Note to readers: You may choose to read this analysis of Gustave Flaubert‘s Madame Bovary here or listen to it on the audio file at the end of the article.
I suspect that Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel Madame Bovary is one of those books at the top of many people’s “To-Read-One-Day” lists. Today, I am going to suggest that now is the time to finally take the book down from your shelves or order it from your favorite bookstore. As it’s clearly impossible in just a few minutes to capture all the elements of this great novel’s complexity, I am going to dwell instead on just a few examples that show its richness.
Perhaps the first point to make about Madame Bovary is that, even though it is rightly hailed as a realist masterpiece, puncturing the idealism of the romantic fiction of the earlier part of the 19th century, it can be read and enjoyed on many levels and in different ways. It is possible, I think, to both empathize with and laugh at the idealistic yearnings of the central character, Emma Bovary. On one level, she aspires for a better life than the monotonous one she experiences as the wife of a decent but uninspiring country doctor; at certain times in our lives, we have probably all felt the kind of ennui that Emma wishes to escape from. But on another level, it becomes all too clear that Emma’s dreams of bettering herself involve a great deal of self-deception that will prove to be destructive not only to herself but also to people around her.
One could argue that Emma’s search for an identity that is hers alone is admirable, but Flaubert brilliantly shows the brutal reality of women’s lives of that and many other times. It is strangely telling that the novel’s title, Madame Bovary, does not allow Emma the individuality of her own first name or her familial identity. Through the conventions of society and marriage, she is obliged to take on someone else’s surname, but she is not even afforded the dignity of being the only Madame Bovary in the book, with her position as third in line behind her husband Charles’s disapproving mother and Charles’s first wife. In other words, she is some kind of palimpsest, a reused version of other women. And she is even denied the chance to open and close the novel: Charles is given that privilege.
I would argue that it is crucial for us to view Emma’s own sense of self in these terms, especially through the way a portrait of her is created over the course of the novel, for every event or liaison that shapes her seems to be experienced secondhand. As we are told early in the novel, her own aspirations have been fashioned almost entirely by the books she has read and the portraits or representations she has seen.
When reading Bernardin de Saint Pierre’s Paul et Virginie as a girl, staring at religious drawings in her book during Mass or reading Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels and Lamartine’s poetry, she chooses to identify with worlds beyond her own rather than try to gain knowledge of her inner self. She even develops “an enthusiastic veneration for all illustrious or ill-fated women” (translation by Alan Russell), without reflecting on their violent ends, which already presage her own terrible end. Reading romantic works leads to self-deception rather than enlightenment, and this is particularly true when Emma starts taking on lovers, first platonic then most certainly non-platonic.
After Charles and Emma move to Yonville, where Emma tries to push Charles to be more ambitious in his career, it is significant that an initial bond is established between the young clerk Léon and Emma through their mutual love of reading. But, rather than using literature to better themselves, it becomes an escape, encapsulating the young man’s youthful idealism and the married woman’s separation from reality. In her initial relationship with Léon, she is in love with the idea of an idealized lover rather than the actual person, as the characteristically devastating narrative reveals:
She was in love with Léon; and she sought solitude that she might revel in his image undisturbed. It marred the pleasure of her daydreams to see him in the flesh.
Afterward, she takes on a lover (Rodolphe) whose interests are more carnal than literary, but she still clings to an idea of perfect romantic love (we are told after their horse ride together that “she remembered the heroines of the books she had read”). She allows herself to be seduced by Rodolphe’s clumsy reappropriation of romantic terminology when they meet in a side room during an agricultural show. The brutality (in all senses) of the interpolated dialogue during this scene, with prizes being announced for the best Merino ram or for manure at the moment when Rodolphe’s language is at its most ornate, only underlines the animality that has been disguised as romance.
The scene of the visit with Charles to see Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor after Emma has been abandoned by Rodolphe shows that she has learned nothing about herself in the process: once more, she regresses to an idealistic view of the past in identifying with the operatic heroine Lucia – “Emma found herself back in the books of her youth, in the land of Sir Walter Scott” – but, characteristically, she loses interest in the opera before the heroine’s death. Léon’s reappearance in her life precisely at this point implies that the two lovers, in consummating their earlier passion, might somehow live their aspirations through their love, but in fact disappointment seems to be the inevitable outcome, with mutual irritation and resentment replacing ardor.
As her life spirals toward financial, moral and physical ruin, she is just as unable to see herself for what she is as the grotesque blind beggar she hears singing is unable to see the world around him. The moment she flings her final coin to the beggar might have signified a transcendental moment of true charity, but it is simply a gesture, shaped by what she imagines a true heroine would do:
Disgusted, Emma tossed him a half-crown over her shoulder. It was the sum of her wealth; it seemed glorious to fling it away like that.
I have concentrated on the character of Emma, as Flaubert’s portrayal of her is so captivating, but there is much else of interest in the novel, not least the portrayal of various figures of small-town life, some of whom show kindness while others are unscrupulous in their desire to destroy rivals and profit from other people’s distress.
It may sound like a depressing read – Flaubert is certainly unflinching in showing the grim realities of daily life – but Madame Bovary is a magnificent creation, allowing us to reflect upon the ways we see others and, most tellingly, the ways we perceive ourselves.