Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.

Madame Bovary is one of the first classics I ever read - not the very first, but without a doubt it was one of the first five. I remember being very impressed with it, and surprised too because I was of the age when I thought classics had to be boring and dull because of their great age (Madame Bovary then seemed to me to be practically an ancient text!). But like it or not, Madame Bovary is certainly not dull.

It was of course written by Gustave Flaubert and first published in 1857, serialised first in 'La Revue de Paris' between 1st October 1856 and 15th December 1856. It was his first novel, and Flaubert was promptly charged with "offence to public and religious morality and to good morals" on its publication. Ernest Pinard the prosecutor argued,
No gauze for him, no veils - he gives us nature in all her nudity and crudity.
It became notorious for it's depiction of extramarital affairs, but Flaubert was acquitted (though left with a hatred of middle class values and hypocrisy). The heroine of the novel is Emma Bovary, but the novel begins not with her but her husband Charles. We briefly see him as a child and youth, shy and fairly bright but lacking in motivation. Because he doesn't apply himself he fails his medical exam, and the second time he takes it he passes but only just and he becomes a country doctor. He marries a woman much older than he, but she dies, and so he re-marries - Emma. She is beautiful, romantic, loves reading romantic novels, and dreams of fabulous wealth, devotion, and love. 

I get the impression that readers of Madame Bovary tend to fall into two camps regarding Emma: those who like or love her as a tragic heroine, and those who hate her. Despite loving the book I can't say which I think is "right". Her very nature is divisive, and so it is "right" that there are two camps! Her marriage to Charles is a disaster from the very start when she wonders "exactly what was meant in life by the words 'bliss', 'passion', 'ecstasy', which had looked so beautiful in books". She finds no bliss, no passion, and no ecstasy in her marriage, but such is her nature, her thirst for excitement, her need for avid devotion, the fact that she lives not in Paris but Normandy, and, frankly, her lacking of a moral compass, she embarks on affairs. Her ideals, her notion of romanticism, leaves her wide open to being used, and she is. Her bad marriage, the circumstances, and she herself lead to her inevitably tragic end. 

I think to see Emma as this 'tragic heroine' as I said is possible, for we do not have to like or feel sorry for tragic heroines. They can be frustrating, irritating, and stupid at times and it is not always possible to feel sympathy with such people. On the other hand, a kinder reader (which I am trying to be, but the fact is I don't like Emma Bovary) will be less hard on her. She was young, and yes, foolish, and she was a strong and passionate woman who lived in a small town in the 19th Century. She was born out of her time; she was ahead of her time perhaps. A 20th or 21st Century Emma Bovary could have come at least close to realising her dreams, though, on the other hand, perhaps no century could contain her. 

This is one of the reasons I greatly admire and love Madame Bovary - Flaubert created a character so vivid that everyone has an opinion on her, and his writing is so close to being flawless that many readers cannot put the book down despite hating the heroine. This book seems to call a brutal halt to Romanticism and mark a beginning of Realism: happy endings are for old novels, but not for this, mid-19th Century provincial France. This adds to the sadness, whether it is Emma you feel sorry for, her husband Charles, or her daughter Berthe, who is really the victim in the novel - of her mother's excess and her father's incompetency, and the fact that they simply should never have married.  

What ever the case, the novel is intriguing, beautifully written, and most provocative. Everyone who has read it has an opinion, and the debate that rises from it is always very engaging. For that Madame Bovary must be read. 

To finish - two illustrations from Madame Bovary by E. Boilvin (1875), found on La vie est belle:

Comments

  1. There is at least one more camp, those who regard EB as an imaginative creation of Gustave Flaubert. I am in it, as is Vladimir Nabokov. “Emma Bovary never existed” (Lectures on Literature, p. 125).

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    1. Ah yes, the "Who is Emma Bovary?" I think the "Emma Bovary c'est moi" was a fed up attempt at stopping that question!

