In "Madame Bovary," his story of a shallow, deluded, unfaithful, but consistently compelling woman living in the provinces of nineteenth-century France, Gustave Flaubert invented not only the modern novel but also a modern attitude toward human character and human experience that remains with us to this day. One of the rare works of art that it would be fair to call perfect, "Madame Bovary" has had an incal-culable influence on the literary culture that followed it. This translation, by Francis Steeg-muller, is acknowledged by common consensus as the definitive English rendition of Flaubert's text.
I'm a poor scholar who could not have recognized any of these facts if I'd not been hit over the head with them beforehand. The book I read appears fairly straightforward, simple. That may be its deception. The sentence structure, as Mr. Simmons has pointed out, is purposely perfect throughout for reading aloud, in its lengths and pauses. I did admire the wonderful choices of detail in describing a scene or characters' actions, and the way Flaubert expertly described difficult-to-capture feelings through metaphor. I'm extremely curious how much of the novel's vaunted perfection is lost in translation from French to English, but still I can be appreciative of what comes across. My final impression of the novel's style is that, while I can't point to exactly what its perfection entails, I sense the evidence sufficiently well to accept the opinions of my scholastic betters at face value.
I've not yet addressed what the novel is about. A woman married to a country doctor becomes dissatisfied with her present circumstances, comparing it always to an alternative of which she dreams. Her fatal flaw lies in believing happiness is delivered to oneself as a package with a particular setting, with particular accoutrements. She lives in her dreams of a fantasy life that is expressly free of all domestic concerns, thoughts for others, practical matters. Her desire for its attainment becomes her only goal of worth, to be had at any cost, for which she begins to excuse herself any action. It is her fascination with the fantasy life she dreams of obtaining that continuously places more distance between her and reality, until she becomes susceptible to those who would take advantage. With even so little external validation as that, she loses all ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality and becomes lost thereafter.
What does it all mean? It's unlikely to simply be a commentary on the immorality of adultery. I've gathered Flaubert was no fan of the bourgeoisie, and this novel may summarize his views: their fascination with haute-culture, their equating it with happiness, and how very far from happiness this attitude taken to its extreme might lead. The flip side interpretation is that Emma's flights of fancy are in fact condoned by the author as insightfulness into beauty, which the staid bourgeoisie community surrounding her is entirely blind even to imagining. Either way, bourgeoisie get the shaft.
I'm going to dare a criticism and say, what I felt missing was Madame's inner thoughts and feelings which led her into marriage. They are so quickly mentioned and then put behind her, I barely grasped what placed her in her predicament. It would have been more satisfying to me had more of the initial story been told from her perspective, so we could witness and better understand what her impressions and expectations of Charles had been. Perhaps Flaubert felt this was irrelevant to his story, or sufficiently described and/or implied as it stands, and perhaps a million critics before me have agreed with him - but I wonder at it. In spite of that, what I won't dare is to give this novel a less than perfect score.
Some of my lack of sympathy for M.B. was her as a character and was probably intentional on Flaubert's part, but some of my irritation was because Flaubert didn't entirely do her justice. She's a self-centered, melancholy, dramatic character, who doesn't think about the future at all, traits which Flaubert did intend. Then again, Flaubert makes her seem even worse because he never provides reasons for her falling out of love with her husband or insight into why she finds particular men attractive as lovers. It just sort of happens, and the reader's expected to believe these are her feelings, without any glimpse into why. Flaubert's lack of connection with the female experience is also extremely apparent. There are scarcely 20 sentences devoted to her feelings about pregnancy and raising a daughter. Maybe it's just because I'm pregnant, but if you're writing about a woman's life, pregnancy and raising a child will feature more than that, even if the existence of your child is an inconvenience. Just another example of Flaubert not giving proper motivations to his heroine.
All that said, I did read the book fairly quickly because it did peek my interest, and as much as I didn't entirely buy into the character of M.B., I did want to see what happened in her life, even if it was just to scold her for her foolishness in my head. So, I'd recommend reading the book, but it doesn't rank among my favorites.
