The Madame Bovary Effect

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She wanted to die, but she also wanted to live in Paris.

Gustave Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary in 1856 and published it as a serial novel in a Parisian literary magazine, which were what blogs were called back then. The publication was quite scandalous for the day, and the resulting obscenity trial made Flaubert famous and Madame Bovary a bestseller when it was published as a book the next year.

Of course, to the modern eye and ear, nothing that Emma Bovary says or does is scandalous in the least, so many readers today are bored by the book. I hear that a lot when I mention Madame Bovary as one of the most important works of fiction since the novel was invented. I get it. Yes, as scintillating as the book was 150 years ago, it’s that tame today. But it’s still a masterpiece. Why? Because more than any other author I know, Flaubert captures and communicates the immense power of BOREDOM over human behavior.

Why does Emma Bovary do all the “scandalous” things that she does?

Because she’s bored.

To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull…surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airport gates, SUVs’ backseats. Walkman, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.

– David Foster Wallace, “The Pale King” (2011)

DFW is right, it’s a really interesting question … why is dullness such a powerful impediment to attention?

I see this effect most powerfully in two games that I enjoy playing: poker and stock-picking. In both games, I think I’m pretty good … a medium talent to use Bill Murray’s phrase … but I’m definitely not a great poker player or a great stock-picker. And I know myself well enough to recognize the problem. I get bored with the interminable and rigorous discipline that being a great poker player or a great stock picker requires.

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