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Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary (original 1857; edition 2010)

by Gustave Flaubert, Lydia Davis (Translator)

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15,756None112 (3.77)3 / 580
annbury's review
What a wonderful novel -- and what a surprise! I read it in French fifty years and remembered virtually nothing except boredom (my own, and Emma's) and decided, now that I am retired and reading fiction, that I should try again. Emma's boredom is still there, as is Charles' stupidity, but oh, the pity of it all! Despite the fact that the novel evokes a time and place very powerfully, the story seemed timeless to me -- far more so than that of Anna Karenina, for example, who was to a large extent the victim of a specific social situation. Emma, in contrast, is a victim of her own illusions, which denies her the joy of being truly (if stupidly) loved. ( )
  annbury | Apr 18, 2012 |
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It really isn’t often that I read a book in translation. Many years ago I went through a phase of reading quite a lot of French and Russian classics – but since then have really read very few books translated from other languages. I think that the fear I have now in reading a work in translation, maybe especially a work of classic literature that has been loved and revered for generations, is that in reading it in a language other than that of the original author I am losing something of the original. My concern that the text I read has been sieved or filtered and that what remains although retaining something of the original intent loses some intangible essence through that filtering process, like those tiny pieces left behind in the bottom of the sieve. I tried therefore not to worry too much about which translation of Madam Bovary I was reading – I felt I had no way of knowing which would be the best, and I already had an old black spine Penguin Classic from reading Madam Bovary twenty years ago. There is something about those old black spine Penguin Classics that I trust, I decided surely this translation would be one of the best. This translation by Alan Russell –who also wrote the introduction to this edition, was first published in 1950.
Madam Bovary was Flaubert’s debut novel, a so called “realistic novel” that had started to become popular in the previous twenty or thirty years in France. In Emma Bovary we see something of Gustave Flaubert himself, as he is famously supposed to have said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” Like his famous literary creation, Flaubert was disgusted by what he saw as the gross vulgarity of French bourgeois life. It is this world, that he so hated, that Flaubert decided to write about, and in doing so, brilliantly re-creates the life of a small Normandy market town and its residents. It is this wonderfully evocative sense of place that I particularly loved.
“At the bottom of her heart, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know what this chance would be, what wind would bring it her, towards what shore it would drive her, if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, laden with anguish or full of bliss to the portholes. But each morning, as she awoke, she hoped it would come that day; she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, wondered that it did not come; then at sunset, always more saddened, she longed for the morrow.”
The plot of this novel is essentially fairly simple, the wife of a provincial doctor seeking release from her dull provincial life in two ultimately unsatisfactory adulterous relationships, is later manipulated into terrible debt by a local tradesman.
We first meet Charles Bovary, as a misfit schoolboy, who later goes to study medicine, he applies himself diligently, but alas Bovary is not a gifted medical practitioner and right away we know Charles to be a nice, dull man and a bit of a bumbling plodder. Married off to an older widow by his mother, Charles Bovary meets Emma when he goes to tend to her father’s broken leg. Emma is a beautiful young woman, bored by her life on her father’s farm, she longs for town life. When Charles’ wife dies suddenly he wastes little time in becoming a regular fixture at Rouault’s farm. Emma agrees to marry Charles, hoping that her new life in Tostes will provide with the sort of life she thinks she wants. Following a glittering ball that gives Emma a glimpse of a world she longs to have more of – she begins to slide into a state of greater and greater dissatisfaction, yearning for a world that remains forever out of reach. Desperate to do anything to help his beloved Emma, Charles moves them to the larger market town of Yonville-l'Abbaye. It is the way in which Flaubert re-creates the life of this small French town that gives it its realistic quality, the small everyday concerns of doctor, chemist, tradesmen and their wives, the agricultural show and the daily arrival of the stage coach.
“Love, she thought, must come suddenly, with great outbursts and lightnings,--a hurricane of the skies, which falls upon life, revolutionises it, roots up the will like a leaf, and sweeps the whole heart into the abyss.”
It is here in Yonville-l'Abbaye that Emma’s life slowly spirals out of control, a life fuelled by lies, self-deception, and mad impulse constantly aspiring to a better sphere of life. Emma is a fascinating character, despite everything she is not unlikeable, but then I rather like flawed, tragic characters. I rather liked Charles Bovary too – though he is really rather pitiful, I suspect Flaubert didn’t much like him, but he thoroughly knew and understood his type. Just as he did the self-serving chemist Monsieur Homais, and the slightly malevolent tradesman Lheureux – who is Emma’s final undoing. These characters are so brilliantly portrayed that I couldn’t help but feel they had been taken from life.
I absolutely loved re-reading this novel, which I am certain I got far more out of this time around. I am so glad that I joined in with ebookclassics reading of this novel. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | Apr 16, 2014 |
This was a good read, but I didn't like Madame Bovary, so it was kind of annoying. She seemed to have no good reason for being as messed up as she was. Flaubert failed to make me understand why she was so vapid, venal, and obsessed with romance and money. She seemed to have a sociopathic lack of compassion for others.