This time around my magpie soul was entranced by the shiny prose. Even in translation (or maybe in this translation by Eleanor Marx Aveling) I was struck by the beautiful writing. Apparently some contemporaries complained of too much description--imagine that--in the 19th century a novel known for its "excessive details." I didn't feel that way--maybe some familiarity with Victorian verbosity helps. But I felt the descriptions weren't mere bagatelle but really did reveal character. And I was surprised at the sensuality of the prose:
As it was empty she bent back to drink, her head thrown back, her lips pouting, her neck straining. She laughed at getting none of it, while with the tip of her tongue passing between her small teeth she licked drop by drop the bottom of her glass.
It was the first time that Emma had heard such words addressed to her and her pride unfolded languidly in the warmth of this language, like someone stretching in a warm bath.
Or this implied description of sex:
From time to time the coachman, on his box cast despairing eyes at the public-houses. He could not understand what furious desire for locomotion urged these individuals never to wish to stop. He tried to now and then, and at once exclamations of anger burst forth behind him. Then he lashed his perspiring jades afresh, but indifferent to their jolting, running up against things here and there, not caring if he did, demoralised, and almost weeping with thirst, fatigue, and depression.
And on the harbour, in the midst of the drays and casks, and in the streets, at the corners, the good folk opened large wonder-stricken eyes at this sight, so extraordinary in the provinces, a cab with blinds drawn, and which appeared thus constantly shut more closely than a tomb, and tossing about like a vessel.
Once in the middle of the day, in the open country, just as the sun beat most fiercely against the old plated lanterns, a bared hand passed beneath the small blinds of yellow canvas, and threw out some scraps of paper that scattered in the wind, and farther off lighted like white butterflies on a field of red clover all in bloom.
I know, by today's standards tame. But this is set in the 1840s and was first published in serialized form in 1856. Maybe the French were less restrained, but in England it's been claimed they were covering the legs of tables because for them to be bare was seen as indecent.
The other complaint of contemporaries according to the book's introduction was Flaubert's "excessive distance"--his ironic tone. From what I gather contemporaries were disconcerted he didn't comment more in the narrative and explicitly condemn Emma. Yet Flaubert never struck me as cold. I remember as a teen dismissing Emma as a rather silly woman. This time around I felt a lot more sympathy for her--even when she does act like an idiot. Which doesn't rule out feeling sympathy for her wronged husband, either. Interestingly, Flaubert begins and ends with poor Charles Bovary. It's an unsparing, unsentimental novel, but not without a sense of intimacy and even painful empathy.
Emma Bovary, the eponymous heroine of Flaubert's novel, gets all of the above bass-ackwards. Her head filled with romantic stories, she dreams of meeting a passionate hero who will take her away from the oppressive countryside where she lives with her father, but instead she marries the first man who comes along and offers for her - Charles Bovary, a boring bourgeois country doctor. In love with the idea of being in love, Emma's romantic dreams are slowly suffocated when she realises how ordinary her life with Charles will be, so instead she seeks solace in shopping and having affairs with equally shallow men. Both distractions combine to destroy her.
'She merged into her own imaginings, playing a real part, realizing the long dream of her youth, seeing herself as one of those great lovers she had so long envied.'
I didn't like Emma Bovary - although both Emmas have their faults, Austen's heroine also has some strength of character and independence of spirit. Flaubert's Emma is dependent on men to make her happy, but she is too superficial herself to notice that her lovers are only using her. In fact, I'm not sure she even cares! They are there to play a part in her romantic fantasies, and when they drop her, she starts looking for someone - or something - else to fill the void. Mme. Bovary isn't easy to care about - the original bored housewife, she is selfish, vain, materialistic and never content. Like Anna Karenina, I think we are meant to applaud that she breaks out of the confines of being a wife and mother, but unlike Tolstoy, Flaubert doesn't pity his heroine or demand the reader's sympathy, so I could put up with Emma's moping and mithering. In fact, all the characters are very believable in their faults and failings, especially poor unsuspecting Charles. Homais the chemist I could have done without, however. The only relevant part he plays in the whole novel is to supply the means to Emma's end.
