Friday, November 28, 2014

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (35 down 65 to go)

(translation by Francis Steegmuller)

From that moment her existence was but one long tissue of lies, in which she enveloped her love as in veils to hide it.

This is the first time I’ve read Madame Bovary or Gustave Flaubert. The book is a Victorian-era, modernist novel, and third person narrative regarding the life of Emma Bovary, the wife of a provincial doctor in mid 19th century France.

My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars

Although I had never read Madame Bovary before, it would not be true to say I had no expectations. The novel is somewhat infamous, even scandalous as it is a story of a married woman who has several adulterous affairs. I was a bit apprehensive as I was of the opinion this novel was rather explicit. But no; Flaubert treated the subject with delicacy and discretion.

SPOILER ALERT: This review contains spoilers, as well as spoilers for two other novels: Anna Karenina and Jane Eyre.

The protagonist, Madame Bovary or Emma, is the wife of Charles Bovary, a physician of neither great ability nor ambition. Though he is married, Charles develops an infatuation for Emma, but does nothing indecent. Not much later, his wife dies, and after a respectable period of time, Charles begins to court Emma, the well-educated daughter of a country landowner. Emma longs for a more glamorous lifestyle, one she presumably thinks the Doctor has to offer.

After they are married Emma is quickly disillusioned as Charles is perfectly content with a humble practice, provincial life, and a pretty wife. Emma keeps up appearances, but grows to resent her husband. She reads novels ***gasp!*** which further incite her discontent. She dreams of masquerade balls, opera, theater, in short a more elegant and cosmopolitan life. She entertains fantasies about Leon Dupuis, a much younger man who shares her ideals of elegance and sophistication. Leon also adores Emma, but neither act on their feelings. Leon eventually moves away to pursue his education, and perhaps escape the torment of being close to the unattainable Emma.

Emma quickly forgets Leon, when Rodolphe Boulanger, a wealthy gentleman, moves into the neighborhood. Upon first sight of Emma, and purely out of admiration for her beauty, he determines to seduce her, with every intention of casting her aside once he’s had his way. He succeeds on both counts. Emma is so distraught, she becomes ill, and makes a token turn to religion. Her new piety is quickly forsaken though when a more mature and confident Leon reenters her life. This time they make their feelings known to one another and Emma begins her second affair. Leon is only slightly less the cad than Rodolphe. He probably even believes he loves Emma. At one point the narrative says

He did not question her ideas; he accepted all her tastes; he was rather becoming her mistress than she his. 

Eventually, they both grow tired of one another and things come to an abrupt end.

This time Emma is not overcome by the loss, but by insurmountable debt resulting from her clandestine lifestyle that she cannot hope to hide or explain. She seeks assistance from all her acquaintances (note the word friends is not applied), including Rodolphe and Leon. She is denied at every turn and takes desperate measures.

As I read Madame Bovary, I kept thinking of two other women: Anna Karenina who was also an adulteress, and Jane Eyre, who was sorely tempted. I had more sympathy for Anna, as she put up resistance before succumbing, whereas Emma was all too easily seduced. There was a stark contrast on the day of their first infidelity. After Anna first gives in to her lover, she weeps bitterly, knowing she is ruined. On the day of Emma’s fall, she is ecstatic, giddy, even silly, whispering excitedly to herself, 
I have a lover…I have a lover! 
My heart broke for Anna, as I witnessed the painful surrender of her virtue. I had no such sympathy for Emma.

And both were indeed utterly ruined.

Then there was Jane Eyre. Who almost….almost had an excuse to commit adultery; I almost wanted her to. No one would have been hurt, her lover truly loved her, she truly loved him, it seemed her only chance of happiness, and I desperately wanted her to be happy. But Jane was not so weak, telling herself: 
Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigor; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth, so I have always believed…

Jane was rewarded for her virtue, and happy after all.

Well, they’re only stories. It’s easy enough for the author to turn things out as he wishes.

And I am only a reader of stories. I like them to turn out…oh not necessarily happily ever after, but I do hope to see the characters held to account for their actions.