However, I'm always happy to read a slow, story about people living before all the technology we have today spoiled everything. It was refreshing to have people calling on their neighbors because that was the only way to get in touch with them. I could have done with a little less brutal mistreatment of horses. People were constantly riding them to death in a hurry to get somewhere, a spurring them bloody and whipping them.

I really hoped to come to understand MB and have her find happiness or growth in some way. She failed to be able to grow or change and ended by killing herself. Give her a Darwin Award for unsurvival of the unfit-est. ( )
  kylekatz | Apr 13, 2014 |
Emma Roualt è una donna completamente insoddisfatta: dalla vita si aspettava grandi feste, vita sfarzosa, amori romantici. Dopo il matrimonio con il gentile, ma banale Charles Bovary, l'insofferenza di lei si manifesta in ogni momento della sua quotidianità.
La prossima lettura andrà fatta in lingua originale, credo che questo romanzo lo meriti :) ( )
  Manua | Apr 10, 2014 |
In Flaubert's novel, domestic mediocrity drives his heroine to 'dreams of luxury'. The novels centers on the heroine's disillusionment at not having a higher status in society and being trapped in an unsophisticated provincial town. Emma Bovary rebels but never strives to separate herself from society. Emma doesn't mind being a wife; she just wants to be the wife of someone important and wealthy who moves in high society. But, convention means that she cannot escape her marriage without being cast out of good society. Death presents an escape, and seems to offer her a way to fulfill her romantic fantasies. Yet, her death is painful and grotesque, which could be interpreted as the heroine's punishment for flouting social norms.

Incidentally, my first introduction to this French novel was Posy Simmonds' graphic novel titled 'Gemma Bovary' — a wonderful parody of Flaubert's tragic tale.

http://www.wordhorse.co.uk/ ( )
  Wordhorse | Mar 20, 2014 |
The wife of a doctor in the small provincial town of Yonville, Emma Bovary finds the ordinary life which she leads tedious and banal. Her reading of romantic novels have led her to long for passion and romance in her life, something which her husband Charles will never be able to give her or even to understand. Charles is rather stupid and dull but overall a decent man who loves Emma wholeheartedly, while Emma herself, although continually striving for love, seems incapable of understanding true love herself. In reality it is the trappings of a rich lover that she seems to crave (money, fine clothes, fashionable furniture), and in the rich Rodolphe Boulanger it seems that she has found what she desires ...

