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Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary (1857)

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Madame Bovary and I have a conflicted relationship. Half of the time, I absolutely hated the woman. The other half, I empathised with her. And I’m still not sure how I feel about the book; Gustave Flaubert does quite a good job at making you hate each and every single one of the characters at some point.

Emma Bovary, having grown up in rural France that is torn between the laicism prescribed by the French revolution and devout Catholicism, marries Charles Bovary, an incredibly dull medical doctor who didn’t pay too much attention during his studies and whose main fear, as a result, is that he might end up killing a patient.

Emma is a high-strung, self-involved, but quite intelligent and above all else ambitious woman, and of course living the coarse country life by her dreadfully uninteresting husband’s side bores her to insanity. Since her youth, she periodically falls into obsessive habits: once it’s religion, the next time it’s literature, then it’s playing the devout housewife. And each of her obsessions, including marriage, ends up boring her. Charles, in his perfect mediocrity, can never fulfil her ambition of being the wife of a successful high-society husband; indeed, he’s neither interested in being successful nor in belonging to high society. The only time he tries to do something out of the ordinary – curing a peasant’s club foot – he messes it up so thoroughly that the poor fellow’s leg has to be amputated, to the great annoyance of his wife.

[spoilers]
Out of the boredom and disenchantment with her marriage and the fact that none of her periodic obsessions can cure her, Emma takes to cheating on her husband. She also overspends ridiculously in her efforts to have what she seems to think is a romantic relationship; it’s all laces, dainty shoes, lockets and whatnot. The overspending will be her downfall. In the end, being the overly dramatic person she is, Emma kills herself by eating arsenic. Even this final act, however, seems like something she does in order to appear melodramatic and above all else get attention. Although Flaubert only hints at this, she seems to regret having poisoned herself as soon as dying gets painful.
[/spoilers]

Emma’s drama queen allures, which Flaubert masterfully describes with a more than healthy dose of arrogance, made me really want to smack her. For the first half of the book, she was high on the candidate list for Most Annoying Literary Character Ever Encountered. Later on, I began to appreciate her more. Wouldn’t any mildly intelligent woman go crazy in her situation? Poverty, ignorance and societal expectations barely allowed a woman to stir during that period. She literally could not do anything except being a wife and contenting herself with her lot – which Emma refuses to do, and time and time again she fails to make her life meaningful. It’s like running into a wall of stifling mediocrity again and again.

Nevertheless, Flaubert’s sarcasm and the ironic arrogance with which he described Emma’s whims prevented me from liking her, because she remains, at every stage of the narrative, a completely ridiculous character. For me, it was impossible to really identify with her because her little escapades and obsessions are just so stupid and annoying.

I don’t know what kind of guy Flaubert was, but the third person narrator in Madame Bovary certainly seems like the sort of person everyone hates because he sees through everyone’s weaknesses and exposes them whenever possible – arrogant, but very intelligent (I think it’s fair to call him a smart ass). As a result, there wasn’t a single character in Madame Bovary I liked. All of them were so ridiculous and annoying it sometimes made me want to smack their heads together.

However, because of his distant arrogance, Flaubert is great at exposing society in all its bigotry. Post-revolutionary France, for all of the égalité proclaimed, was a deeply divided society where everyone had their place. Another aspect that fascinated me was the divide between the enlightened laicism advocated by the “educated” people (or those who took themselves as such) and the blind faith in Catholicism and all its aberrations of the period among the poor and less educated. This dichotomous relationship is unified in the character of Monsier Homais, the village chemist. As a self-identified intellectual he argues with the village priest on the side of laicism, but at the same time he bends his knees (but only slightly) when Emma [spoiler] is on her deathbed [/spoiler]. Homais is the personification of an entire nation’s schizophrenia.

It was these details and the clear-sighted social analysis I could appreciate about Madame Bovary. On the other hand, Flaubert’s piercing sarcasm made me get so annoyed with the characters I quite actively hated each and every single one of them at some point during the novel. While this is a great literary tool, I also now think that Flaubert was an arrogant, self-important bighead who thought he was intellectually above everyone else. Not a very likeable individual, and I will likely refrain from reading more of his work anytime soon.

Evaluation: 5/10

I read Madame Bovary as part of the Classics Club project hosted by Jillian of A Room of One’s Own.

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Author: bettinathenomad

Nomadic fan of books, food, the outdoors, and water. International Relations geek. Chlorine is my perfume.

6 thoughts on “Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary (1857)

  1. I don’t think you would have liked Flaubert as he said “Mme Bovary, c’est moi”.
    I’m not a re-reader but somehow managed to read this three times, at school and later twice.
    From a language and style point of view this book is perfection. You’d want to drink those sentences. Knowing that he slaved over each one of the for hours makes it sound a bit less admirable (to me that is).
    Still, I don’t think, I ever really liked the book. I didn’t feel for or with her much. I think it’s important and extremely well written. It improves when you re-read it.

    • Three times? I’m not sure I’d want to subject myself to it again… I agree there’s a disconnect between the writing, which is excellent, and the extent to which you come to feel for any of the characters, because Flaubert seems to look down on each and every one of them. Then again, I think this disconnect was probably precisely what Flaubert intended.

  2. This one is on my list as well. I’ve read part of it already, but not most of it, so I skipped your spoilers. At least now you can say you’ve read it. 😀

    • I have to say it certainly feels like an accomplishment. I’m glad I’ve read it too :). Good luck to you with the rest of it, I’m really looking forward to seeing how you got on with it!

  3. I wonder why anyone reads this book. Why would anyone want to spend any time with all of these unpleasant characters and this unpleasant author?

    • Well in my case, I clearly didn’t know what I was getting myself into ;). Either way, I’m glad for the experience. It certainly gave me food for thought about the role of women in society and that alone was worth it. I also mused for a while on Flaubert’s relationship with his characters, as you can tell from my post, which was also an enriching experience. So all in all I think I’d even recommend reading it, even though I hated it with a passion at some points.

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