I’m not too keen on guessing an author’s intent, and I don’t believe I’m especially good at it. But I will say, I was relieved with Flaubert’s handling of the subject. As I said, I began Madame Bovary with a perception. I thought it was going to be a voyeuristic glimpse at the illicit affairs of a bold and capricious woman, that it would exalt her as self-emancipated. I was completely wrong. If anything, it was an indictment…a very just indictment. Emma was childish and selfish. I don’t believe she would ever be happy no matter her circumstances. She thought fate owed her something, and that fate had cheated her, giving her license to pursue her own passions with impunity. It was hard to feel sorry for her, though I hate to see anyone driven to despair.

There is a just description of Emma, on her deathbed, as a priest gives the sacrament: 
First upon the eyes, that had so coveted all worldly pomp; then upon the nostrils, that had been greedy of the warm breeze and amorous odours; then upon the mouth, that had uttered lies, that had curled with pride and cried out in lewdness, then upon the hands that had delighted in sensual touches, and finally upon the soles of the feet, so swift of yore, when she was running to satisfy her desires, and that would now walk no more.

Madame Bovary was of course written in French. Even in translation, the writing was superb. I’d like to read it in the original French but, mon Francais est tres insuffisante. There is a particularly fine line I like: 
…human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance, when we long to move the stars. 
I cannot help but think it would be exquisite in the original: que la parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé où nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles. 
Of course, reciting of the alphabet is exquisite in Francais.

Strange Fact: This is the second novel in a row that I've read, and the fourth of the last seven, where someone has a leg amputated.


Narrative describing Emma’s discontent:

The nearer things were, moreover, the more her thoughts turned away from them. All her immediate surroundings, the wearisome country, the middle-class imbeciles, the mediocrity of existence, seemed to her exceptional, a peculiar chance that had caught hold of her, while beyond stretched, as far as eye could see, and immense land of joys and passions. She confused in her desire the sensualities of luxury with the delights of the heart, elegance of manners with delicacy of sentiment.

Narrative describing Charles’ contentment:

The idea of having begotten a child delighted him. Now he wanted nothing. He knew human life from end to end, and he sat down to it with serenity.

Narrative describing Rodolphe’s view of Emma: 

Emma was like all his mistresses; and the charm of novelty, gradually falling away like a garment, laid bare the eternal monotony of passion.



  1. Thorough review. I like how you compare the three women - and there certainly were more similarities between MB and AK. I agree that MB was extremely childish (and quite desperate), and maybe AK was desperate in a completely different way. Nonetheless, I felt so much pity for MB as she got herself deeper and deeper into adultery. It was definitely a difficult topic to absorb.

    1. I always appreciate your comments Ruth...Thanks.

  2. Oh, my. That quote about a cracked kettle is a favorite of mine. I sometimes have it posted on my blog. I have this novel on my list. I too would LOVE to read it in the original French. :)

    1. It's been a favorite quotation of mine for a long time, but I hadn't made the connection with the author of MB, until I was reading along....and there it was. It's not a happy story obviously, but I think you'll appreciate the craft of the writer.

  3. This novel is on my TBR, I mean. I haven't read it. :)

  4. As I read Madame Bovary, I kept thinking of two other women: Anna Karenina who was also an adulteress, and Jane Eyre, who was sorely tempted

    Good comparison. Plus if I remember correctly Anna also is a reader of novels, which fills her head with ideas, although it's less prominent an element in Tolstoy's book.

    1. Interesting! And in Eugene Onegin, Tatiana was a reader of novels. Since the novel was a relatively new thing, I wonder how much controversy surrounded it then, whereas now, it is taken as simply another enjoyment in life.

    2. Yes novels were once pretty scandalous. Glad that's past.

  5. I read this for a school assignment once, when we had to choose one from a list of novels that had been considered scandalous at their time of publication. I have to say I pretty much hated it through and through... I felt like I developed a personal vendetta against Emma Bovary, she rubbed me the wrong way so badly that I wished on every page that I could get rid of her. That's really all I can remember from reading this book...

  6. Great comparison. I thought the death bed description of Emma you quoted above was a startling piece of writing.


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