[I read the Penguin Classics 1992 edition of Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, translated into English by Geoffrey Wall.]
This is the first novel on the Telegraph list that I feel nervous about reviewing, and I have delayed publishing this review but haven’t come up with any flashing insight or sparkling prose to justify the delay. I know that reviews are always personal responses to the book, but in this case I am unqualified to comment on the setting (alternately 19th century rural France and Paris, which are portrayed in stark contrast) or Flaubert’s style. The novel was packed with allusions and references which went right over my head. I do have some understanding of post-revolutionary France, but not enough of Rabelais, Hugo and Balzac. Perhaps had I read or studied any of them previously it would have given me a better basis on which to appreciate Madame Bovary.
The novel Madame Bovary, first published in 1856, concerns Emma Bovary, a doctor’s wife who reads romances and despairs of her banal life in the countryside. She commits adultery, and secretly goes into debt, both in attempts to escape her life.
The story was Flaubert’s first novel and was published as a serial. Flaubert was put on trial because of the scandalous nature of his story. Michele Roberts, in the introduction to the edition I read, comments, “We cannot, of course, respond exactly as Flaubert’s contemporaries did to his masterpiece; great upheavals in our intellectual, political and sexual lives have subsequently intervened.” If published now, I suspect a novel like this would be considered disappointing rather than shocking. The novel contains no explicit descriptions of intercourse, just allusions, and has little physical description of the heroine apart from her ankles and her hair, although her clothes receive a great deal of the author’s attention.
Madame Bovary laid the path for Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (published sometime in the 1870s) and other books where the female protagonist follows their desires rather than fitting in with accepted social customs. It is also considered to be one of the best examples of literary realism and inspired many contemporary and subsequent authors to write in this style. The book marked a turning point for Flaubert himself, who had previously written in the Romantic style and wrote the novel as a response to a challenge from his friends.
Flaubert documents details of everyday life in 1840s France, from the appearance of Emma’s different dwellings, to the entering of accounts in ledgers, plus other descriptions that are more symbolic than representative. For example, early in the book is a prominent and bemusing description of a rather unique hat that Charles Bovary wears as a boy in boarding school. I hope I grasped the symbolism in this passage, but I am sure I missed the importance of many other passages in which he chooses to focus on certain details to the exclusion of others.
I had to read the introduction to my edition before I noticed that Emma Bovary rarely spoke, and was framed in terms of her relationship to the men around her. I confess that I expected her to be more in control of her life. I knew that the story was about a woman committing adultery, and I was surprised to read that her first affair, with Rodolphe, was entirely planned by him. Although she enters into it willingly, she is clearly seduced rather than being the seducer.
It seems that Emma is more in control when she is in the middle of her second affair, with the clerk Leon. By this point in the novel both Emma and Leon have become strong enough to act on their feelings towards each other. But it is the kind of control where one is behaving destructively and refusing to acknowledge the consequences. Emma deludes herself that she is managing to escape her boring life, and one of the consequences of her delusions is to sink further into debt. Like a Greek tragedy, her behaviour only hastens her fate. Just before the sad ending of the book we read of her rushing around trying to get someone to bail her out, and even Leon refuses to help her.Emma, as Madame Bovary, is not only the title of the book but the main character and we are given unparalleled insight into her feelings and thoughts. We may not even sympathise with her – she can be impractical, selfish and cruel – but we understand her motivations. Flaubert is said to have commented, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” Clearly this is not an autobiographical novel but it is implied that he is writing Emma to share his frustrations in love and maybe also his own romanticism. He also has more to say about the repression of women than many modern-day authors. Sophie Barthes, who directed a 2015 movie adaptation of the novel starring Mia Wasikowska, said that “I think Flaubert had a very strong feminine sensibility. I think he felt for women at that time who couldn’t work, couldn’t divorce and are trapped for life.” (Susan King for the LA Times)
Charles Bovary is drawn right from the start as somewhat lacking and we are invited to laugh at him, not just because of the ridiculous hat. This one scene shows us what his character will be like in the rest of the book. He works hard but he is not particularly intelligent and he does not fit in. Before he marries Emma he has to put up with being married to a much older woman. After his wedding night with Emma he is the one portrayed as if he is the one to have just lost his virginity, not her. We are set up to understand why Emma might be dissatisfied with her life as his wife.
Leon is another of the main characters and we see him change through the book. He begins as a nervous, shy clerk, strongly attracted to Emma but unable to act on his feelings. They are drawn to each other partly because he loves the same kind of romantic books as Emma does and also longs to escape the country. When she meets him again he is living in Paris and has grown into a confident young man who has had several lovers.
Monsieur Homais is a character who is thrust in our face. He is not very educated and he is firmly middle class but he wants to improve his lot. Both the novel’s readers, the Bovarys and the readers of various regional newspapers cannot escape his pronouncements on everything and nothing. The last line of the story tells us that he has received the Cross of the Legion of Honour. Flaubert would have been unfaithful to his aims if he had made M. Homais somehow be punished for his behaviour. Instead he is showing us that the selfish, mediocre and undeserving people often achieve more than the kind and passionate.
If you read the book yourself then you will be able to pick up the themes pretty quickly, or if you don’t, there are always revision sites like Shmoop or SparkNotes to help you. I recommend this novel, despite my misgivings mentioned earlier. I am glad that I read Madame Bovary, especially as the reading corrected my impression of what Emma Bovary’s character would be like. I found it far easier to read than Moby Dick. Just don’t read it expecting a ‘Sex in the City’ raunch-fest and don’t necessarily expect to feel too much sympathy for Emma Bovary, either.