Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert: A Book Review
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
The debut novel of French novelist Gustave Flaubert published in 1856, Madame Bovary is often commended as a classic piece of literature, widely held as exemplary work of literary realism, and most often considered to be Flaubert’s masterpiece.
Originally written in French, the book first came out in separate increments in the newspaper La Revue de Paris, and it was met with much contention among readership. In fact, the public was so upset that Flaubert was charged with obscenity and having committed an “outrage to public morality and religion.” A subsequent trial over the book’s publication ensued. Flaubert was ultimately acquitted in 1857, and due to its notoriety, Madame Bovary quickly became a bestseller. [Side-note: Madame Bovary on Trial by Dominick LaCapra is a fantastic book all about this trial and it includes an analysis of the novel and details how and why the book was so provocative when it came out.]
Madame Bovary, 163 years later, still remains considered one of the greatest books of all time. The Guardian has it listed as number 22 on their list of greatest books of all time, on GreatestBooks.org, it sits at number 12, and The Atlantic ranks it number 2 on their list of greatest books of the 19th century. Needless to say, Madame Bovary is highly regarded across the masses as a profound and important piece of literature, and there are many reasons why.
Note: I didn’t plan this but I ended up reading two different translations: I started with the Modern Library College edition circa 1957 translated by Francis Steegmuller, and shortly into Part Three, I switched to the Bantam Classic edition circa 1959 translated by Lowell Bair (mainly for portability reasons), which is regarded as the standard edition/translation of the novel.
So keep in mind, while I write about the beauty of the prose, not only is it a great testament to the genius of the author Gustave Flaubert, but also the translators Steegmuller and Bair.
Summary [spoilers ahead]
First things first: jump into your time machine and travel back to the 1850’s French countryside.
TLDR: Summed up, it is about a woman’s journey as she attempts to escape her ennui and discontent in life. (Of course, it's a tad more nuanced than that).
Part one starts out centered on Charles Bovary and takes place in Tostes, France, a small town on the outskirts of Rouen: his childhood, his experiences in school; then his adolescence into early adulthood, his experiences in medical school, where he fails out the first time, but on the second, he succeeds and returns home to Tostes a certified doctor; his marriage to Hélouïse Dubuc, having been arranged by Charles’s mother; and then the death of Hélouïse. Toward the end of his marriage, Charles attends to a local farmer named Rouault who has broken his leg. While he is there, he meets Rouault’s daughter Emma with whom he is immediately infatuated with. After Hélouïse’s death, Charles begins to visit Emma more frequently and eventually begins to fall in love with her. Charles first asks Emma’s father if he could marry his daughter, to which he was met with a positive response, and then later found that Emma reciprocated his feelings. They were wed and set off to live happily ever after (or so its seemed; all of this, by the way, takes place within the first like forty pages.)
Their marriage starts out pretty fine, it appears, and we learn a bit more about Emma’s background. She grew up countryside with her farmer father, but eventually went away to school at a convent for nuns. She began to grow a bit rambunctious and inquisitive with the “higher” side of life, mostly taking influence from the novels she read, tales of great knights rescuing damsels in distress and countless love stories. In her head she began to dream of the happiness that love would bring and, falling more into her reverie, veered away from religion, eventually leaving the convent.
Well things take a turn when Charles receives a letter from the French viscount, a Marquis d’Andervilliers, (whom Charles had relieved of an abscess shortly before) inviting both Charles and Emma to an overnight dinner and ball he is throwing at his mansion. Charles and Emma get dressed to the nines and proceed to head out to the viscount’s palace where, upon entering, Emma is immediately overwhelmed with the luxurious, high-class atmosphere of the event. Countless people are there; men drabbed in well-tailored suits, women in beautiful, doubtlessly expensive ball-room gowns, a live orchestra playing music to a giant hall in which people are dancing gracefully. Emma is smitten by this scene, and completely intoxicated by the grandiose lifestyle that she was, up until then, totally unaccustomed to. She eats incredible food, chats with educated, well-versed individuals, and dances her ass off. She’s living the dream and doesn’t want it to end.
When they come back to reality, Emma continues to reminisce in the memory of that night for weeks, months to come. Her home life does not even pale in comparison to the glorious, high class lifestyle of those people that she so envies. And slowly this begins to consume her. She gets bored and disappointed with her life and her marriage. She slowly begins to resent Charles citing his lack of ambition and culture. Over time she grows more and more depressed, each and every day daydreaming of a better life, a life in Paris, a life like the ones of the guests at that party, a life that her classmates back at the convent surely must have by now, any life would be better than hers. Eventually, Emma grows so discontent, she loses her appetite and grows unhealthy, which Charles notices. He brings her to a doctor in town who diagnoses her with “a nervous illness” stating that a “change of air” was needed. Charles decides to move to another town name Yonville-l’Abbaye, and part one ends with the two of them leaving Tostes. In the last line before part two, we learn that Emma is pregnant.
