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  • Russell Magee

On Flaubert's Madame Bovary

A Novel About Disillusionment is More Relevant Now Than Ever




Students, scholars, lovers of literature alike are far familiar with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Since its publication in 1856–and the wild repercussions of its publication, resulting nearly in Flaubert’s imprisonment–the novel has resided in the upper echelons of literature as one the most influential novels in history, and universally considered one of the greatest novels. Karl Ove Knausgaard even wrote, “Madame Bovary is the perfect novel, and it is the best novel that has ever been written.” Countless authors and critics today, alongside those spanning the hundred-and-sixty-five-years past, would doubtless agree with him.


But why? Why is this novel so highly regarded? What about it is so good, so deserving of praise? And why, today, should we still read it, ruminate over it, discuss it?


Widely understood to be a masterpiece of literary realism, the novel captures life’s very details–the beautiful, the banal, the brutal, all aspects of everyday life–in exuberant abundance, details which pull the reader into Totes, Yonville, and Rouen, France during the 19th century. The changing color of the sky, the sun illuminating the leaves in the trees, the dust clouds trailing moving carriage wheels, the clopping of horse hooves, the low priestly incantations emanating from the cathedral, the bouncing flounces of dresses and tresses of hair escaping a woman’s chignon, the endless aroma of a city, from the pleasant sweets of the brasserie down the street, to the fecal fragrances of equines mingling with the noxious odors of the dying, dead, or decaying. Flaubert’s attention to detail is enrapturing, comedic at times, but above all realistic. The form of the novel is doubtless one aspect that contributes to the novel’s legendary status. Flaubert’s artistic illustration of an entire place and time is something that some argue outweighs all other aspects of the novel, that the novel’s greatness lies in its aesthetic. And indeed, aesthetic details certainly play a large role in the novel, indisputably a source of enjoyment, enthrallment, and entertainment. At the onset of the novel, Charles, as a boy, sports a ridiculous hat, the description of which has long inspired puzzlement in readers, visual renderings for artists, and even analyses on Flaubert’s supposed commentary on romanticism, the prevailing literary tradition of the time.

But buried within the aesthetic details that litter the pages, that submerge the reader in excessive description, are implications that propel the story, and specifically the characters, into new lights. Not only is Charles’s ridiculous hat indicative of his unique personality, but it also stands to show how unwittingly Charles is unlike other boys, socially, psychologically, and perhaps even emotionally. From early on, Flaubert imbues the details of his descriptions with subtle implications, which, for those reading closely, open up an array of possibilities. It is the fun of reading: diving deeper into the details that direct the reader down a road of plausible developments. And at this, Flaubert was genius.

In these easter-eggs the well-roundedness of characters fully develops; it is how they relate and affect the space in which they occupy that further adds another dimension to the writing. The novel is written in the third person perspective, but Flaubert seems to toggle between singular and omniscient limitations depending on the dynamics of the scene. Flaubert flows between characters, focusing the narrative spotlight singularly on one, then turning it to another, letting the light momentarily fill the space between, in turn elucidating the details that reside in the in-between. Such a flow blends subjectivity and objectivity, muddling the boundaries between perspectives, but rather than creating a disorienting sense of ambiguity, an interesting continuity forms, an interconnectedness that paints for the reader a beautiful, and at times ridiculous, mosaic of miscommunication, deceit, and indiscretion. Karl Ove Knausgaard in his fascinating, insightful essay on the novel remarks on this notion more eloquently:


“This is the great strength of the novel as a form: the way the subjective, the inner emotional and intellectual life of a person, is bestowed with a kind of objectivity, and may thus be seen and recognized as something in the world rather than something only in the individual.”


By exploring the space surrounding the characters–how each individual affects their surroundings, the people therein, the relationships, the dynamics between characters–and placing an emphasis on the external and contrasting it to the internal, ultimately revealed is the detrimental effects of a universal conundrum.

Mario Vargas Llosa writes, “Emma's drama is the gap between illusion and reality, the distance between desire and its fulfillment”; this is what the novel is about, this is what makes the novel so important, so influential, and so indisputably timeless. The clash between reality and illusion is an inherently human conundrum, one that has pervaded generations past and continues to permeate nearly every aspect of the cultural, political, social climate in the 21st century. The post-digital age mixed with the rise of disinformation, propaganda, and a universal growing fear–the sources of which are too numerous to list–has ushered a great resurgence of this phenomenon, the schism between reality and illusion, on a mass scale. So, a novel wherein such a phenomenon is not only explored to its extremities but which also reveals the dangers and deadly repercussions that fester silently below the calm banal of the everyday is strikingly ever more relevant today.

Emma, while living in a convent during her adolescence, read countless romance and fantasy novels, and she continues to read voraciously during her marriage with Charles, not only to live out her private dreams and fantasies but to sate her palate for the opulent, “seeking imaginary gratifications for her private lusts.” Replacing a novel with a phone, fantastical stories with social media, words for an endless stream of photos on Instagram, suddenly Emma’s plight is propelled into the 21st century. Emma suffers from the most extreme version of FOMO–she strives for a better life, for that more idealized, romantic, fantastical portrait of her life contrived in her head, doubtless influenced by romantic novels and her brief encounters with the high life, and with each glimpse of attaining such a picture, every instance where she flies within arm’s reach of her dreams, the circumstances surrounding her pull back to reality, tether and restrain her, precluding her from making any headway. And because she doesn’t want to miss out so much, she goes to the utmost extreme–taking lovers and racking up an enormous amount of debt–which inevitably foments her demise.

Millennials, Zillennials, Gen Z, Gen Alpha, and everyone born after, experience not just on a daily basis, but rather an hourly basis, the very things that pushed Emma Bovary to insanity. The stark juxtaposition created between reality and the illusion portrayed through a screen, a contrast that for Emma Bovary had deadly consequences, is now just another part of life, a seemingly innocuous and quotidian detail, a habitual quirk of the current modern world. What are the psychological ramifications of such a dynamic? People talk about the dangers of instant gratification; how generations now are more depressed than ever; how suicide rates are up; how more young adults are feeling despondent, disenfranchised, and discontent with the world they thought they knew and would be growing up in.

If Emma Bovary were a millennial today, what would she have been diagnosed with? depression? anxiety? bipolar or even borderline personality disorder? malignant narcissism? sociopathy? magical thinking? Or perhaps nothing at all? In any event, Emma would have just fallen right in line with the rest of the young population of today–just a dreamer whose idea of what life should be was simply too big, too grandiose, too much for the constraints of modern society. (Also, I can’t help but to wonder what Charles might be diagnosed with? Chronic obliviousness? Perhaps even a cuckhold fetish? The psychoanalytical mind wanders).

Madame Bovary is the quintessential timeless novel because it captures the inherently human propensity to want more, and exhibits in graphic detail the very real consequences of when a person goes to the furthest lengths to attain it. It is a novel about the most; a novel about seeking what young people grow up believing they can attain, only to become adults and realize that what they had heard was all a myth. The illusion young people grow up with–call it The American Dream if you want–does not become the reality for the vast majority, and like for Emma Bovary, what ensues is an avoidable series of existential crises and nervous breakdowns, not to mention the litany of much worse outcomes. By reading Flaubert’s novel, one can at least garner an understanding of such a contrast, learn that the reality vs illusion phenomenon is something more prevalent than previous known or thought. And in turn, hopefully Flaubert can help a young reader to cushion the blow that is to come when such a phenomenon inevitably becomes real and smacks them in the face.



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