It was interesting to read this novel so soon after Zola's Germinal. Both give a vivid impression of very different parts of French society in the nineteenth century, and Madame Bovary gives a wonderful impression of the constricted and stultifying society in which a woman like Emma Bovary was expected to live. But despite the reader feeling some sympathy for Emma's plight, her evident complete lack of concern for anyone other than herself means that that sympathy is not retained for long. Indeed, there are virtually no likeable characters in the novel at all. While Charles Bovary is well-meaning and truly cares for Emma's welfare, he is also stultifyingly boring, a doctor who is so unsure of his own abilities that he prefers to prescribe no medicines at all wherever possible. The apothecary Homais, who befriends the Bovarys when they first arrive in Yonville, does so in a coldly calculating manner for reasons of business alone. The draper Lheureux deliberately sets out to tempt Emma into debt (not a difficult task) and is not averse to a little blackmail if it will help her to proceed more quickly along this road.

But while none of the characters are likeable, they are all very believable and so overall the novel is a rich and satisfying one. ( )
  SandDune | Feb 10, 2014 |
I really think you have to be older and to have suffered some knocks in your life before you can relate to this book. When I first read this as a young girl I was revolted by Emma and her behaviour. Now as a much older woman I can understand her so much better - I definitely have sympathy for her now that I did not have as a teenager. ( )
1 vote PennyAnne | Dec 5, 2013 |
Silly woman.
1 vote | AMcBurnie | Nov 27, 2013 |
L'histoire de la vie d'une femme frustrée. Malgré le thème qui pourrait faire fuir, Flaubert maîtrise totalement l'art d'emmener le lecteur avec lui au cœur de l'histoire et on arrive au bout du roman chamboulé par toutes les sortes d'émotions possibles et imaginables. Une expérience surprenante qui vaut le coup d'être tentée. ( )
  Lhiscock | Oct 27, 2013 |
I liked the different phases of this book, the way an innocent girl is transformed, by the author, into someone to pity and dislike.

Spoilers from here on.

Emma begins as an innocent creature that falls in love with the first suitable man to make an offer. In this part of the book she is an innocent.

She tries to love him when they are married but increasingly becomes aware of his faults and his unworthiness for her. In this part she becomes more real. We can relate to her without disliking her.

She suffers severe depression and begins to exhibit manic behaviors. Still relatable and redeemable.

She begins a flirtation with a nice man, a clerk. It frightens her and she pushes him away ( he leaves town). She misses him when he is gone. In this part we start to see temptation, but she is still redeemable.

She begins a love affair with a richer wiser man who is used to having and getting rid of mistresses. He keeps her for a while and the relationship eventually loses its charm dissolving into something like that of a husband and wife. Still we can love our heroine. She is after all being used by this man. He puts her off at the end and she is alone again.

She becomes depressed again and really begins to start running up bills. Being persuaded to buy nice things by a ruthless tradesman. She is weakened with depression and accepts the goods, always searching for happiness. This is where we start to really change out opinion of her. She has lost all control. We begin to lose hope of her redemption. She goes on to gain power of attorney for her husband and secretly sells a parcel of land to pay of some debts. The tradesman is devious and wrangles all of the money from her.

She reattaches herself to the first man she flirted with. They become lovers. She has completely lost control at this stage. Her lover is simpler and desires cheaper accommodations and less expensive rendezvous, but she continually pays the additional expenses in order to have better things. This relationship also degrades into a familiar boring relationship of a husband and wife and both parties are ready for an end. Emma is out of control and at this part she becomes unlikeable. A stark contrast to the innocent girl we first met.

Emma becomes desperate and appeals to all both her current lover and her previous lover in an effort to fulfill her debts. She stops short of allowing the holder of her debts from having sexual contact with her. It is funny because at this stage I would have liked her more if she had slept with him and found a way to use his list to have her debt cleared. This paving the way for redemption and a clean start. Both her relationships lost their lustre and became boring. Why couldn't she just accept that fate and find a way to be at peace with her marriage. Instead she declared she had standards and avoided the debt-holder.

The final part of the book involves what happens after her death. Her husband is faced with her debts, her child ends up in a disgraceful condition and alone in the world because of the selfishness of Emma. She is not redeemable.