For a nineteenth century novel, Madame Bovary is still easy and enjoyable to read, with a dramatic - if rather Freudian - ending, and a cynical take on love and marriage.
One strength of the book is the way the characters are so carefully drawn from an every day experience that could be us. We can all see bits of ourselves mirrored in the lives of one or other of the characters in this book - and the reflections we see are unflattering.
The writing style of this book, to my mind, was a little too highly narrated. A more modern work would probably make greater use of dialogue. And indeed, where there was dialogue it was sometimes the case that I felt I was missing its intent, and I had to reflect upon it a little more. However, considering that this is not a modern book, it was highly readable - and it would be unfair to expect modern conventions in writing to be adhered to in a book of this age.
The story, however, is timeless. The message is one that needs to be heard again and again, and it will certainly sit on my recommended books list.
According to Wikipedia, it is about a woman "who has adulterous affairs and lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of provincial life." That's accurate.
The idea is this -- the beautiful Emma was
She had two affairs. Not to discount Emma's own agency, but the first I will lay at the feet of the man. The book is very clear that this fellow, a bachelor who has had many mistresses in the past and discards them when he gets bored or they get needy, sees Emma and decides that she will be his next conquest. His every move is planned with the express purpose of seducing Emma, which isn't very hard, because, like I said, she's silly. At this point she's also incredibly bored with Charles, though he's still over the moon about her. Because Rodolphe -- that's the fellow -- presents himself as so dashing and expressive of his supposed love, Emma is quickly taken in. Discussions of the book sometimes overlook the fact that he does this all exactly on purpose, while placing more blame on Emma, because a ruined woman, the more ruined the better, makes a better story in a patriarchy.
The two of them go one for quite some time. Rodolphe, of course, eventually starts to become bored with Emma and her over the top love, and having been down that path before, knows the time has come to disentangle himself. Emma, on the other hand, having never had an affair before and being silly, tries to double up on ludicrous expressions of romance as she feels the relationship wain, in order to convince herself that everything really is going along like one of those novels she read at the convent. The two plan to run away together (with Emma and Charles's infant daughter), or rather, Emma plans according to her novels, including buying some fancy travel gear on credit, and Rodolphe pretends to go along with it. Until the morning they mean to leave. He writes her a letter breaking of the affair, in the name of preserving her reputation, and Emma spends the next several chapters in an extended swoon. Only the slimy shop keeper, of all the townspeople, really suspect a thing. Remember this fellow, Monsieur Lheureux. Emma sort of finds religion again.
Many moons later, and after many relapses due to, say, seeing the back garden, Emma is finally well enough to take in an opera. Emma and Charles go to the big city, where they -- conveniently -- run into Leon, the young fellow that Emma almost fell in love with before he went away to school. The next day Charles has returned home and Emma has stayed on in the city, supposedly to see another show, but really to become reacquainted with Leon. He is ready to declare his love right of the bat, but she at first isn't sure what to do and -- in a church, no less, almost manages to fend him off. But he drags her into a carriage, and they spend the next several hours driving around, during which we can only assume he breaks her down, which probably wasn't very hard, as she's always fighting off her disgust with her boring husband, and they start their affair.
So, Charles Bovary was never a rich man, though he did alright for himself. His patients had a habit of not paying. He was content to let Emma run the household, and she put up a good front of being competent. I'm sure she actually could have been competent had she had the inclination, but -- like Charles himself -- it bores her. She must have an exciting life. This includes fine household decorations and fine clothing. And Monsieur Lheureux is quite happy to bring her expensive things and extend her credit. Emma badgers Charles into giving her power of attorney, so she can better handle his finances without his knowledge. Charles is afraid to deny her anything, lest we have another several chapters of swooning and hysteria. And boy, does she ever handle things. She handles them right out the door. Her affair with Leon would not be novel-perfect if there weren't expensive hotel rooms, champagne, beautiful clothes, et cetera. And since he's but a middle ranked law clerk, she pays for a lot of it, often with money borrowed from Monsieur Lheureux.
