Madame Bovary

In which I review Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert’s celebrated 1856 novel about a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage with a dull country doctor, who spirals into a life of adultery, overspending and self-destruction.

What it’s about: Normandy, France, the 1820s. Charles Bovary, a young doctor in a provincial French town, marries Emma, the daughter of one of his farmer patients. Emma, who is intelligent and accomplished, quickly grows bored with marriage, yearning for the romance and sophistication she has read about in novels and magazines. Fearing for his wife’s health, Charles moves them to the larger town of Yonville. Emma gives birth to a daughter, but shows little interest in motherhood, spending money extravagantly and falling in love with Léon Dupuis, a young legal clerk. Panicked by their attachment, Léon leaves for Paris. Emma is romanced by Rodolphe Boulanger, a wealthy landowner and womanizer, who falsely declares his love for her during a village fête. The affair continues for four years, until Emma insists they run away together. On the night of their planned departure, Boulanger breaks off the affair and leaves town. A devastated Emma becomes seriously ill. To aid her recovery, Charles takes her to the opera in Rouen, where they re-encounter Léon. Emma and Léon reignite their relationship, and Emma pretends to take weekly music lessons in Rouen to continue seeing him. Now in serious debt, the baliffs threaten to repossess the family home. Unable to borrow money, Emma visits the apothecary and swallows arsenic, and suffers a slow and agonising death. Charles abandons himself to his grief, giving up his work and selling his possessions to pay off the debts. He dies suddenly, and his daughter is sent to live with relatives, who send her to work in a cotton mill.

Why it’s a classic: Madame Bovary was a sensation from its initial publication, in serial form, in 1856. Flaubert’s presentation of adultery, while tame by today’s standards, was shocking enough to land him and his publisher in court on charges of blasphemy and corrupting public morality. Flaubert won the case and the story was published in novel form, becoming a national bestseller. (In a nice touch, Flaubert dedicated the book to the lawyer who secured his acquittal). Madame Bovary made Flaubert one of the most famous writers in the world, admired by his peers George Sand, Émile Zola and Ivan Turgenev. He became a leading exponent of literary realism, in which the details of ordinary life are communicated in clear precise language, with a focus on the psychological lives of its often unheroic characters.

Since then, Madame Bovary has never been out of print, and its popularity resounds through subsequent generations of writers. Henry James wrote that Madame Bovary “has a perfection that not only stamps it, but that makes it stand almost alone: it holds itself with such a supreme unapproachable assurance as both excites and defies judgment.” Marcel Proust praised the “grammatical purity” of Flaubert’s style, and Vladimir Nabokov said that “stylistically it is prose doing what poetry is supposed to do“. Flaubert’s contemporary fans include Milan Kundera, who wrote “Ever since Madame Bovary, the art of the novel has been considered equal to the art of poetry” and Julian Barnes, who called it the best novel ever written. (Finding female writers who rave like this about Flaubert is a bit more difficult – more on that later).

Over 160 years later, Flaubert is still cited as a major influence on just about every major novelist of the 20th century, including Zola, Proust, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, and Madame Bovary is acknowledged as a game-changing work in the history of the novel. “Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring,” writes critic James Wood, who dedicates two chapters of his book Why Novels Work to Flaubert. “There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him. Flaubert decisively established what most readers and writers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible. We hardly remark of good prose that it favors the telling and brilliant detail; that it privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary; that it judges good and bad neutrally; that it seeks out the truth, even at the cost of repelling us; and that the author’s fingerprints on all this are paradoxically, traceable but not visible.”

Perhaps even more famous than the novel itself is Flaubert’s much-quoted and debated maxim “Madame Bovary, ce’est moi” (“Madame Bovary is me”). At first glance, it’s baffling that a man of Flaubert’s education, success and celebrity would possibly identify with a suicidal young adulteress trapped in a small provincial town. But that’s the thing about novelists – the act of imaginative empathy can land in very counterintuitive ways. According to biographers, Flaubert was a bit of an Emma Bovary – afflicted by severe depression, constantly disappointed in romantic love and frequently in debt, he spent much of his life striving for an artistic perfection that in his mind was never quite reached. Something of this restlessness and dissatisfaction finds its way into the narration of Madame Bovary: “[H]uman language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to,” we are told, “when what we long to do is make music that will move the stars to Pity.” Though I’m not generally a fan of biographical readings of novels, perhaps the enduring popularity of Emma Bovary is due to her character being so personally written and felt.