I don't dislike her. I do pity her. She was unhappy. More than that she believed that she deserved better and constantly sought to upgrade her life through lovers and possessions. It didn't work and in doing so she destroyed the lives of those around her. ( )
  alsocass | Oct 12, 2013 |
so goddamned boring.
  dtn620 | Sep 22, 2013 |
Intriguing but also depressing. From the moment Emma nearly died of heartbreak it was a downhill slope to the book's inevitably ridiculous end. I am about to go in search of greater historical context so that I can appreciate its various aspects however my initial reaction is disappointment at the overtly hysterical portrayal of Emma, her implausible wailing and shuddering and sobbing and flying into fits of rage. The book does do well at exploring that vague disappointment that is integral to the process of falling in love; that kind of revulsion that can so often go hand in hand with intimacy. I think I will grow to like it more after I learn more about it. ( )
  pixelette | Sep 21, 2013 |
"They lifted her head a little, and at that a stream of black liquid ran out of her mouth like vomit." Stars seem superfluous for a book so unrelentingly dreadful. I'm not saying it's not brilliant, but it's dreadful.
  rmaitzen | Sep 20, 2013 |
i kinda don't know what i think right now. the first bit i loved. then....it's just all so sad. so i feel really melancholy at the moment. but it's also a bit ridiculous, isn't it? like, over-the-top. i get that at the time this came out, it was scandalous. and poor flaubert had to go on trial to defend against obscenity charges (it's okay! he was acquitted!) so i am trying to put myself back in 1856. and trying to grasp the relativity of emma's problems.

emma's quest, constantly, to find happiness through money - living beyond her means (which were pretty good), buying and acquiring stuff to compensate for sadness or a perceived lack/hole in her life, coupled with some ideal of love that probably could never exist in reality just makes for a fraught and impossible life.

i am also trying to figure out if emma was just that misguided, like, truly and utterly misguided in thinking money and real love would bring her happiness. or, if there were underlying issues? heh, that's right, a little psychoanalysis with your fiction! why not?! whee!! but really - how could i not? emma's mental and emotional abilities are so disconnected from reality in a way that is far beyond any sort of dreamy romanticism...i think, anyway.

for me...i would have liked a little more on charles bovary to round out the story. and i am not sure the point of berthe? why introduce the child at all?

i suspect i will be thinking on this one a while and it may be a book whose rating increases as i get further out from the read. maybe. i am so glad i finally read it! ( )
  DawsonOakes | Sep 20, 2013 |
Made my fear of credit cards even worse!! thank you oo ( )
  Kirmuriel | Sep 19, 2013 |
I did not read this version I read a 'free' Public domain kindle book. It was a great version by Eleanor Marx-Aveling. You don't need to buy it, this version is great, but you will need a device to read it on! ( )
  IanMPindar | Sep 2, 2013 |
You never know exactly what you are going to get into when you read older classics – you know, the ones from the 18th and 19th centuries, the ones that everyone tells you should be read, the ones that everyone talks about as great but have never really read. As you go back into those olden times, you far too often find stilted grammar, outdated approaches, descriptions that no longer resonate. I won't give you examples but, I've run into them, you've run into them, we've all run into them – and then wanted to run away.

Such is not the case with Madame Bovary. Maybe it is just the translation I read (and any book from another language requires the right translation), but I was instantly transported into this story. I quickly cared about the characters and was quite happy to go along with them on their lives.

The plot, like so many others in classical literature, can be found anywhere. Suffice to say we follow the life of Madame Bovary (to be honest, the life of her husband – Charles). She is not happy with what life has given her (in spite of the constant efforts of her husband), and this only leads to her worsening her own situation.

To be honest, it would be very easy to hate this book based on how dislikable Bovary is. Yet, the story is so compelling the reader watches it in the same fascination one saves for train wrecks.

