Women Behaving Badly

by Megan Evershed

I recently saw a tweet which read, ‘It’s actually feminist when women are horrible people.’ Although sardonic, there is a kernel of truth embedded in the joke. Characteristics and behaviour are not gendered and women are just as capable as men at being bad. This idea – which, I think, we all understand intuitively from interactions in our daily lives – is also true in literature. And who writes bad women like Leïla Slimani? The French-Moroccan author is best known for her second novel, Lullaby (Chanson douce, 2016), which tells the story of a nanny who murders the children in her care. The novel garnered great acclaim in France, where it won the Prix Goncourt, and was an international bestseller. Off the heels of Lullaby’s success, Slimani’s first novel, Adèle (Dans le jardin de l’ogre, 2014), has recently been translated into English.

Adèle is the story of a Parisian woman who has an unquenchable desire for sex. She has sex with her boss, her husband’s colleague, her best friend’s lover, and countless strangers. Her obsession with sex ‘devours her’ and leaves her ‘helpless’. The reader gets the sense that Adèle’s compulsion is ungovernable, a force that operates outside of her control. In contrast to Adèle’s messy, lawless desire, the novel is clinical; it cuts into Adèle’s affairs with a scalpel and splays them open on the examining table. The reader is privy to graphic – and, sometimes, violent – descriptions of Adèle’s sex life.

Although the novel is set in modern-day Paris, its themes are timeless: domesticity, desire, marriage, boredom. In fact, when reading Adèle, I was struck by the similarities between Slimani’s protagonist and the original, ‘bad’ Frenchwoman: Emma Bovary. In many ways, Adèle can be read as a contemporary iteration of Gustave Flaubert’s novel, Madame Bovary. Adèle and Emma share significant parallels. Adèle, like Emma, is an unfaithful doctor’s wife. Both women have a void in their lives, a black hole that they try to fill up with adultery.

Slimani and Flaubert both hint that their characters have been this way since youth. As a child, Adèle – who was locked in hotel rooms while her mother romped around Paris with her lovers – nurtured a deep-seated fascination with the erotic. For Adèle, eroticism ‘gave a new depth to her adolescent afternoons, to birthday parties and even family reunions, where there was always an old uncle to ogle her breasts.’ Throughout the novel, there is a sense that sex – especially sex that is violent or obscene – renders life more interesting for Adèle. She needs her affairs to retain a sense of specialness. If she stopped, ‘She would no longer be able to tell herself: “Let them think whatever they want. They’ll never know the truth.”’

Comparatively, Emma Bovary’s desire lacks a locus; she simply craves fulfilment. Flaubert writes of Emma: ‘Deep in her soul, she was waiting for something to happen.’ This ‘something’ is unspecified and, throughout Emma’s life, takes on varied forms. As a teenager in a convent, she ‘searched her mind for some vow she could fulfil’ and invented sins to lengthen her time in the confessional. After she grows bored of the convent and marries Charles, she believes that ‘at last’ she had found love, that ‘marvellous passion’ that had, until then, eluded her.

Soon enough, however, the gilding of marriage rusts. Emma discovers that bourgeois home life is a series of empty afternoons. Flaubert writes that ‘boredom, that silent spider, was spinning its web in the darkness in every corner of [Emma’s] heart.’ To stave off ennui, she buys luxurious things she can’t afford and fires the maid when her mood turns dark. Adèle experiences the same revelation, almost two centuries later. She got married and had children ‘to belong to the world and to protect herself from other people.’ She uses her conventional role as mother and wife to cloak herself, to make herself appear normal. She wants to seem like any other middle-class woman, even as she finds other middle-class women boring, the bourgeois life intolerable. For Adèle, ‘days at home seemed endless’ and ‘the sight of the slimy, stained high chair’ brings her to tears.

