French Toast or Arsenic?

Connecting the novel Madame Bovary and Time


One idea in philosophy about the nature of human identity is that of temporal parts, that our identity is the accumulation of time slices throughout our lives.  In this view Emma Bovary, the wife of Charles Bovary, is the sum of these and all her other temporal parts:

The Emma absorbing longings for romance and luxury from the novels she reads

The Emma flirting with the law student Leon

The Emma ignoring her child

The Emma allowing herself to be seduced by the philanderer Rudolphe

The Emma borrowing money to buy luxuries she can’t afford

The Emma entering into an adulterous union with Leon

The Emma swallowing arsenic to end her life

Is there a relationship among the past, present and future parts in this accumulation of temporal parts that is Emma? Perhaps there is “something” that is the essence of Emma, the core, the real, the unchanging something that exists in each of her temporal parts, an identity more basic that allows the present Emma to have an intimate relationship with her past and future counterparts. The present Emma could be a brief stage, who takes responsibility for the actions of her past counterparts, and acts to benefit her future counterparts if she so chooses.

Solon the wise Greek told Croesus, king of Lydia and the richest man in the world, to “count no man happy until he dies”, meaning in the context of my thoughts about temporal parts that we can’t say that a man is to be called happy until the final temporal part has been added.  I would add the counterpoint – count no woman unhappy until she dies.

Emma is composed of a set of unhappy temporal parts; we would all most likely call her an unhappy woman at each part. Emma Bovary alta

But at any point could she take responsibility for the action of her past counterparts and act to benefit her future counterpart?  Could the essence of Emma that is found in each of her temporal parts make choices such that the final temporal part accumulated becomes “The Emma dying peacefully in her bed surrounded by her husband, daughters and sons, and grandchildren” instead of “The Emma dying an agonizing death after swallowing arsenic.”

I believe the answer is “yes”!  Until the very last temporal part is accumulated she still has the chance to act for the good of her future Emma, to redeem the lost and wasted time, to become French toast, the French pain perdu (lost bread), the sweet and delightful breakfast made from dried up, almost wasted bread rescued from its destiny in the garbage.  No mistake is too terrible, no past temporal part too evil to be beyond redemption. This is the hope and optimism that each of us living outside of novels will always have.


My next connecting thoughts will be about Grimm’s Fairy Tales and “complexity”.

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