While some classical literature has made me squeamish at the thought of pursuing more, this book strengthens my resolve. ( )
  figre | Aug 29, 2013 |
I read this for a book club. I have to admit that I'm not sure I see why it has received all this acclaim. There were pages that I just had to force myself to wade through. That being said, I can see for it's time that it was quite a thriller. The writing style is just so much different than what we as readers of most modern novels are accustomed to.

I never felt any kind of sympathy for Emma Bovary, but yet I do believe she is representative of those individuals who are always looking outward to something or someone else to make them happy. Manners, customs, fashions, lifestyles have changed, but there are still plenty of Emma Bovarys today. Good literature lets us see human nature at its best or at its worst; this book does that.

As the saying goes, "So many books, so little time" -- if you have lots of time, read this. However, if there's only so much time, there are many more modern novels that will be easier to read and relate to. ( )
  maryreinert | Aug 17, 2013 |
even in translation, flaubert's writing is absolutely stunning. ( )
  helynrob | Aug 13, 2013 |
I was assigned this in high school--and remember being decidedly unimpressed--bored. Well, I don't think I can blame that on the translation, I just think that there are some books you're incapable of appreciating, if not because you're too young, then maybe because you just haven't read enough. OK, and probably because you're too young at sixteen to really empathize with Emma and her disappointed dreams. She's a female Don Quixote driven to her ruin by reading too many romance novels. Or so it seems.

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. ( )
3 vote LisaMaria_C | Jun 8, 2013 |
I just finished Madame Bovary. Ok, I admit that I picked up this book because(according to Wikipedia!) a poll of modern authors listed this as the 2nd most important novel ever written. I'd like to have a conversation with whoever took that poll!! Does the book give an important social commentary about the lives of women? Yes. Is the book interesting? Uh, maybe. Was it earth shattering and changed my view of the world? No. But, I did find the audiobook enjoyable. Donada Peters does a wonderful job in the narration. Maybe I'm a bit jaded because I recently finished Anna Karenina and The House of Mirth - and I loved both books, but they also deal with a similar topic.
( )
1 vote jmoncton | Jun 3, 2013 |
I hated this book when it was assigned to me my senior year of high school. Assuming I'd changed since then, I gave it another go. Turns out I had good sense as an 18-year-old. I'm putting it down after 170 unsatisfying pages. ( )
  ElizabethAndrew | May 13, 2013 |

GENERAL SPOILER ALERT: If you’ve never read Madame Bovary, and would like to discover it with no previous knowledge of the plot, I suggest you stop here. Since it was published in the 1856, I’m writing with the assumption that the cat’s out of the bag in terms of any plot twists, and you’ve probably read it already or are super familiar with the plot. So, if not, stop. Now. You’ve been warned.

“We should not touch our idols: their gilding will remain on our hands.” (page 250)

First off, I want to start by saying that Lydia Davis is a FABULOUS translator. Like Anna Karenina, I also own another older translation, but just wasn’t grabbed by it in the way that I was by Davis’ work. Brava!

Flaubert was quite the pioneer. To quote James Wood from How Fiction Works: “Flaubert established for good or ill, what most readers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible.” That’s a pretty damn huge accomplishment, to write the piece that majorly influences the way novels are written. And the story absolutely stands the test of time. So many of the issues Emma deals with over the course of the book (her shopping problem and subsequent refusal to face her mounting debt, all of her relationships with men, etc), and the way she deals with (or refuses to deal with) these issues appear again and again in literature as well as in life. Think about The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Emma Bovary could absolutely take Adrienne Maloof‘s spot and fit right in…