In this portrait of Adèle, Slimani writes about contemporary motherhood with unflinching honesty. She characterizes Lucien, Adèle’s toddler, as “a burden, a constraint that she struggles to get used to.” When Lucien won’t do what he’s told, Adèle finds the soft skin under his sweater and pinches it ‘hard’. Myriam, the mother of Lullaby, also chafes against domestic motherhood. ‘Mila’s tantrums drove her mad, Adam’s first burblings left her indifferent,’ Slimani writes. ‘Sometimes she wanted to scream like a lunatic in the street. They’re eating me alive, she would think.’ In Madame Bovary, Emma avoids this problem, largely by neglecting her daughter.

For Adèle and Emma, their boredom inevitably stems from marital dissatisfaction. Neither woman desires her husband in fact, they are often repulsed by their partners. ‘Charles’s conversation was as flat as a sidewalk,’ Flaubert writes. When Charles’s father dies, Emma maliciously watches him grieve. ‘The monotony of the spectacle gradually drove all compassion from her heart. He seemed to her puny, weak, worthless, in fact a poor man in every way. How could she get rid of him?’ she wonders.

When Richard attempts to have sex with Adèle, she thinks, ‘Let’s get it over with.’ After Richard’s scooter accident, Adèle is pleased with the thought of having the house to herself for a few days. ‘At one point the thought crosses her mind that things could have turned out even better. Richard could have died. She could have been a widow. A widow can be forgiven almost anything,’ Slimani writes. It is in the moments when Adèle and Emma reject the role of loving wife and mother that we are meant to hate them most.

Since Adèle and Emma’s marriages are incapable of providing them with real, long-lasting pleasure, they turn to extramarital affairs. Emma flings herself into 'triumphant adultery.' Everything is ‘passion, ecstasy, delirium.’ Of course, soon enough, Emma rediscovers in adultery ‘all the platitudes of marriage.’ Adèle, however, never luxuriates in the same bliss as Emma: she is immovably mired in the ‘platitudes.’ Often, even before she’s had sex, the sordid glamour of the act has worn off: it is prosaic, even disgusting to be faced with ‘the banality of a zipper’ or the ‘clumsiness of a drunk young man.’ On some level, both women translate their guilt into deeper resentment for their husbands. ‘Adèle hates [Richard] for his naïveté, which persecutes her, which deepens her sin and makes her even more despicable.’ Similarly, Emma finds her husband’s obliviousness annoying: ‘He thought she was happy; and she resented him for that settled calm,’ Flaubert writes.

In almost every way – even down to the way their guilt transforms into resentment – Adèle and Emma resemble one another. It seems as if Slimani has written a 21st-century Madame Bovary, stripped of its corset and dressed up in fishnets. And yet, when read alongside Flaubert, it becomes clear that Slimani has made his project her own. Adèle’s compulsivity, for instance, is a subtle but significant difference between Emma and Adèle: Emma seems to be chasing anything to fill her emptiness, whereas Adèle is obsessed with sex, perhaps clinically. And, unlike Emma, Adèle has tender moments in which her appreciation for Richard seems to eclipse all her affairs. ‘At this moment nothing seems more precious to her than the reassuring sound of the electric razor at the end of the hallway,’ Slimani writes. These character details demonstrate that Slimani has not written a carbon copy of Emma Bovary. Rather, she has constructed a character who is complicated and distinct from her 19th-century counterpart.

This reworking fits snugly into the contemporary literary moment – much more than Emma did during Flaubert’s day. Adèle’s aversion towards societal convention reminded me of Ottessa Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator in My Year of Rest and Relaxation: both women fashion escapes to make the daily slog of living more bearable. Halle Butler’s Millie from The New Me is another uncensored and compelling contemporary female character. The depiction of flaws in female protagonists – like the ones Slimani, Moshfegh, and Butler write about – rounds out characters, rendering them wincingly realistic.

These novels demonstrate that women are varied and complicated and, sometimes, like Adèle, they pinch their children and sleep with their best friend’s boyfriend. We’re so used to liking female characters that when protagonists like Slimani’s or Moshfegh’s or Butler’s come along, we’re thrown off. And this is exactly why we need these characters – because they represent the full tapestry of how a woman can be.