, quiet and sex. Their brain scans showed clear differences. Jennifer’s worries and overthinking in the relationship were a product of a much more active brain, while Brad’s need for rest came from his sleepy brain.”

Dr. Amen’s prescription? Physical exercise. It wakes up the sleepy male brain and calms the anxious female brain. So, basically, Charles and Emma should have been taking those long walks by the shore together. And maybe doing a little jogging, too.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Sheree-Lee Olson

Sheree-Lee Olson is a Canadian novelist, poet and journalist. Her first novel, Sailor Girl, was published in 2008 by The Porcupine's Quill.

Go to Sheree-Lee Olson ’s Author Page