Emma is such a polarizing character, which is a testament to Flaubert’s talent. She’s a character that I understood, I identified with, but I didn’t necessarily always like…and I think that was what Flaubert intended. Not to get all Freudian on you, but Emma, in many ways, is a living, breathing embodiment of the id, that little voice most of us are able to overrule that is needles us to just do what feels good, even if it’s not the right or responsible thing to do, consequences be damned. Emma’s not really big on consequences. Not once does she really concern herself with how her husband would FEEL if he should find out about her persistent cheating. She’s more worried about what it would mean for her if he found out. She spends money her husband doesn’t have, taking out loan after loan, the terms of which she doesn’t make any real attempt to understand. She’s not worried about what financial ruin would do to Charles or even Berthe but about how she can save herself from going to court. Completely self-focused, but not in an irritating, shallow way…it feels more desperate than that, and thus far more complex and human. I think Emma represents the restless part in all of us, the piece that’s constantly searching for what will ultimately make us happy. And what Emma thinks will make her happy is love. Or her twisted delusional understanding of it. Emma spends the entire novel searching for a kind of love that doesn’t exist, for some grand exquisite FEELING, and when she doesn’t find it, it proves to be her ultimate undoing.

Flaubert tells us that Emma has gained her understanding of love from novels, which, in this time period, tended to portray love as this grand passion, full of intense feelings and heaving bosoms…all the hallmarks of infatuation and lust. The problem with this definition is that it fails to recognize that much of love is a choice. Maybe we don’t necessarily choose who we fall in love with, but we definitely choose how we love that person. Love lies in the decisions we make when we commit to share that love. The decision to be honest, to communicate effectively, to compromise, to nurture, to persist, etc. Unfortunately, open and honest conversations about love and marriage weren’t exactly daily occurrences at this time in history, and most people didn’t get married because they felt a desperate, all-consuming passion for someone. They got married because that was what society expected of them, and their partner was selected based on who was the most acceptable, beneficial option. Case in point: think about Charles’ first wife, Madame Dubuc, whom Flaubert tells us the elder Madame Bovary “found” for her son. Madame Dubuc was…

“…a baliff’s widow from Dieppe, who was forty-five years old with an income of twelve hundred livres.

Although she was ugly, thin as a stick, as pimpled as the budding spring,* Madame Dubuc certainly had no lack of suitors to choose from. To achieve her ends, Mere Bovary was obliged to supplant them all, and she very skillfully foiled even the intrigues of a pork butcher favored by the clergy.

Charles had foreseen in marriage the advent of a better situation, imagining that he would have more freedom and would be able to do as he liked with himself and his money. But his wife was the one in charge; in company he had to say this, not say that, eat no meat on Fridays, dress as she expected, pester at her command those clients who had not paid. She would open his letters, spy on his movements, and listen to him, through the wall, whenever he saw patients in his office, if they were women.” (pages 10-11)

*BURN! Point: Flaubert.

In just these few sentences, we learn THE MOST IMPORTANT THING about Charles, the thing that will be shown to be true over and over and over again in the story: He has no spine. None. He’s almost Emma’s foil in that way, and though opposites may attract, marrying your foil is a BAD CALL. Whereas Emma is ruled exclusively by her will, he seems to completely lack a will of his own, or at least the balls to exercise it. The women in his life control EVERYTHING, starting with his mother and ending with Emma. Even his neighbor, Monsieur Homais , is able to convince him to perform a risky operation on a local man that Charles absolutely knows he has NO BUSINESS performing (even Charles knows he’s a mediocre doctor at best), which ultimately results in said local man losing his leg (!!!!!). He is so easily manipulated and taken advantage of, I found myself alternately pitying him and yelling at him as I read. But Charles has one redeeming quality that ultimately made me root for him: he’s loyal. I just wish he would have extended some of the same loyalty to himself that he showed to others…maybe he wouldn’t have ended up alone on a bench.