Unsurprisingly, Madame Bovary has been the subject of multiple film, television, radio and theatrical adaptations. Filmmakers including Jean Renoir, Vincente Minnelli, Claude Chabrol and Sophie Barthes have adapted the book for the big screen, and David Lean relocated the story to World War I-era Ireland in his film Ryan’s Daughter. Emma Bovary has been a meaty part for stars including Pola Negri, Jennifer Jones, the gloriously miscast Isabelle Huppert and, most recently, the very well-cast Mia Wasikowska.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A huge bouquet, though it may well end up being tossed in the fire like Emma destroying her withered bridal flowers. I’ve known about Madame Bovary for most of my adult life – I recall seeing the Isabelle Huppert film when I was a student in the early 1990s – but I avoided the novel, because everyone I knew who’d read it told me that Emma was an annoying cow who took forever to die. It’s a salutary reminder of how other people’s opinions are worth so little, since Madame Bovary is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. I devoured it over a couple of days, pausing frequently to stand up and applaud at Flaubert’s stunningly crafted sentences, and gave myself a sleepless night as I stayed up late to read the gruesome details of Emma’s horrible death. Even now I’m still mildly stunned by it, in the way that you are when you discover a writer who seems to be speaking to you, in a voice you’ve always wanted to hear. (His follow-up novel, Sentimental Education, has been hastily added to my reading list for this blog project).

What’s most puzzling about Madame Bovary is how a story of such deep unpleasantness can be so addictive and highly satisfying. Every character is deeply flawed and no one is likeable, except perhaps Flaubert’s narrator, a witty and cynical presence who points out his characters’ ignorance, selfishness and stupidity with a fetishistic sense of glee. No one gets an easy ride: Charles is a simpleton who wilfully ignores his wife’s deception, and an incompetent physician whose vanity project to cure the village cripple’s club foot goes horribly wrong. Léon is an idle dreamer, too spineless to confront his own desires. Boulanger is so repellent that he’s almost a pantomime villain, manipulative and heartless from the outset. The ironically named Lheureux (a play on the French word for “happiness”) is a creeping parasite. Homais the pharmacist, the most obvious target of Flaubert’s scorn, is a fawning social climber desperate to ascend into good society. Flaubert hated the the bourgeoisie, who were growing in social prominence in 19th century France: Madame Bovary is, among other things, a savage takedown of the grasping materialist values and petty respectability of the new middle classes. His narrator takes great delight in pointing out the gauche and pretentious behaviour that comprises “Provincial Manners” (the original subtitle of the novel): Emma and Charles turning up at the opera house before it opens and Homais affecting Parisien street slang to appear more sophisticated are two especially stinging examples. While it’s often very funny, it’s the type of satire that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, especially when no example of “better” behaviour is offered.

Flaubert’s treatment of his heroine is equally complex and problematic, especially for readers in a post-feminist age. He clearly has sympathy for Emma’s wish for romance and excitement, and describes the utter awfulness of her dull constricted life. More than any writer I can think of, he has a forensic eye for the dull and the mundane: as the unhappy Emma walks in her garden, she notes that “among the spruces near the hedge the curé in his tricorn hat, reading his breviary, had lost his right foot, and even had a few milky scabs on his face where the plaster had flaked off in the frost.” Occasionally the narration breaks into a close-third person where we can read her thoughts: “Would this misery go on forever? Was there no escape? And yet she was every bit as good as all those other women who led happy lives!” In these moments we feel uncomfortably close to Emma’s feelings, despite the over-ripe language that mocks and undercuts her romantic pretensions.