As with Rodolphe, the affair with Leon starts to loose its initial passion, because that's what happens in long relationships, and Emma redoubles her effort to maintain her fantasies and gets a little nutty with the emotions and all that. She needs the constant shiny excitement. Leon starts to back off, especially with his employer and friends urging him to do so. Did I mention that Emma was supposed to be at weekly piano lessons, rather than shacking up with Leon at an expansive hotel?
Eventually Monsieur Lheureux calls in all the money he is owed by the Bovaries. They don't have a fraction of it, of course. Emma goes to great lengths to hide this all from Charles, and tries to get money from everyone she can think of, including Rodolphe, but nothing doing. She eventually steals some arsenic from the apothecary, eats it all up, and spend several pages dying a nasty death. Charles is rather distraught, and he still owes a pile of money. Then he up and dies one day. Their orphaned daughter ends up working in a cotton mill. The end.
From a feminist perspective, we have a couple problems. The men, for one. Lheureux is quite to blame here, but he doesn't end up in any trouble at all. He doesn't even feel bad. Rodolphe gets very little blame for all this either. They both played Emma like a harp and consciously took every advantage of her. Yet this is not a story about dastardly men; it is a tale about a bad woman, who ruins not only herself but her whole family through her need for excitement. And there's problem two. A woman's sexuality can not be separated from her morality as a whole. Ok, Emma sleeps around a little. Whatevs. But she can't do it without completely f*ck*ng up the whole rest of her life, and then, of course, dying. Sex=death. At least for women; Rodolphe and Leon get away without damage.
I most of all feel bad for Charles. Left to himself, he would have muddled along well enough. He's not terribly bright, but he loved his wife and daughter, he always tried to do right, and there wasn't a mean bone in his body. He hadn't a clue about Emma's affairs until after her death, when he found some letters from Rodolphe she'd hid in the attic. Had he instead had a wife that was jolly and responsible, they would have had a quaint, uneventful life, and spent their old age by the fireside, doting on grandchildren. Instead, he ends up a disgraced pauper and dead at an early age. Poor guy.
I think it could be instructive to read Madame Bovary in conjunction with Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. Both feature silly young women who have internalized too many cheesy novels. But one leaves the young woman in question feeling a little ridiculous but alive and well, and mentally better off than when she began. The other leaves her impoverished, dead, and disgraced.
Flaubert's sense of what counts as ambitious writing -- his meticulous
And then of course there's the story. It's often said that Emma is a prototypical modern bourgeois woman, or even a prototype of contemporary experience, because she lives out of joint with her time (and because she never knows her desires). She has been said to be the prototype of many alienated, disaffected, emotionally unconnected characters, right up to Tom McCarthy's "Remainder." Contemporary readers admire Flaubert's capacity to despise so much of bourgeois life, and to write with such sarcasm ("irony" is the word Davis prefers in her introduction). But he doesn't despise everyone equally. The book is deeply sexist, for example. Emma notoriously ignores her daughter; but so does Flaubert. Emma famously fails to appreciate her husband, but Flaubert doesn't have anything very bad to say about him: he's almost as innocent and unformed as a child.
But at least now I have a clearer sense of Flaubert's writing, and I can see enough of it to know it is not a model for the contemporary novel. It does not correspond clearly to any viable contemporary sense of realism, the reality effect, mimesis, or descriptive skill. The novel is sunk in history.
