Book Review: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

BOOK: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

RATING: 4/5 stars


Madame Bovary is the debut novel of French writer Gustave Flaubert, published in 1856. The character lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of provincial life.

When the novel was first serialized in La Revue de Paris between 1 October 1856 and 15 December 1856, public prosecutors attacked the novel for obscenity. The resulting trial in January 1857 made the story notorious. After Flaubert's acquittal on 7 February 1857, Madame Bovary became a bestseller in April 1857 when it was published in two volumes. A seminal work of literary realism, the novel is now considered Flaubert's masterpiece, and one of the most influential literary works in history.

“A man is free, at least—free to range the passions and the world, to surmount obstacles, to taste the rarest pleasures. Whereas a woman is continually thwarted. Inert, compliant, she has to struggle against her physical weakness and legal subjection. Her will, like the veil tied to her hat, quivers with every breeze: there is always a desire that entices, always a convention that restrains.


(spoilers below)

Full disclosure: I have not read many male authors in the last 6 years. Around 2013, I embarked on a year of reading only female authors, preferably female authors from diverse backgrounds. I thought it would be harder than it was, and the year the flew by, and after that I just rarely picked up books written by men. I’d already spent the 25 years before that reading mostly men.

One brief departure during those 6 years was Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, and I made room for it because, in a sea of two-dimensional female characters written by men, Anna was a multidimensional, complex main character who I felt Tolstoy treated with respect and empathy.

Madame Bovary is another one of those departures. I’ve been a classics fan for most of my reading life—my mother has a Master’s in English, and I was reading literary classics way before most young people—but, somehow, this one had always eluded me. I don’t know why we pick up certain books at certain times, but last week, finally, in my local public library, I found myself in the Fs, staring at this title, and eventually pulling it off the shelf.

Flaubert does something fascinating with the beginning of the novel: the very first word on the very first page is “We…” And, in fact, the first page of the novel and Charles’ very first introduction is told from a second-person point of view of Charles’ early schoolmates. Though it’s short use of a literary device and drops off immediately once Flaubert begins to delve into Charles’ family, it serves to make us, the reader, feel like we are part of a crowd watching and judging first Charles and then Emma. And that’s very much what this novel is about—the judgement of the status quo, an intimate look into a married woman’s life that we feel connected to and yet somehow removed from. From the first page, Flaubert forces us to be and acknowledges that we, his readers, are a part of an audience—and not a particularly nice audience from the outset.

But this story isn’t about Charles, though he’s the focus of the first 14 pages or so. This story is about Emma, a farmer’s daughter he meets while working as a doctor, who quickly becomes his second wife.

Flaubert’s novel was so scandalous at the time because it was an unflinching portrayal of the adultery and consumerism that was, frankly, rampant and routine in Victorian era high society. But it was scandalous because the woman, Emma, was the one committing adultery and consuming beyond her means—just like Anna Karenina, which was published in 1878, 20 years after Madame Bovary—and scandalous further still because Emma is Flaubert’s heroine, not his villain. We are privy to Emma’s thoughts, feelings, conundrums, we understand her more thoroughly than any other character in the novel, and, ultimately, we are rooting for her to find some kind of happiness that could change the way her story eventually ends.

For me, this novel explored the oppression of women, and what that systemic oppression might result in when felt to the extreme: impulsiveness, irresponsibility, delusion, and even depression. It is a narrative testament to the confines of women’s lives in Victorian times, but resonates with the confines that women are still experiencing today. Animals placed in zoos where they are mistreated often develop aggression, depression, lethargy, or instability—people, systemically oppressed based on identities they cannot control or change, behave the same. And while some readers have certainly interpreted Emma’s unhappiness as unwarranted—she has a husband who “loves” her and can provide for her with his job, a child, and faces very little in the way of external hardship—Flaubert doesn’t paint a portrait of a spoiled, selfish girl who unnecessarily destroys her own life out of shallow impulsivity. Emma is an intelligent, aware woman who marries a man she does not feel connected to, whose life has all the signifiers of happiness and none of the actual feelings of happiness for her.

“If Charles had made the slightest effort, if he had had the slightest inkling, if his glance had a single time divined her thought, it seemed to her that her heart would have been relieved of its fullness as quickly and easily as a tree drops its ripe fruit at the touch of a hand. But even as they were brought closer together by the details of daily life, she was separated from him by a growing sense of inward detachment.”