But back to conflicting notions of love: Charles expresses love through acts of loyalty. He mourns Madame Dubuc’s passing because that’s what good husbands do. He enjoys catering to Emma’s many whims because her happiness is ultimately what makes him happy. He does well with duty. He’s that kind of guy. Emma, on the other hand, is constantly searching for the man to whom she can give herself completely, and really feels a loyalty only to herself. She follows an incredibly predictable pattern: she meets a man who shows feelings for her. He professes his love. She makes a thinly veiled attempt to refuse his attentions out of modesty, then ultimately GIVES herself to said admirer, because that’s the literary model she’s been provided with. It’s what heroines in novels did.

“Before her marriage, she had believed that what she was experiencing was love; but since the happiness that should have resulted from that love had not come, she thought she must have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out just what was meant, in life, by the words bliss, passion and intoxication, which had seemed so beautiful to her in books.” (page 30)

(n.b. As frustrating as dating it, I’m beginning to think it’s a nice evolutionary step forward. If we just married the first person we were infatuated with, the vast majority of us would be in horribly unhappy marriages. Dating at least allows you to really get to know someone, to get past the haze of infatuation, before you decide to make the ultimate commitment.) Even Charles’ mother sees that these novels are not the best thing for Emma to be reading, which is really Flaubert underscoring for the reader where Emma’s delusions stem (and is possibly a not-so-thinly veiled comment on the non-realistic romance novels of his time?). This surrendering of herself is pretty pathetic, but the literary models Emma had were mostly likely written by men, so it’s really no surprise that the balance of power is skewed in favor of her male partner. And the partners she chooses! We have Rodolphe, who is an absolute shit, who we know for a fact is in the habit of collecting mistresses and is just using Emma to get it in. And does he ever.

“[Emma to Rodolphe] ‘Some other women may be more beautiful, but I am better at loving you! I’m your servant and your concubine! You’re my king, my idol! You’re good! You’re handsome! You’re intelligent! You’re strong!’

He had heard these things said to him so often that for him there was nothing original about them. Emma was like all other mistresses; and the charm of novelty, slipping off gradually like a piece of clothing, revealed in its nakedness the eternal monotony of passion, which always assumes the same forms and uses the same language.” (page 167)

Rodolphe is about as jaded about love as Emma is sentimental. Not a good combo.

Back to Emma’s pattern: after said “giving of herself,” she continues to chase the dragon of infatuation that she mistakes for love. With every encounter with each of her lovers, she expects these intense feelings to be present, and when they’re not there, it shakes her to the core. She’s constantly chasing that high. At times, it’s like watching a drug addict go after their next fix. And there’s a desperation in this, which is ultimately a turn off to the men she’s with, and is entirely understandable. Regardless of the time period, desperation is never a good look. Her behavior becomes increasingly reckless as the story progresses, so by the time Rodolphe has dumped her and she’s moved on to Leon, she is ABSOLUTELY COMPROMISING HERSELF ALL OF THE TIME. The way Emma just catapults herself forward in her quest for perfect romantic love gives the novel a great momentum, but also, for the empathetic reader, becomes increasingly uncomfortable to read. Even if you don’t know the ending, it’s obvious the novel is not going to end well.

To the writing: The scene where Emma “gives herself” to Leon is my favorite in the book. Flaubert is so damn clever. When they jump into the coach outside the Rouen Cathedral, we know they’re getting it on, but all Flaubert gives us is an endless listing of all the places that coach is passing. So many places in fact that a couple of paragraphs in you’re like OMG WHAT ARE THEY DOING IN THERE? ARE THEY GYMNASTIC RABBITS???? TALK ABOUT STAMINA!!!! DAMN!!! Finally we get a slightly disheveled Emma disembarking the coach. Just brilliant. His lack of description of the actual act reveals quite a bit after all.