Flaubert is also careful to highlight Emma’s relative powerlessness as a woman. Whereas Léon and Boulanger can run away to Rouen when they get bored or things get too difficult, Emma has nowhere else to go. I was especially struck by a brief description of Emma dressing as a man at a masked ball – a fleeting attempt by a desperately unhappy woman to enjoy the freedom of life as a man. This awareness of sexual inequality isn’t accidental, but a clearly defined part of the novel’s agenda. “A man,” Flaubert tells us, “is free, free to explore all passions and all countries, to surmount obstacles, to indulge in the most exotic pleasures. But a woman is constantly thwarted. At once passive and compliant, she has to contend with both the weakness of her body and the subjection imposed by the law. Her will, like the veil attached to her hat, flutters with every breeze; always there is desire inviting her on, and, always, convention holding her back.”

Flaubert also sees, as Emma does not, the danger and cruelty of men: “Their coolly indifferent gaze revealed the calm that comes of passions promptly gratified; and, beneath their courtly manners, they exuded that particular brutality born of relatively facile conquests, those that demand physical strength, or titillate men’s vanity: the handling of thoroughbred horses, the pursuit of loose women.” In these moments, Madame Bovary can be read as a proto-feminist text, a critique of a patriarchal society in which a woman with no social or economic agency is pushed towards self-destruction. These days, we’re much more comfortable with bad behaviour – our own and other people’s – and we tend to look more sympathetically on the plight of women in Emma’s position. Feminist commentators have noted approvingly on the propulsive power of Emma’s sexual desire, which drives the action forward, and her determination to exert her will, come what way. These inflections suggest that Flaubert was, if not quite a feminist, at least a progressive, whose understanding of patriarchy and gender warfare was far ahead of his times.

But this feels too comfortable a reading for a text that provokes a lot of discomfort. Flaubert judges Emma as mercilessly as the awful men in her life, constantly diagnosing her deficiencies. “She had to derive a kind of personal profit from things, and rejected as useless anything that did not contribute directly to her heart’s gratification“; later, we are told she is “incapable of understanding what she did not experience, or of believing anything that did not manifest itself in conventional form.” His contempt for her “inferior” class is evident in comments about her peasant origins: “she was not at all tender-hearted or sensitive to other people’s feelings; in this she was like most children of country stock, whose souls retain some of the calluses of their parents’ hands.”

Flaubert’s point is clear. Emma is not and will never be a great literary heroine, just a woman who longs for the impossible, lives beyond her means and suffers the consequences. Though we’re absorbed by her struggles, we’re not encouraged to mourn for her – merely to feel sorry for her. Pity requires less emotional engagement and allows us to put some distance between ourselves and her, tut-tutting like the townsfolk over the mess she makes of her life. This kind of narration – omniscient, ironic, often condescending – is rather unfashionable now, potentially when directed by dead white males against women or people of colour who lacked the means, at least in Flaubert’s time, to tell their own stories.

So then, why should we care about Emma Bovary? Were my friends of long ago correct in saying that she is an annoying cow? We care, I think, because of Flaubert’s intense interest in her emotional experience of the world, and his ruthless commitment to describing her life realistically, without recourse to sentiment or romantic tropes. Flaubert was obsessed with finding “le mot juste” – the correct word or phrase that would describe or illuminate a moment with forensic precision and avoid vagueness or cliché. His prose (as translated by Margaret Mouldon in the Oxford World’s Classics 2004 edition I read) is razor sharp, and works continuously to negate any kind of romantic reading of Emma’s story, forcing us to confront the uncomfortable truths of her situation.

We’re told from the beginning that Emma reads romantic novels, and we watch as her fantasy life becomes fuelled by the images of grand passion and fabulous wealth that those stories contain. Her affairs with Léon and Belanger, her overspending and even her suicide have a performative, exaggerated quality, as if she’s trying to play out a version of her life that matches the literary heroines of her books. Again and again, Flaubert undercuts Emma’s romantic fantasies with prosaic reminders of real life: the plaster statue with the chipped foot, the pus-filled eyes of the blind man, the droning speech of the government official at the fête who drowns out Boulanger’s florid declarations of love. For every extravagant purchase of clothing or furniture, there’s a chilling conversation with Lheureux, who reminds her (and us) that everything has a price. Emma’s death, which she stage-manages like a medieval tableau, is depicted as an ugly ordeal, with convulsions, severe pain and vomiting blood. Even her corpse refuses to conform to a picturesque romantic ideal, leaking black fluid over her pretty wedding gown. There’s a pitch-black comic vein to the description of Emma’s wake, in which the tragedy of her death is soon forgotten, as the townsfolk lapse back into their banal routines.