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    2. Since Di has revived the conversation, I will make a related point, which is that I was definitely not asking "Who is Emma Bovary?" Readers in my camp like or dislike the representation of characters, not the people themselves, who do not exist. I mean, my favorite character in the novel might be Homais! That is not because I would like to be friends with him, but because he is represented so well, serves the larger ethical and aesthetic purposes of the book, and adds a little jolt of vulgar energy to any scene in which he is present.

      I know many readers enjoy fiction mostly as displaced gossip, but to me it feels like going to the National Portrait Gallery and talking about which people I like - they are all real, after all - rather than which paintings are especially good.

      The "point of it all" is to create a beautiful artistic object, with the beauty present not in the subject matter but in the elaborate patterning.

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    3. I think "displaced gossip" is a tad harsh - relating to characters, or the sense that they are so vivid they feel real is part of the enjoyment of reading: the 'beautiful artistic object' can (but as you say may not) inspire those thoughts. I do agree though that good characters (from an artistic point of view) are varied and can be nice / horrible / irritating / vile, and 'loving' a character's personality does not make that character well drawn, nor does it make the other characters of that novel lesser an artistic achievement.

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    4. "part of the enjoyment of reading" - yes, well said!

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  2. Really great thoughts, O, and it made me think more about this book, which I dislike, but with a sort of like/dislike in a way that I'd probably read it again. ;-) I agree with all your review but I think where I get stuck is in, what is the point of it all? Certainly Flaubert created a vivid character, but she was created completely through shock-value with very few subtleties at all. That's what I object to in giving her an elevated status in literature. Now, I do think that there may have been another focus; Emma certainly created chaos wherever she went, but is she the real culprit? I suspect that the frivolous, sentimental romances that she read are the true enemy. This theme echoed as well in Eugune Onegin, that somehow books are a part of building one's character. So I wonder if this was something that Flaubert was trying to communicate and was understood better in his time than ours. AND, if Emma was a slave in her character to these romances, there was no hope for her. Her character was set. Does this remind you a little of Zola, in that with Mr. Z, people are "enslaved" forever by their heritage whereas with Flaubert, in Emma's case, it's books? Just a thought .......

    I really love your comment about the brutal halt to Romanticism and the beginning of Realism. That makes complete sense.

    In any case, I really enjoyed your review and thanks for giving me more food for thought!

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! I know you didn't like it, but I do think it's an excellent novel, but certainly as I said divisive. I personally would give the *novel* an elevated status, not necessarily the character Emma Bovary, though I did think it was well-drawn :)

      And I tend to agree with the idea of 'romance' being a kind of enemy in this.

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    3. "... I think where I get stuck is in, what is the point of it all?"
      My immediate reaction: What's the point of anything at all? But then I have to read the rest of your comment.
      "Certainly Flaubert created a vivid character, but she was created completely through shock-value with very few subtleties at all."
      Hmm, "shock-value"- what do you mean? Flaubert's not so small as that. In a way, I understand your point about the few subtleties. Placed next to Anna Karenina for example, Emma is, well, more predictable, in the sense that even though we all know the ending, Anna now and then gives us a hope of another possibility, that she may make a different choice, choose a different path, and we may think that she could be fine, even if not completely happy, with Karenin if she didn't meet Vronsky; whereas with Emma, we can see right from the start that she'll go straight to hell. Even when she holds back, even when she turns to religion, even when she has hopes for her husband (in his career), etc., there's still a feeling that her path is quite straight, that is, it leads straight to hell. And that's because she's more stupid and delusional than Anna, and has less of a conscience. But in spite of all that, she's real and vivid enough not to be one-dimensional. After all, if you think about it, don't you know people in real life who are, frankly, very simple and predictable? Not everyone is complex, multi-faceted. Emma is not inferior to Anna as a character just because she's less self-contradictory. Predictable, that's what she is, and it's the point- Emma thinks everything boring and everyone conventional, but she's just as conventional.
      "That's what I object to in giving her an elevated status in literature."
      Well I find Emma Bovary 1 of the greatest characters in literature. I've often said that I haven't seen any male writer that understands women more than Tolstoy and Flaubert do. Loathe her I do, but I know, have seen that type, and heaven forbid!, find a bit of myself in her now and then.