I read the book again fifteen years later, this time in English, and I could not believe how good it was. For one thing, my French was never as fluent as I liked to believe, and understanding every sentence on the first try allowed me to fall more easily under the story’s spell. Yet the real change of heart stems from growling older. At twenty, I thought Emma Bovary was an idiot and deserved what she got. I smirked at every foolish decision she made. At thirty-five, I found Emma to be a deeply moving and tragic soul. I felt for her every time her indefensible dreams lead her astray. In my experience, if we are to prosper, grow, or even survive, we must shed one cherished illusion after another. Well, Emma refuses to do just that. And while this makes her the antithesis of wise, it also makes her strangely heroic. Yes, Emma is a fool. Her dreams are all hothouse flowers gleaned from saccharine novels and images. But, unlike the rest of us, she refuses to abandon these dreams when experience commands her to do so. She works feverishly to live according to her values, however wildly illusive they be. Who among us has not felt Emma’s passionate refusal to accept the ordinary place the world has provided us? Yet who, besides her, can say that they followed this noble impulse to the bitter end?
Flaubert’s genius refuses to let us off easy. He never hides Emma’s foolishness or her selfishness, but neither does he guild the grubby world that she refuses. Indeed, Emma appears a veritable queen compared to the people around her, whose pettiness, cruelty, and downright ignorance knows no bounds. Flaubert also describes, in some of the best prose of Western literature, those rare moments when Emma’s dreams so infuse her perception of the world that they almost seem real. These moments are, for me, the most haunting parts of the book, and at times I nearly wept for the beauty that we see and that we know is unreal, untenable, and, in the end, utterly destructive.
The story has so much minute detail, his prose is magnificent, and this new translation has rekindled all my passion for Emma. Instead of robbing my first-time readers of this story, I have selected an interesting passage for comparison with my original copy translated by Margaret Cohen. I begin with Cohen’s version. “The atmosphere of the ball was heavy; the lamps were growing dim. Guests were flocking to the billiard room. A servant got upon a chair and broke the window-panes. At the crash of the glass, Madame Bovary turned her head and saw in the garden the faces of peasants pressed against the window looking in at them. Then the memory of the Bertaux came back to her. She saw the farm again, the muddy pond, her father in his apron under the apple trees, and she saw herself again as formerly, skimming with her finger the cream off the milk-pans in the dairy. But in the splendor of the present hour her past life, so distinct until then, faded away completely, and she almost doubted having lived it. She was there; beyond the ball was only shadow overspreading all the rest. She was eating a maraschino ice that she held with her left hand in a silver-gilt cup, her eyes half-closed and the spoon between her teeth” (Cohen (45-46).
Here is Lydia Davis’s version. “The air of the ball was heavy; the lamps were growing dim. People were drifting back into the billiard room. A servant climbing up onto a chair broke two windowpanes at the noise of the shattered glass, Madame Bovary turned her head and noticed in the garden, against the window, the faces of country people looking in. Then the memory of Les Bertaux returned to her. She saw the farm again, the muddy pond, her father in a smock under the apple trees, and she saw herself as she used to be, skimming cream with her finger from the pans of milk in the milk house. But under the dazzling splendors of the present hour, her past life, so distinct until now, was vanishing altogether, and she almost doubted that she had ever lived it. She was here; and then, surrounding the ball, there was nothing left but darkness, spread out over all the rest. She was at that moment eating a maraschino ice that she held with her left hand in a silver-gilt shell and half closing her eyes, the spoon between her teeth” (Trans, Davis (44-45)).
Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is one of those novels a reader can easily fall in love in a heartbeat. 5 stars for Cohen and Davis.
Charles Bovary is a less than ambitious man but he’s a good man. A doctor by trade, he’s happy practicing in a quiet French hamlet. After he starts his medical practice, his mother finds him a wife; an older and rather unhappy woman who dies early on in their marriage leaving Charles the opportunity to find love. He believes he may have found it in a woman named Emma who he met while setting her father’s broken leg. Emma has dreams, the first of which is to get away from her father’s home, so when Charles asks, she agrees to marry him. Married life is agony for her. She has a pleasant home, a husband who cares for her immensely --- almost to the point of smothering her --- and she has few tangible complaints. What she wants is romance though. After attending a ball, it’s all she can think about and her boring life holds no interest for her. Charles decides that Emma needs a change of scenery and moves the family (a child will soon be born to the couple) to Yonville. Emma soon finds herself entranced by a law student, Léon Dupuis, who seems to return her affection. Appalled by her own thoughts, she refuses to act and Léon soon leaves to finish his degree.
