Jul 31, 2017

Reading The Classics: Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary 1857 (hi-res).jpg
Image from Wikipedia.org

Gustave Flaubert's 1857 novel Madame Bovary is considered one of the first novels to represent the style of literary realism (as opposed to romanticism). It tells the story of Emma Bovary, a 19th century desperate housewife who tries to escape her mundane existence by having affairs and buying things she doesn't need and can't afford. Spoilers ahead, beware!

I have to say, Emma Bovary is one of the most unlikeable women characters I've come across in literature so far. She's selfish, callous, mean to her husband and daughter, materialistic, vain, and a total drama queen. Not that there are many likeable characters to be found here; maybe Charles Bovary, the kind but dull husband, or the daughter, Berthe? The rest are a deplorable bunch. There's Rodolphe, the serial womaniser who seduces Emma and then casts her aside, Leon, the clerk with whom Emma has her second affair, Homais, the town pharmacist and frenemy to Charles, and Monsieur Lheureux, who sells Emma goods for credit and manipulates her to buy more and more things while at the same time offering credit to her husband until the Bovarys are completely ruined.

Emma is easy to despise because she makes so many stupid decisions during the story. She's never content, always yearning for something more. She doesn't appreciate her husband or enjoy watching her daughter grow up and is always fawning after the fripperies of wealth and totally unrealistic romantic expectations that her illicit lovers can't hope to live up to. There's a feeling of being stifled and trapped about her, mentally and physically. At first she's happy at the prospect of marrying Charles and escaping her father's humble farmhouse, but then the realities of marriage set in. Her extramarital affairs help her feel alive for a moment, but then they, too, start to feel as dull as married life. Then she tries to fill the void in her soul with materialistic things. In the end she takes her own life and is at peace in her final moments, having at last escaped.

I have to wonder, would things have been different if Emma had lived in the present? Perhaps she'd be a career woman sleeping around to fill the emptiness within, or a young stay-at-home mom trying to keep up with the Kardashians by ordering designer bags and clothes on the internet with money she doesn't have? There's something about Emma's ennui, dissatisfaction, and materialism that feel very contemporary. How many of us are really satisfied with our lives? We, too, escape into fantasies and use shopping to lift our spirits when we're feeling low. Many spend over their means and are up to their ears in credit card debt. But it is true that women have other options than being a mother and wife these days. Would Emma have found a career that gave her life purpose? Could she have been truly happy?    

Many have complained about Flaubert's long and meticulous descriptions, but I quite enjoyed them. Unfortunately my French isn't good enough to read the book in the original language, but as I've studied French it's easier to see that some parts that feel overly sentimental have to do with the translation. I did have a hard time seeing why this book is considered to represent realism, though. The plot is full of melodrama and the ending is almost Shakespearean: pretty much everyone dies/is cast into destitution. Maybe the descriptions of club foot surgery and life in a small town in France in the 1800s are the reason. And Emma is certainly not a romantic heroine.

I wonder what Flaubert really wanted to accomplish with this story. Is it a cautionary tale to scare women into being meek and faithful little housewives, or was Flaubert trying to show how narrow the role of women was at the time and what it could lead to? Somehow I suspect the former. Apparently he also despised the bourgeoisie with their yearning for social climbing and making money, and while he was at it, he also made fun of the silly romantic novels they read by making those one of the causes Emma acted like she did.

On the writerly front, what did I learn? I felt the descriptions were worth studying, even if they're probably too long for the modern reader. And there's a fine line between drama and melodrama. Drama goes over better. I also felt the opening and ending were weird: the story opens with Charles as a boy, but he's not the main character, and it takes quite a while for Emma to appear on the scene. Is this the best way to proceed? Is Flaubert trying to make the reader feel more sympathy towards Charles by introducing him first? The ending, on the other hand, drags on after Emma's death with long passages about Homais and his business affairs while stating the fate of Charles, Charles' mother, and little Berthe in a very clunky and callous way that feels like "Hey, look, here's the moral of the story." Nobody likes being lectured to.

Once again, not a book I enjoyed or would read again, but I can see why it's considered a classic.

Classics read: 31/100



  1. After all that death and destitution, I need the comfort of philosophy:

    The often-heard uplifting slogan: When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

    Seen on a woman's carry-bag: When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

    Seen on a bumper sticker, to the tune of Snow white's seven dwarfs:

    "I owe, I owe, it's off to work I go."

    The Beatles: "Money can't buy me love."

  2. Yep, Madame Bovary would have loved that bag :)


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