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  3. Putting the novels pros-and-cons aside (and there are large camps of critics on both sides), I think (for me) Flaubert's novel is one that remains indelible. My initial specific reactions are now blurred in the fog of my dimmed memory, but the one dominantly lingering memory is simple, "Ah, yes, I loved that book!" Perhaps that says more about me than it does the novel. In any case, your posting comes along at a perfect time. I think I need to revisit Flaubert's putative masterpiece, and now is the time. Thanks for your posting.

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    1. I hope when you re-read it you'll blog about it - I'll be interested to see how you feel about it after a second read :)

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  4. Ah I last read "Madame Bovary" such a long time ago! I'm quite nostalgic now: it was in the summer and in the countryside and I remember I read it in a particularly elegant Polish translation. Ah old times. It really should be reread.

    I wonder if you've ever read George Sand? Particularly "Indiana" from 1830? She was before Flaubert and he looked up to her as, something like, his master of the craft. He was greatly influenced by her and "Madame Bovary" was as well: he wanted to do what Sand did in her novel which was to write credibly from the perspective of the opposite sex. The friendship of those two is quite interesting in its own right, but anyway, I just wonder what you (would) make of "Indiana" in light of this and your brilliant comment about the halt of Romanticism and beginning of Realism.

    Great post - thank you for the brilliant insights and new information about the book as well.

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    1. I haven't read George Sand but I do have Indiana, and it's on my Classic Club list! I'll make a point of reading it in the next week or so - thank you! :)

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  5. "She was young, and yes, foolish, and she was a strong and passionate woman who lived in a small town in the 19th Century. She was born out of her time; she was ahead of her time perhaps. A 20th or 21st Century Emma Bovary could have come at least close to realising her dreams, though, on the other hand, perhaps no century could contain her."
    Passionate- maybe. Strong- no. Not just foolish, she's stupid, frivolous, shallow, delusional, irrational. A philistine. No, I don't think she's ahead of her time. Anna Karenina's tragedy is caused by both herself and society, Emma Bovary causes her own downfall, the problem begins long before she starts an affair because she's already deceitful and already fancies herself romantic, not knowing that she's just sentimental. She wants to rise above the conventional, but having affairs is the most conventional way to do so. No, she's not ahead of her time, stupid women can be found in every age.

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    1. "Strong" - yes, I'll concede that was a poor choice of word. I meant... hmm... imposing? A powerful character, not strong, but memorable.

      I've not done a good job clarifying that, have I? But frivolous, shallow, irrational - yes, yes, yes. Agree. I think if you like her and feel sympathy for her then she could be ahead of her time, perhaps some would see her as a good bohemian type, that was my thinking. I do think she would have survived in our age, but because of her character and circumstances she could not survive the 19th Century. BUT - I'm more inclined to agree with your point of view, so *I don't* see her as a Bohemian type :)

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    2. Oh yeah, memorable, definitely. Vivid.
      I find it hard to sympathise, but I do pity Emma in the end. It takes her too long to open her eyes, and when she does, it's already too late. The bit about the bastards sleeping peacefully, undisturbed, after her death, is to me a marvellous detail. Horrible, haunting and brilliant.

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  6. Now you see which camp I'm in. Let's say that I have a strong dislike of women who throw away all reason and self-respect and fawn on their men and then call it love and passion. Phoo!
    Having said that, I must add that Madame Bovary is a masterpiece and 1 of my favourite novels. I must reread it soon.

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    1. We're definitely in the same camp - I agree entirely!

      Have you read The Doctor's Wife by Mary Elizabeth Braddon? I've just finished it - it's based on Madame Bovary. I would love to see you unleash on the main character in that - Isabel Gilbert (I'll be unleashing myself next week!).

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    2. Oh I haven't read that one. Heard of it, though. Is it worth reading?

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    3. Sorry for the late reply in replying, Di - I didn't get a notification for your comment! I'm in the middle of reviewing it now. I think it's worth reading, and I'd like to see what you get out of it. For me, I really wasn't keen at all and I didn't get all that much from it.

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    4. Oh, okay. Well if I ever read it, I'll write about it, and if I write about it, I'll send the post to you.

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