Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary

Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary (Penguin Classics 2010 – first published 1856).

I recently heard an interview with Nadine Gordimer who talked about how she, when she was growing up, thought love was very simple. You met a boy from the village, fell in love, got married and had children – and that was it. When she read Proust, she realized that love is much more complicated than that. Luckily, Proust wasn’t available to Emma Rouault when she was growing up. If she had read that instead of romantic novels, she would never have become the Madame Bovary we know and love.
Madame Bovary is a young girl when she’s married to Charles Bovary who’s older than her and it’s his second marriage. He is very much in love with her but her expectations are quickly disappointed when she realizes that married life is not as it was in her romantic novels. She tries to be a good wife but is often frustrated and disappointed with her life in a small village and even though Charles really tries and even moves to another village to make her happy, he keeps failing. Living up to her romantic ideals is impossible. She ends up falling in love with someone else, she’s unfaithful, she puts everything aside to satisfy her own needs and urges and ends up hurting not only her husband but her daughter as well.
She singlehandedly – with a little help from Lheureux who acts as financial ‘advisor’ – manages to destroy all of their lives. And yet – I feel sorry for her.
Right when I started reading this, I also watched the second half of The Duchess. Maybe this story of a woman living in a marriage where she was kind of the third wheel and whom I felt so so sorry for, is part of the reason why I really felt for and with Emma. I didn’t get angry at Emma. I felt sorry for her.
For me, Emma is a intelligent young woman who gets married to soon, she has no idea what a marriage is and she doesn’t know how to live in an ordinary village away from big city life and she has no clue as to how to be a mother. She is trapped in a marriage, a life and a time where it was impossible for her to escape that same marriage and life. She tries to escape it through fiction, she tries to escape it by shopping, she tries to escape it through love but ultimately, she only has one option left when her other attempts has forced her into a corner.
Her desperation is dripping palpable from every page. And she tries. She tries so hard to get her marriage to work at times but whenever she tries to love her husband, something happens that effectively kills her mood and makes him even less attractive to her.
Flaubert had such an eye for – among other things – how our emotions influence how we see each other. At one point, Emma falls out of love with one of her lovers and when she then looks at Charles, she suddenly realizes that his teeth isn’t as bad as she thought … Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When you love someone, they are beautiful to you. But the opposite is also true. When you are in love with someone who’s not your husband, your husband must be the most annoying person because he is in the way of your happiness. And Charles certainly is in the way of Emma’s happiness – even though all he wants to do is to make her happy.
By modern standards, this is a very unhappy couple. They don’t talk with each other, he does things to make her happy but he really has no clue about what she wants. When she meets Leon, she meets a man her own age she can talk to – but she’s not ready to do more about it at that point. But imagine, living your entire married life with a man whom you have nothing in common with.
Now, I’m not saying that Charles is a bad man. He really, really isn’t. He’s a nice man, probably not the smartest man, but he is kind and he really tries. But their marriage is a lost cause – he can never make her happy.
The best part of this book is that it’s realistic, it’s realism. None of the characters are all good or all bad (with the possible exception of Lheureux who really has talent for manipulation). Even though I really feel for Emma, I’m not sure I particularly like her. I can forgive her for being a bad wife because you don’t choose who you fall in love with and she had no way out of her marriage. But I can’t forgive her for the way she treats her daughter and I can’t forgive her for how she acted and felt when her father in law died. Common human decency calls for more than what she gives in that situation.
I think Madame Bovary still speaks to us because we all know how it is to feel trapped. At times, when our daily lives get to be to monotonous, we get caught up in the rut, it’s hard not to feel trapped. Emma Bovary feels this more than hopefully most other people feel. Hers is not an example to follow. Don’t do this at home, kids – but do read this book, love the time you spend with Emma and do learn from her.
Oh, there’s so much more to say about this book. I haven’t mentioned the Homais family, I haven’t mentioned Rodolphe, the clubfoot operation, Madame Bovary’s relationships with Rodolphe and Leon and much much more. So again: Read this book!

4 thoughts on “Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary

  1. What a fantastic review. I loved Madame Bovary the very first time I read it, after reading your review, I think I will pick it up again. By the way, I can’t wait for you to review ‘ InkDeath.’ I am about to introduce my daughter to these books. Great, great blog.

    • I really liked Madame Bovary too. I was a bit frightened before reading it – classics are sometimes intimidating – but it is a really great book. I’ll try to get around to reviewing ‘InkDeath’. I like the entire trilogy so the review will be positive. I just didn’t get around to reviewing it right away so it is a bit harder to review when it’s been a while. But I promise you to get around to it.

  2. Hey! I understand this is somewhat off-topic however I needed to ask.
    Does operating a well-established website like yours take a massive amount work?
    I am brand new to blogging but I do write in my journal daily.

    I’d like to start a blog so I can share my personal experience and feelings online. Please let me know if you have any kind of recommendations or tips for brand new aspiring blog owners. Appreciate it!

    • Hey. Yeah, it takes a bit of work to write posts but of course that depends on how often you want to post and what your topic are. I think the best advice I can give, is to choose a blog topic that you are passionate about and then write for yourself.

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