Emma has a girl, despite wanting a boy, and the name the child Berthe. In Yonville, all is well at first (again), until Emma begins to grow depressed again. However, this time she is depressed because she falls in love with a handsome, young man named Léon, who also secretly is in love with her. They spend a lot of time alone together, but he never makes a move out of respect for Emma and her husband, and eventually he moves away to Paris. After he leaves, Emma is even more depressed and grows to hate her husband. Then, she meets a thirty-four-old man named Rodolphe. Rodolphe is rich, debonair, liberal, educated and cultured, and kind of a ladies’ man. He finds Emma attractive (just as she him) and he begins scheming on how to win her despite her being married and him having a mistress already.
Part two begins with a large ceremony, an Agricultural Show, in which a bunch of political officiates come to Yonville to praise the farmers with awards for their services. Rodolphe and Emma attend together but watch from a secluded tower overlooking the ceremony. It is here that Rodolphe tries to entice Emma with his gift of gab, so to speak, harping on about love and beauty and hedonistic philosophies. Emma is impressed but unsure of her feelings; she still wavers in between what’s right and what she wants. Eventually over time, as the two continue to see each other–going on walks, horseback riding, having meals–Emma begins to fall desperately in love with him. They begin having an affair, and Emma, completely shook with these fresh feelings of love and exuberance, continues to fall further and further in love with Rodolphe.
They begin sneaking off together in the early light of morning, their secret trysts growing more frequent, and soon Emma begins to grow paranoid that they’ll be found out. However, she is unperturbed because she has found meaning in life again; she has found love and so she has found happiness. However, the more she falls in love with Rodolphe, the more she grows to hate Charles. Eventually as Emma reaches new heights within her discontent for her home life, she decides to desert Charles and move away with Rodolphe. Everything is set in motion, all the plans accounted for, but on the very day that her departure was to take place, Rodolphe sends her a letter saying he’s leaving her. To Rodolphe, despite his genuine feelings to her, there was no future in the prsopect of their relationship (he goes in, saying a bunch of just flowery statements to supposedly lessen the blow but makes it way worse; go read it).
Emma is heartbroken, so heartbroken in fact, she gets extremely ill and is bed-ridden for many months. She loses a ton of weight, won’t speak to anyone, and it almost looks like she’s going to die. But then suddenly, she has this strange, religious epiphany and all is well! She’s up and moving about, making food and sewing clothes, gardening and reading; all of it she attributes to finding the love of God and basking in the glory of his name. She goes straight up Catholic manic. Though under the surface, she is still spiraling out of control, citing the fact that she simply has given up–“Love had disappeared from her life…”
Part two concludes with a trip to the opera in Rouen, which you can probably guess the effect that has on Emma. At the opera, not only is Emma struck again with the elegance and class of the event, thus all those feeling of the viscount’s event rushing back to her, she also become crazy entranced in the show itself, and the hope of love and beauty and art and all also come rushing tenfold. And then! Guess who she runs into at the opera: Léon! The one that got away.
In the last scene, Emma, Charles, and Léon are at a café after the opera (they dipped out of the opera in middle of the last act), and Léon mentions that there is another showing of the opera the next night. While Charles has to go back to Yonville because he can’t miss any more work, he suggests that Emma stay in Rouen with Léon for the weekend so that she can attend the opera once again, this time alone with Léon. (Dum dum dum).
The end up skipping the opera and just chatting at a café for a few hours, and of course, Léon confesses his love for her, again. Emma is still hesitant and at a cathedral, she gives him a letter refusing his advances (amidst the company a very persistent verger, might I add). Then she heads back to Yonville.
When she gets home, she finds out that Charles’s father has died, and everyone is pretty upset. His mom comes to town and they start planning the funeral and what not. In the midst of all this turmoil, the Bovary’s are in need of a notary in regards to all their expenses, inheritance, etc, and Emma suggests that they take Léon on for his services. And Emma insists that she go back to Rouen to ask him in person, to which (as usual) Charles encourages.
Léon and Emma begin their secret relationship, having what is described as a “honeymoon” phase. Emma starts traveling to Rouen every week (under the guise of piano lessons), and Léon traveling to Yonville, all the while both are writing each other love letters. And this goes on for a while, but eventually Emma grows a bit manic. It is here that we begin to see Emma’s financial problems starting to weigh more heavily on her. Throughout the book, Emma has been borrowing money from a cunning, manipulative merchant named Lheureux. Because she is a bit naïve when it come to math and money as well as extravagant and spends money flippantly, she begins to fall further and further into debt to Lheureux. (this will come back to haunt her)
Despite their affair, Emma’s happiness starts to dwindle yet again, and she starts to grow restless with Léon. When on one certain occasion Léon gets caught up with lunch plans with somebody else, Emma freaks out, berates him endlessly, and ends up deserting him. Charles, on the other hand, has been noticing Emma’s absences and grows worried (Emma would often stay overnight in Rouen without telling Charles). We start to see the final descent of Emma’s happiness and the subsequent inception of her decadence and corruption, especially with Emma finally receiving court summons to pay off her outstanding debts, a total sum of 8000 francs.