However, when Emma meets Rodolphe Boulanger, all thoughts of propriety go out the window and she gives in to his advances and starts the affair. She wants to run away, but Rodolphe, who has had several mistresses, decides that she is too clingy and breaks off the affair on the morning they’re to leave town together. Shattered by the end of the affair, Emma falls into a deep depression and sickness. When she finally recovers, Charles again tries to re-interest her in life this time believing the theatre will be the answer. It’s here that she once more meets Léon and begins her second affair. Lie after lie build up as do her debts. Emma is incapable of handling the lies or the debts and begins begging others for help, which doesn’t arrive. In a final dramatic act, she deals the only way she can.
At first, I felt sorry for Charles. He was boring but loving. He wasn’t ambitious at all and was happy with his life. He had a beautiful wife and child and a medical practice that provided the necessities of life. But, again, he was boring. Then he tried to pin everything wrong with his wife on a nervous condition which annoyed me and any sympathy I may have had for the clueless husband vanished. Emma on the other hand, doesn’t exactly deserve any praise. She wants everything, expensive things, is constantly bored, obsessive, and refuses to see any good in her life. She’s always looking for the next best thing. And it must be said, she’s a horrid excuse for a mother. Emma is interesting though and the reason to keep reading because every other character in this book is flat. Toward the end though, when the proverbial dirty laundry is aired, everyone is at fault in some way or another and it’s hard to have any sympathy for any of the characters.
My book had two additional sections at the end about the book itself, trials, bannings, etc. I didn’t read them. I think I wanted to look back on the book from my own perspective and not the perspective of a scandalous 19th Century trial discussing the need for a stricter moral code. Also, I think it would have made me upset and I enjoyed this book and didn’t want it to be marred.
So, back to my first paragraph --- the sex. It’s there but it’s off screen. There’s kissing, there’s heavy petting, but shall we say, not what I was expecting considering the ruckus this book caused. Then again, that was back in the day. I don’t want to get into a discussion of morals, really, I’m the last person, but it’s an interesting part of this story and while I never felt lectured to, obviously, Emma is a lesson. But her character is more than simply a woman having an affair, she’s a woman unhinged but somewhat deserving of some understanding, even if it’s just to understand her depression better.
Despite this story being known as a tale of adultery, I felt it was more of a cautionary tale of excess and self control. Her lack of self control-- with money at least as much as with love-- is what led to her downfall. There are lots of interesting comparisons to Lily Bart and House of Mirth. (I liked Lily and HoM much better than Emma.) On the whole I liked the book, especially the writing, but it was hard to muster any sympathy for the characters (except Berthe). Even Charles, in the end, just fell to pieces and really was the bland weakling that Emma hated him for being. Also, the end of the book-- post Emma's death-- was odd, like it didn't quite fit. It seemed like Homais was being demonized but it wasn't clear to me why. Madame Bovary is a must read for the writing and the novels' influence, but I think there are better similar novels out there.
The thing I couldn’t understand was how she got herself and Charles into the financial straights she does. She buys the guy a few presents and herself a few luxuries, but I didn’t see 4000 pounds worth. The merchant must have really rooked her. Her suicide was silly too. The drama queen milked it for all it was worth.
Rating: 3* of five
The Book Description: As if one is really necessary. Well, here it is:
A literary event: one of the world's most celebrated novels, in a magnificent new
Seven years ago, Lydia Davis brought us an award-winning, rapturously reviewed new translation of Marcel Proust's Swann's Way that was hailed as "clear and true to the music of the original" (Los Angeles Times) and "a work of creation in its own right" (Claire Messud, Newsday). Now she turns her gifts to the book that redefined the novel as an art form.
