Title: Madame Bovary (1856)
Author: Gustave Flaubert
Translator: Lydia Davis
Publisher/Edition: Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition
Read: 20th – 27th January 2018
Genre: classics; French classics
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
“Emma Bovary is beautiful and bored, trapped in her marriage to a mediocre doctor and stifled by the banality of provincial life. An ardent reader of sentimental novels, she longs for passion and seeks escape in fantasies of high romance, in voracious spending and, eventually, in adultery. But even her affairs bring her disappointment and the consequences are devastating. Flaubert’s erotically charged and psychologically acute portrayal of Emma Bovary caused a moral outcry on its publication in 1857. It was deemed so lifelike that many women claimed they were the model for his heroine; but Flaubert insisted: ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi’.” (Synopsis from the publisher)
“Everything about him irritated her now – his face, his clothes, what he was not saying, his entire person, his very existence. She repented her past virtue as though it had been a crime, and what remained of it crumbled under the furious blows of her pride. She relished all the wretched ironies of triumphant adultery.”
To quote the inimitable Baz Pierce “this is a story about a woman who gets married then finds out that being married is really shit and has lots of affairs and she fucking lives her life” – in a nutshell, that is indeed Madame Bovary. Simple in its premise, complex in its characterisation, Gustave Flaubert’s debut does not shy away from presenting its characters in all their glory (flaws and all) in order to illustrate the lengths to which some people will go in an attempt to escape a banal, provincial existence in favour of a dramatic, glamorous life (involving opera and adultery) instead. The eponymous Emma Bovary is, at times (read: most of the time), greatly selfish and unlikable and yet, somehow, that makes her all the more intriguing as a character and, as a reader, you cannot help but ultimately root for her in her quest to better herself and her claustrophobic lifestyle, often at the detriment of social etiquette and generally accepted morality.
“After the weariness of this disappointment, her heart remained empty and then the succession of identical days began again. So now they were going to continue one after another like this, always the same, innumerable, bringing nothing! Other people’s lives, however dull they were, had at least the possibility that something would happen.”
I would love to say more about the other characters but the truth is, on looking back at my ‘reading notes’ (a rather highfalutin phrase for bullet points of quotes and me saying ‘yaaaas gurl’), I didn’t have an awful lot to say about them, aside from flippant insults because the men in this novel (with no exception) are THE WORST. Madame Bovary is unquestionably obsessed with its eponymous madame although, curiously, the first five chapters of this book are told through the focalising character of Charles Bovary, rather than Emma, his soon-to-be wife. This is ingenious on the part of Flaubert because we are first introduced to Charles’ rather average life, his childhood and upbringing and then eventual profession, and so his is the first, idealised opinion we get of Emma Bovary. Because of this, the narrative voice necessarily echoes his internal thoughts about her perfection, but it is a perfection which any reader will be sure to guess may only be skin deep. This notion of ‘ideal’ vs ‘reality’ is explored and dismantled throughout the rest of the novel, when the vantage point shifts instead to looking over Emma’s shoulder at the couple’s life. Charles is mostly dull, but (for me at least) he was dull in what seemed like an endearing way, at first – he seemed dull but sensible, dull but enamoured with his amazing new wife, dull but bearable. This opinion lasts until we get Emma’s point of view, at which point any reader can shift allegiances to instead empathise with how infuriatingly mundane her life is, and can realise with startling clarity that this humdrum existence is largely a result of the rather complacent character of her husband’s personality, a personality that is clearly at odds with her own more passionate sensibilities.
“But shouldn’t a man know everything, excel at a host of different activities, initiate you into the intensities of passion, the refinements of life, all its mysteries? Yet this man taught her nothing, knew nothing, wished for nothing. He thought she was happy; and she resented him for that settled calm, that ponderous serenity, that very happiness which she herself brought him.“
As soon as the narrative shifts to align itself with Emma, we get a very different picture of both Charles and the Bovarys’ marriage. The entrapping and oppressing nature of Emma’s life as a married woman practically oozes off the page, as readers become more and more privy to just how unfulfilling a life this really is for her. Like Jane Austen’s naive young heroine Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, Emma Bovary dreams of the narratives she consumes in romantic and sensationalist novels but, unlike Catherine Morland, Emma actively pursues manipulating her life into the sort of story that would be splashed across the pages of a scandalous novel. This results in the unfolding of many an ironic twist and just plain hilarious events, the phrasing of which will stay with me for many years. As Emma marches knowingly further and further into infidelity, immorality, and just plain depravity (according to men, at least), the novel begins its descent and the stakes are well and truly raised, and I found myself rooting for Emma to pull this off, to get everything she wanted, even if she herself didn’t seem to find anything she initially wanted to be all that satisfying once she actually had it. Through this tension, Madame Bovary explores ideas of desire (both physical and psychological) and the way that a 19th-century rural society would look upon a woman who was taking control of her own passions and desires instead of having them dictated to her by a man, by her husband, or by the society itself.
“She was not happy and never had been. Why was life so inadequate, why did the things she depended on turn immediately to dust? […] Nothing, anyway, was worth looking for; everything was a lie. Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a malediction, every pleasure its own disgust, and the sweetest kisses left on your lips no more than a vain longing for a more sublime pleasure.”
To conclude, and to be completely honest, I thought this novel would take a different turn than it did in the end. Completely ignoring the fact that this is lauded as a master example of the “realist novel”, I had hoped for a more sinister, dark undertone and my brain had conjured up all sorts of deliciously Gothic endings for Emma Bovary’s story, areas into which the narrative definitely did not stray. Can I really blame the novel for this? No. Can I still be disappointed in where Emma Bovary’s life ended up? I think so. I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed on behalf of Madame Bovary because I feel like she deserved so much better than the lot she was dealt in life, and in this novel. That, it seems, is “the point” of Flaubert’s entire exercise in literary realism – for all Emma might yearn for a glamorous life worthy of the pages of an infamous sensationalist novel, and for all she seemingly achieves that (we are reading her deliciously adulterous story, after all), what she is actually given is the story of Madame Bovary, with all its ups and downs, and not-so-happy endings. It is an age-old conundrum – would you rather have it, but in having it also stand to lose it and regret its loss (or, perhaps worse, find it is actually not worth having) or would you rather never have it and so never miss it or lose it in the end, but probably also always yearn for it? And, ultimately, would Emma Bovary herself be satisfied with where her story must end? I’m not so sure she would be.
“From that moment on, her life was no more than a confection of lies in which she wrapped her love, as though in veils, to hide it. Lying became a need, a mania, a pleasure, to the point that if she said she had gone down the right side of the street yesterday, one could be sure she had gone down the left.“