Emma does not have that kind of money. She begs Lheureux who is relentless and unwavering; she begs Léon for money, convincing him to ask his employer; she even goes to Rodolphe’s mansion (remember him?) and begs him for money, to which she is met with refusal. Knowing that her hidden financial failures were finally going to be exposed and that the courts were going to seize everything that she and Charles owned, Emma launches into a manic episode which results in her breaking into the pharmacist Homais’ (the Bovary’s good friend and neighbor) drug cabinet and stealing arsenic. She eats the arsenic and dies (a scene that lasts multiple pages as many people come to her aid and try to save her, ultimately unsuccessfully).
Charles is completely devastated, and now taking on all of Emma’s debts, he finds himself in near complete ruin. After Emma’s funeral and the court’s seizing of nearly all his property, Charles falls into a depression. And one day while cleaning out old drawers, Charles finds all of Emma’s love letters, both to Léon and Rodolphe. This is the last blow to Charles’s heart, and the book ends with Charles entering into his garden, sitting under a tree, and succumbing to his depression and misery, finally dying. His daughter Berthe is sent to live with his mother, and eventually to his aunt.
There’s a lot to unpack in Madame Bovary, so let’s jump in.
The story of Emma is the war being dream and reality. From early in her life, she becomes enticed and prone to the romantic side of life–through literature, the mysticism of religion, love and beauty, etc. When her marriage to Charles is not like her fictionalized vision of what a marriage and love should be, she grows tired and intolerant. She will always seek the ecstasy, the bliss, the passion when it comes to love which inevitably leads to her multiples affairs. And it makes sense that, outside of her marriage to the boring Charles, she would fall for Rodolphe and Léon, two very different men.
The duality of Léon and Rodolphe is striking: Rodolphe represents this sort of Epicurean, libertine, hedonistic fantasy that Emma falls into head first, something that she never realizes existed let alone something that fits so perfectly to her dreams; Léon represents the other side, the noble, the just, the love of beauty with ambition, the one that the angel on Emma’s shoulder tells her she should be with. Rodolphe is the “bad boy” and Léon is the “good guy” so to speak. But outside of all of this is Charles! The man to whom Emma is actually married. It’s interesting how these two forces clash in her secret, adulterous life, unbeknownst to Charles, however, I believe that’s also what is most striking about this novel. It is that Emma is able to so easily walk into this “other life,” this “different side of her” without feeling even a morsel of guilt. In fact, it’s of the contrary; the hatred she feels for Charles grows and grows, which continuously pushes her into affairs, which she justifies with her increasing hatred toward Charles. It’s an unstoppable mental wheel which Emma is at the center of, turning it with her desires, totally blind of how each spoke is a potential dagger in Charles’s heart.
There’s a reason behind Emma’s ability to compartmentalize her actions and reasons aside from the seemingly empty conscience within her: Emma is discontent with her middle-class status, something we saw toward the beginning of the novel with her getting a taste of the upper-class at the viscount’s party. It is this very notion that drives Emma into mental, emotional, and also financial descent. Emma consistently dreams of a life bigger than hers, and so she looks and feels things greater than others. She remains true to this dream of hers throughout the entire novel–often growing restless when things begin to plateau, basking in the glory of art and beauty, living in romantic novels, and holding her sentiments and principles close to heart (like when she falls into her debt, she refuses to prostitute herself when the option is presented). And eventually it is this dream that brings about her demise; Emma finally realizes that it is an unattainable dream, and only in death could she finally be content.
[Emma sort of reminds me of Mildred in Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham, as she becomes more manipulative not only towards Charles, but also Léon. In Of Human Bondage, Mildred is a borderline sociopath who strings Phillip Carey along throwing him through many, many loops of psychological and emotional torment; it appears that Emma is slowly walking along a same path as Mildred.]
Poor, poor Charles. He really takes the bearing of the atrocities throughout the novel, however, in doing so, Flaubert presents an interesting commentary on provincial life. Charles is the dull-minded, slow, unimaginative, unambitious, middle-class country doctor who would, without ever meeting Emma, most likely meander throughout life, finding joy in the small things and never amounting to anything truly exceptional. He is the perfect contrast to Emma’s infinite infatuations with the extraordinary.