Much has been written about the differences between men and women, and Flaubert’s debut novel was his own exploration of the differences between the sexes involved in heterosexual relationships. To be safe and secure in society, Emma must marry, and hopefully marry well, and she does. But, ironically, it is her marriage to a man who, though he loves her, cannot comprehend her that guarantees Emma’s eventual demise. Charles is wrecked after Emma’s suicide, and once he discovers her two love affairs, he dies shortly thereafter from “unknown causes”—but in life, Charles had no idea who Emma was, and he never makes an attempt to discover her. He comes home after a day’s work and recounts all the details of his patients, the trips to and from their properties; minutiae as a signifier of closeness. And yet Emma wants to be asked, wants to be read like a book, wants to be seen and explored and plumbed—she wants someone to show an active interest in her. This is a common thing I experience in my own (happy!) marriage: my husband will, unprompted, share the details of his day and thoughts on his mind, because that, to him, demonstrates he wants to be close to me; whereas I wait to be asked about my day, wait to be asked about the thoughts on my mind, because, to me, him asking questions of me demonstrates that he wants to know me. I ask him further questions about the things on his mind because I believe that shows interest; he usually expects me to share of my own accord because he assumes I know he’s interested, because he loves me. This is why, stereotypically, women are better listeners and men are better talkers: women equate listening with showing care and cultivating closeness, while men equate sharing information with showing care and cultivating closeness. In Emma, Charles loves what he cannot understand about her or chooses not to explore: “the less Charles understood [Emma’s] refinements, the more alluring he found them.” But Emma feels the “growing…inward detachment” of not being understood.

Emma does want refinements and luxury, it’s true—but she equates them with love, passion, and excitement, which she has never experienced and which she longs for more than any worldly riches. Her first lover, Rodolphe Boulanger, is a wealthy bachelor, and a total cad. We get a few glimpses into Rodolphe’s psyche throughout his affair with Emma, and none of them are good: he’s got many lovers, most of whom he gets bored with after too long; he makes the conscious decision to “have” Emma because she’s pretty but seems desperate to be loved; he agrees to run away with Emma and then deserts her with a letter in which he mostly repurposes sentiments he’s said to other women. And when Rodolphe does finally abandon her, Emma suffers a nervous breakdown, contemplates suicide, and then falls into a months-long depressive episode where she can barely get out of bed.

“It was not an attachment, it was a kind of permanent seduction. She was in his bondage. It almost frightened her.”

She has her second affair with a man she met before Rodolphe, Léon Dupuis, and though this affair goes smoothly and happily at first, Emma gets bolder, more aggressive, and less concerned with social mores in this affair, perhaps due to the controlling circumstances and trauma of her first affair. In fact, “Léon was her mistress.” And it seems as though Emma begins to experience a true disconnect from reality, or a dire misunderstanding of the workings of man’s world—she begins to overspend, egged on and enabled by her local dry-goods seller and detestable money shark, Lheureux. This spending, ultimately, will lead to Emma’s suicide: she finds herself massively in debt, with no friends or family to turn to for aid, on the brink of total social humiliation, and she eats arsenic and dies by suicide.

Emma was never allowed to be free, though she consistently attempted to buck moral, marital, and societal conventions. Ironically, the more she acted like a man—wearing GASP vests in public, smoking cigars, walking with her lover—the worse she was treated by them. And, indeed, after Emma’s suicide, all the men who were ever close to her are allowed to move on with their lives, besides Charles (who, truth be told, only dies after realizing Emma’s “betrayal,” not after her suicide—it’s really the reveal of the other men who kill Charles). Léon gets married, Rodolphe lives as the bachelor he always was, Lheureux continues his business, and Homais, a pharmacist and close friend of Emma and Charles, wins a Legion of Honor medal. None of their lives are derailed; Emma’s death is an unfortunate blip on their radar, one that’s uncomfortable to bear witness to and easy to forget about after the fact.

One wonderful literary thread that stood out to me:

  • The color green. At several points throughout the novel, green is specifically mentioned and highlighted. Mostly, it shows up in men’s garments—the coat on a man at the first ball Emma goes to; Rodolphe in a green coat the first time Emma meets him; Emma in a green hat on Rodolphe’s arm; Léon in green when he confesses his love for Emma; Charles requests green velvet to be placed on Emma’s coffin. Green is usually associated with nature, fertility, and luck—but it’s also associated with infidelity in China, bad news in Israel, and racy jokes in Spain. So these inclusions and highlights of green speak not only to the natural, passionate, *ahem* fertile feelings that Emma longs to have, but they also imbue the scenes with a sense of foreboding, an allusion to Emma’s infidelity, “inappropriateness,” and how it will ultimately end.