Emma Bovary is the original desperate housewife. Beautiful but bored, she is married to the provincial doctor Charles Bovary yet harbors dreams of an elegant and passionate life. Escaping into sentimental novels, she finds her fantasies dashed by the tedium of her days. Motherhood proves to be a burden; religion is only a brief distraction. In an effort to make her life everything she believes it should be, she spends lavishly on clothes and on her home and embarks on two disappointing affairs. Soon heartbroken and crippled by debts, Emma takes drastic action with tragic consequences for her husband and daughter.
When published in 1857, Madame Bovary was deemed so lifelike that many women claimed they were the model for its heroine. Today the novel is considered the first masterpiece of realist fiction. Flaubert sought to tell the story objectively, without romanticizing or moralizing (hence the uproar surrounding its publication), but whereas he was famously fastidious about his literary style, many of the English versions seem to tell the story in their own style. In this landmark translation, Lydia Davis honors the nuances and particulars of a style that has long beguiled readers of French, giving new life in English to Flaubert's masterwork.
My Review: Realism à la Balzac gets a hefty infusion of Romanticism. The novel will always be very important for this reason. It was Flaubert's trial for obscenity, due to his authorial refusal to explicitly condemn Emma Bovary for adultery, that opened the floodgates of “immoral” realistic fiction. If anyone needs any further reason to read the book, it's also got some juicy Faustian bargaining in it. Plus everybody dies. (Srsly how can anything about this famous book be a spoiler? Don't complain to me about it.)
So the review is really about this translation by Lydia Davis. She's alleged to have done a fabulous, marvelous job.
Then, in sudden tenderness and discouragement, Charles turned to his wife, saying:
“Kiss me, my dear!”
“Leave me alone!” she said, red with anger.
“What is it? What is it?” he said, stupefied. “Calm yourself! Don't be upset!...You know how much I love you!...Come to me!”
“Stop!” she shouted with a terrible look. (Part II, ch.8)
Literal translation isn't always the best. Can you, like me, hear the nails and smell the sawdust as this wooden edifice is erected? Can you, like me, feel the uncertain sway of the uneven floorboards as we ascend ever farther up Flaubert's towering if creaky scaffolding?
A well-furnished mind has Bovary in it. Unless you want to slug through the mannered 19th-century French, or have a high tolerance for sawdusty English prose, I'd say do the Cliffs Notes and call it good.
* SPOILER ALERT *
It is a novel riddled with complex moral and social
Was Madame Bovary just too vain for her time? Should she have taken a long hard look at her life, at her loyal husband and little daughter, at her friends and her situation, and been content? Of course. But then, with such corruption dragging her down, could she be blamed entirely for her downfall? One of the most dreadful things about this novel is the violence of Emma's end, the torment of her descent into despair. Worse still is the fact that in the last chapter, the fairytale she has been seeking is utterly demolished: everyone who contributed to her downfall continues with their life, while those around her are ruined. While Berthe is poor, Charles dies of a broken heart and her father is paralysed, Homais is applauded, Lheureux continues to gain from others' ruin, and her two lovers walk away without so much as a word of recrimination or a twinge of remorse.
All in all, a novel that is valuable for its portrayal of society in the 19th century, including its ideas about women, marriage and adultery, religion, and about medical theories and advances. The characters are strongly drawn and as real in their complex and flawed personalities as any I've ever read. It raises questions, it provokes thought about blame and morality, it parallels certain worrying trends that continue into today's society... and despite everything, I was moved by Emma's tragic demise. But I think the repetitive nature of the novel - mistake, regret, repentence, repeat - and the unlikeable, unredeemable nature of the title Madame will stop it being a keeper for me.
* SPOILER END *
His characters are not easy to like, but you do understand who they are and what drives them. It takes