Charles is easily manipulated and taken advantage of, especially by women. From the first instance of his mother controlling nearly every aspect of his life, including arranging his first marriage, to the last instance of Emma finally robbing him silly from beyond the grave. Charles is a man who is prone to being swindled because he is constantly blinded by the presumed goodness in everyone. It might also be connected to this one personality flaw Charles’s frequent inability to notice when Emma is upset as well as his complete unawareness of her affairs, which were at times, so blaringly obvious. Charles is a dolt, uncultured and inept in nearly every aspect of life except in his love for Emma. It is Charles’s undying love for Emma that contributes to his blindness, and when Berthe is born, Charles feels that he has accomplished the sole purpose of life and yearns for nothing more. Charles is completely selfless, while Emma is completely selfish.
Flaubert created Charles, not only as a contrast to Emma’s personality which in turn emphasized her actions and behaviors, but also perhaps as a way to represent and personify aspects of the middle-class life in France at the time, (something that may still resonate in 2019).
Madame Bovary is often listed among the ranks of the finest realistic novels. Flaubert’s third person omniscient perspective and hyper-description of life makes for a pretty vivid novel, to say the least–from the bucolic; pictures of the countryside, gardens, and farmers, stables, menial workers, lower-class citizens and an insurgency against low wages, injuries and botched surgeries etc.; to the streets of Yonville; well-dressed men and women sauntering down avenues, the cafes filled with conversation, the beggars on the streets, the persistent priests with an air of religious superiority, the harsh swindlers and money-men; to the contrasting Victorian-era; grandiose displays of wealth and intelligence, high art such as theater and opera, extravagant clothes, white-collars jobs, giant mansions, luxuriant parties, esoteric philosophies, and highfalutin senses of confidence. The way that Flaubert is able to paint the world, and all sides of it through his prose is truly unbelievable. However, within his prose, there are methods to his artistry that contribute to deem the novel a literary work of realism.
Flaubert paints a picture that is unadorned and unromantic and, in doing so, depicts the dullness and banality of a middle-class life. And it’s a true testament to his craft how Flaubert is able to capture that dullness without writing a novel that is dull. One of my favorite techniques that Flaubert uses is his sprinkling of sudden disruptions within certain scenes.
Scenes that are supposed to be moving, emotional, momentous, and monumental are often interrupted by something–whether it’s an argument between two minor characters, a persistent priest trying coax the lead characters into a guided tour, a monotonous long-winded diatribe by a loquacious character while Emma is in the midst of incredible internal turmoil, and even the long, sardonic debates filled with quips and jokes in the midst of Emma on her death-bed. It’s almost humorous at times how such tiny occurrences steal the light from a scene that otherwise would have been beyond moving. And it’s in these little accoutrements that I believe Flaubert earns his praise. Flaubert is depicting real life where tiny things suddenly happen in the midst of greater things, and then those greater things are affected, often diminished. Also, in a way, Flaubert is poking fun at romanticism. If such moments were written without these interruptions, these moments would have been grand and emotional, and therefore the book may have been a work of romanticism. But because Flaubert threw in these tiny moments throughout the story, little things that steal the emotion that would have been, it is a fantastic example of the changing literary movement of the 19th century.
When the book came out, as I stated earlier, Flaubert was charged with obscenity, specifically in regards to the church. And I think the reason for that involves a few minor characters, one being a priest, the other being a pharmacist. Both characters clash philosophically on multiple occasions, often debating on concepts in Christianity, and on most of these occasion, the pharmacist ends up taking the upper hand. Flaubert writes a few different instances that, in the midst of argument, the concept of religion sort of deconstructs (shoutout the French philosopher Jacque Lacan). These instances where religion tends to contradict itself would have been an incredible threat to the greater society which was so regulated by the clergy. I had to constantly remind myself to imagine reading this book in the mid 19th century, and in doing that, I began to see how important this book was for that time.
Besides religion, Emma as a character was literally a threat to the status quo (very Chopin-esque). To think that a woman, a wife, was capable to such indecent thoughts, acting out viciously and spitefully against her husband, and having multiple affairs, in a time where religious principles governed the mass of societal living, was not something easily considered. Her entire journey and transformation, with all of her actions, thoughts, feelings, I am sure ruffled the feathers a few people. Ah to be fly on the wall in that courtroom during Flaubert’s trial!
This was truly a beautiful book, a testament to genius of Flaubert (it was his first novel!), as well as the translators. I can understand why it is so highly regarded in the canon of classic literature. And more than that, Flaubert description is seriously uncontested. I found myself living inside this novel, breathing the French air, feeling the stones embedded in the avenues under my feet, hearing the birds chirp and the horses trotting, tasting the wine, and feeling what it was like to be there, really there.
I highly recommend this book to honestly anyone, but especially to those who enjoy love stories that don’t have nice endings, and also those who simply want to escape into another life in another time and gain an incredibly moving picture of lives that are, in so many ways, very relatable.