These moments don’t make Emma especially sympathetic, but they do force us to view her as a real person rather than a heroine or the object of a man’s romantic desire. I can understand why many readers find her irritating, but again I think this is testament to Flaubert’s commitment to realism. Thwarted people who lack agency over their lives are irritating. People who keep secrets and lie compulsively are irritating. People who make the same mistakes repeatedly without learning from them are irritating. Flaubert’s refusal to give Emma a way out of her predicament – a benefactor who lifts her out of her debt, a last-minute recovery of her love for Charles, even salvation on her deathbed via a religious conversion – makes her story unusually brutal and a bit depressing. Instead of a deus ex machina, we get to watch Emma charging about furiously, battering herself against the walls of her life, and finally losing any sense of dignity as those walls close around her. It’s not pretty, and it can be read as sadistic, but it feels devastatingly true to real life.

This commitment to realism in storytelling ripples through the novel as a kind of meta-narrative. The characters continually discuss novels and stories they’ve read, or pontificate on what makes “good” fiction. Flaubert sneers at the mediocre literary attempts of others: the publication of Homais’ dreadful “works of public utility” is the ironic set piece that ends the book, an act of bathos as grotesque as Emma’s death. In response to romantic novels, religious tracts and pamphlets on the effects of cider, Flaubert offers Madame Bovary as an example of everything a novel can and should do – to pierce through everyday banalities and received wisdom and reveal the truth, and present life as the great tragicomedy it is.

I truly adored this book, though I’m relieved to not be the subject of Flaubert’s forensic and withering eye. 19th century fiction is clogged full of stories of women who transgress the sexual rules of their age and suffer a grisly death as a consequence – Marguerite in Dumas’ La Dame aux Caméllias, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Cathy in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights – but none of them feel quite as real as Emma Bovary, who dies with her imperfections unresolved and without being turned into a cautionary tale. It would take nearly 100 years until writers started presenting adulteresses who didn’t get killed off in the final act (hoorah!) but somehow Flaubert earns his right to kill off his heroine, in the service of his rather brutal form of realism. Vive la France! (and remind me to pay off my next credit card bill).

Quotable Quote: “The next day, for Emma, was funereal. Everything appeared to her shrouded in a black mist that hovered uncertainly over the surface of things, and grief plunged deep into her soul, moaning softly like the winter wind in an abandoned chateau. She sank into that kind of brooding which comes when you lose something forever, that lassitude you feel after every irreversible event, that pain you suffer when a habitual movement is interrupted, when a long-sustained vibration is suddenly broken off…. From that time on, her memory of Léon became the core of her despair; it glittered more brightly than a fire abandoned by travellers on the snows of a Russian steppe. She would rush up to it, huddle over it, delicately stirring the dying embers and searching for anything within reach that might revive it; and the most distant memories as well as the most recent events, her feelings both real and imagined, her now-fading sensual desires, her plans for happiness that snapped in the wind like dead branches, her sterile virtue, her lost hopes, the debris of domestic life – all this she gathered up, all this she took, and used to feed her unhappiness. But the flames did die down, perhaps from lack, perhaps from excess of fuel. Little by little, love was quenched by absence, and longing smothered by routine; and that fiery glow which tinged her pale sky scarlet grew more clouded, then gradually faded away. Her benumbed consciousness even led her to mistake aversion toward her husband for desire for her lover, the searing touch of hatred for the rekindling of love; but, as the storm still raged on and her passion burnt itself to ashes, no help came and no sun rose, the darkness of night closed in on every side, and she was left to drift in a bitter icy void.



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