Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” – book review

Do you know how sometimes you’ve been told a certain book is a classic so many times that you roughly know the details of the plot and think to yourself „well, what’s the big deal”? This was me and Madame Bovary. It was mentioned to me so many times as the story of a married woman who gets corrupted by reading too many romances… well, I was fairly blasée about it. It sounded like a tragic version of Northanger Abbey. If not for Nabokov’s essay about Madame Bovary in his Lectures on Literature, I’m not sure I would have reached for it at all.
Thank goodness I did. This book is incredible. I read it in Polish translation and it made me double-up on my efforts of  improving my French. I would really love to read at least some passages of it in the original… and I have downloaded in French onto my Kindle. Yes, that’s how much I loved it.
It’s the sort of novel that makes one fall in love with novels all over again. But love for Madame Bovary is not so much the heroine, tragic as she is in all her unfulfilled longings. She is after all, so very selfish…

What surprised me, is that whenever I  used to read anything about the book, the emphasis was always on the novel reading that corrupts Emma. But as I read, I was struck by the overwhelming sense of restriction and smallness in Emma’s life. She married her husband, moved to Tostes, had a daughter.. and that was it. There was nothing else expected of her- not to work, not to travel, not to do anything much at all, other than to exist. And she found her own existence unbearable.

It’s tempting to blame Emma’s heightened expectations of life on books, but that tendency simplifies the existential angst the heroine feels. For even when she imagines a future for herself and Rudolphe she fails – she cannot imagine a series of happy events, but a sort of monotony of happiness, each day like the other.

„Cependant, sur l’immensité de cet avenir qu’elle se faisait apparaître, rien de particulier ne surgissait; les jours, tous magnifiques, se ressemblaient comme des flots; et cela se balançait à l’horizon, infini, harmonieux, bleuâtre et couvert de soleil.”

Emma does not simply want to experience passion, as people do in romance novels. She wants to have money to spend too. And it is the money, not the adultery that is her undoing.

Emma’s hunger is not so much for novelistic romance (or adventure for that matter), but for hedonic experience (the men and the clothes, as a Sex and the City heroine, would describe it) her world is denying her.

She wants to ‚feel’, to experience intense emotions – think about her brief return to religion, when she makes a show of praying in front of Leon – but in a way it seems (to me) that she fails to acknowledge that emotional intensity might involve some hard work. Work involved in sustaining meaningful relationships with the opposite sex, bringing up your own child, work involved in reading religious texts or devotions.

But it is characters such as her husband, Charles and M. Homais and the local parish priest that make this novel an unforgettable experience. Flaubert attends to their every detail of bourgeois life, and his style is perfection itself. Not to mention the realistic ending of the book – I won’t spoil it for you – but I will say it left me walking about in a sort of stupor. This novel is an absolute masterpiece.


If you want to read more about Madame Bovary, here’s two links I found interesting:

A.S. Byatt’s article in the Guardian 

Julian Barnes about different translations of Madame Bovary in London Review of Books

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