I would also like to give props to Flaubert for not engaging in slut shaming, which is surprisingly modern of him. Emma is a fallen woman, but Flaubert presents her as such without moralizing by taking us inside her descent, which is far more complex than just “she cheated on her husband and therefore was punished by the universe.” I think anyone who walks away from reading this book thinking “well, Emma just a big slut” has missed the entire point of the novel. Yes, Emma has sex outside her marriage, but with men she feels she loves. Is she monogamous? No. Promiscuous? Not really. She has lots of sex with only three partners over the course of her life, which is a lot less than many contemporary women. Is she lost? Absolutely. Clinically depressed? Strong possibility. She may be one of fiction’s first portrayals of a compulsive personality (the love addiction, the shopping addiction, her mood swings…I’m no Dr. Drew, but the more I think about it, maybe contemporary Emma Bovary belongs more on Celebrity Rehab than on The Real Housewives…). But she’s not a whore. In fact, during her final desperate hours of trying to solve her insane debt, she could have banged the notary when he propositioned her and it would have probably helped her out, but she says flat-out “I’m not for sale.” I think that shows a fairly evolved attitude toward sex on Flaubert’s part. Again, bravo.

Rubric rating: 9.5. LOVE LOVE LOVE. (Which should come as no surprise, considering I have the phrase “le mot juste” tattooed on my arm.)

P.S. Madame Bovary is apparently going to be a movie with Mia Wasikowska as Emma and Ezra Miller as Leon. I couldn’t find who’d been cast as Charles, but Paul Giamatti will apparently play Monsieur Homais, which I think is perfect. At least Baz Luhrmann is not directing. ( )
  jaclyn_michelle | Apr 29, 2013 |
Brilliant book.

Flaubert's hatred of the bourgeois really shines through in his portrayal of provincial France, with Charles' meekness and his willing obliviousness of reality, and Emma's constant search for happiness which inevitably leads her to ruin.

You want to detest them both for their flaws; yet at the same time you realize that they're both human beings and operating from very real perspectives, keeping with Flaubert's ideas on limiting the author's influence. ( )
  MattP225 | Apr 27, 2013 |
Perhaps I've been reading too much classic literature lately, but I didn't find Madame Bovary all that special -- it probably didn't help that I read another novel with an affair of a similar nature in it, Anna Karenina, just now. In terms of characters, I found it quite realistic: I could believe in all of the characters. Emma, unable to find any satisfaction, quickly getting bored; Charles, a little dense, boring, loving; all the more minor characters. The descriptions of their lives felt realistic, too. But I found it hard to get absorbed in the story: probably because, despite recognising her as a well-written, realistic character, I don't identify with Emma Bovary at all. ( )
  shanaqui | Apr 9, 2013 |
I had attempted this book a couple year ago, but was confounded by a bad translation. Then I heard about Lydia Davis's new, highly touted translation through the New York Times book review podcast. It's everything they say. Beautifully done.

This novel is so psychologically realistic, the result of such careful observation of human behavior, that it's amazing it came out in the mid-nineteenth century. Not only that, but it's an early feminist novel!

Emma Roualt is a farm girl who has been given a good convent education by her father. She longs for the finer things in life. Music, art, romance, the company of cultured people. She ends up marrying Charles Bovary, a barely competent physician, and a dull man in the bargain. With him she relocates to a small town where everybody knows everybody, has a child, and of course, becomes very unhappy.

Her unhappiness comes not only from her dissatisfaction with her dull, unambitious husband and the life they share, but also from her awareness of the lack of freedom experienced by women in her society. Her sadness allows to to place her hopes for a better life successively, in two adulterous affairs. Rodolphe, the gentleman farmer, has ignoble intentions toward her from the start. Leon, the young law clerk, is too immature to know what he wants.

Serving as sort of a Greek chorus is Homais, the apothecary, who is the Bovarys' next door neighbor. He's a pompous twit who has a number of comic monologues.

In order to finance the tissue of lies she's concocted to carry on her affairs, Emma makes an association with a dry goods merchant who plays with her like a fish on a line, loaning her sums of money and coaxing her to sign promissory notes which eventually come due.

The ending of the book is very dark, but realistic. ( )
  EricKibler | Apr 6, 2013 |
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