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Book Review: Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert

The most unsalacious adultery novel ever to scandalize vindictive bureaucrats.


Madame Bovary

Published in 1850, ~116,000 words. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.



Set amid the stifling atmosphere of 19th-century bourgeois France, Madame Bovary is at once an unsparing depiction of a woman’s gradual corruption and a savagely ironic study of human shallowness and stupidity. Neither Emma, nor her lovers, nor Homais, the man of science, escapes the author’s searing castigation, and it is the book’s final profound irony that only Charles, Emma’s oxlike, eternally deceived husband, emerges with a measure of human grace through his stubborn and selfless love.

With its rare formal perfection, Madame Bovary represents, as Frank O’Connor has declared, “possibly the most beautifully written book ever composed; undoubtedly the most beautifully written novel…a book that invites superlatives…the most important novel of the century.”




Trivia note: The translation available on Project Gutenberg is by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, who was the youngest daughter of Karl Marx. Also, it's quite a chore to read; I'd recommend a more recent translation. Coincidentally, Marx-Aveling committed suicide in a manner not unlike Madame Bovary.

I first read Madame Bovary in high school. I hated it. I thought it was the most boring thing I'd ever had to read that wasn't written by Thomas Hardy.

Since recently I've been rereading (or reading for the first time) classics by everyone from George Eliot to Victor Hugo, I figured I owed Gustave Flaubert another shot. And my older, adult self was much better able to appreciate Flaubert's message and see the literary qualities in this book.

I still prefer Hugo and Dumas, though.

What most people know about Madame Bovary is that it's about a wife who commits adultery, and maybe they also know that the author was prosecuted for obscenity, making it one of those infamously "banned books" (even though it was never actually banned). Flaubert was acquitted (and according to Wikipedia, source of all correct and accurate historical information, the prosecution was really a political attack on the newspaper in which the novel was serialized), whereupon the book became a best-seller, making it also an early example of what happens when you try to ban things.

So you know all that, and maybe you also know that Flaubert is famous for being a founder of the Realism movement with Madame Bovary.

What you won't know unless you've either read Madame Bovary or the Wikipedia article about it is that Flaubert also really hated the bourgeois. The novel relentlessly mocks the pettiness and banality of middle class life, by describing it in painstaking, tedious detail. Emma Bovary herself is a romantic, which is what leads to her downfall. Having grown up enthralled by romances, and at one point in the novel trying to escape the tedium of her bourgeois existence by reading them voraciously, she discovers that being married to a kind-hearted dork who is about as romantic as a foot blister is a special kind of hell for her.

"Do you know what your wife wants?" replied Madame Bovary senior. "She wants to be forced to occupy herself with some manual work. If she were obliged, like so many others, to earn her living, she wouldn't have these vapours, that come to her from a lot of ideas she stuffs into her head, and from the idleness in which she lives."

"Yet she is always busy," said Charles.

"Ah! Always busy at what? Reading novels, bad books, works against religion, and in which they mock priests in speeches taken from Voltaire. But all that leads you far astray, my poor child. Anyone who has no religion always ends by turning out badly."

So it was decided to stop Emma reading novels. The enterprise did not seem easy. The good lady undertook it. She was, when she passed through Rouen, to go herself to the lending library and represent that Emma had discontinued her subscription. Would they not have a right to apply to the police if the librarian persisted all the same in his poisonous trade? The farewells of mother and daughter-in-law were cold. During the three weeks that they had been together they had not exchanged half-a-dozen words apart from the inquiries and phrases when they met at table and in the evening before going to bed.


Poor Emma. She's bored and stifled in her marriage, and they won't even let her have her escapist novels. No wonder she started having affairs.

In fact, Emma is not a very sympathetic figure. While one can feel sympathy for her — her husband, Charles, is a very kind and decent man, but he's got the spirit and personality of oatmeal — clearly she makes little attempt to adjust to reality, instead always seeking escape one way or the other. Novels, adultery, or pushing her husband into an ill-conceived scheme to become famous with a cure for clubfoot (which only succeeds in proving that he has risen to his level and will rise no further), they're all just a way for her to avoid the horror of bourgeois life. Only briefly does she ever try bestowing any genuine affection on her husband or daughter. And yet, by the novel's tragic, inevitable end, with Madame Bovary having left heartbreak and penury in her wake, one cannot help feeling sorry for her.

Flaubert even takes a final shot at poor Charles after his wife is dead:


"I don't blame you," he said.

Rodolphe was dumb. And Charles, his head in his hands, went on in a broken voice, and with the resigned accent of infinite sorrow—

"No, I don't blame you now."

He even added a fine phrase, the only one he ever made—

"It is the fault of fatality!"

Rodolphe, who had managed the fatality, thought the remark very offhand from a man in his position, comic even, and a little mean.


The poor guy absolves the man who cuckolded him, and gets disparaged for it.

Madame Bovary is indeed a fine work of anti-romantic realism. As a novel, everything fits together perfectly: it's not overly wordy, doesn't go off into irrelevant subplots, and doesn't rely on extreme coincidences or implausible twists. All things which were pretty standard in other novels of that time. Flaubert sets up every plot element with precision and then executes each one at exactly the right time. So yes, I understand why this novel is still so well-regarded even now.

That said, it's still kind of boring and neither Emma nor her husband are really people for which you can feel anything but pity. Flaubert was giving a great big finger to romanticism and the bourgeoisie. It is a little mean.

You should also be aware, in case you haven't read it and are under the mistaken impression that Madame Bovary was accused of being an "immoral" novel because it was in any way salacious, that this is the most salacious scene in the book:


"Oh, Rodolphe!" said the young woman slowly, leaning on his shoulder.

The cloth of her habit caught against the velvet of his coat. She threw back her white neck, swelling with a sigh, and faltering, in tears, with a long shudder and hiding her face, she gave herself up to him—

The shades of night were falling; the horizontal sun passing between the branches dazzled the eyes. Here and there around her, in the leaves or on the ground, trembled luminous patches, as it hummingbirds flying about had scattered their feathers. Silence was everywhere; something sweet seemed to come forth from the trees; she felt her heart, whose beating had begun again, and the blood coursing through her flesh like a stream of milk. Then far away, beyond the wood, on the other hills, she heard a vague prolonged cry, a voice which lingered, and in silence she heard it mingling like music with the last pulsations of her throbbing nerves. Rodolphe, a cigar between his lips, was mending with his penknife one of the two broken bridles.

They returned to Yonville by the same road. On the mud they saw again the traces of their horses side by side, the same thickets, the same stones to the grass; nothing around them seemed changed; and yet for her something had happened more stupendous than if the mountains had moved in their places. Rodolphe now and again bent forward and took her hand to kiss it.


If you think that's 19th century eroticism, keep in mind that the works of the Marquis de Sade were already famous, and the French could give the Victorians some serious competition for sexual perversity. In fact, the complaint about Madame Bovary was that Flaubert did not explicitly condemn Emma Bovary for her adultery. Never mind that she spends the entire book being miserable, and after bankrupting her husband, commits suicide to avoid the shame; authors were expected to pass judgment on their creations, and Flaubert just describes her actions and the consequences and lets the reader draw his or her own conclusions. Contrast this with Anthony Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?, in which the author spends 900 pages deliberating over the question of whether a lady who has "jilted" a depraved and abusive suitor deserves to be forgiven for it. One might thank Flaubert at least for being a pioneer in getting off the authorial soapbox.

Equally Unsalacious Films



Madame Bovary (1949)



Madame Bovary (1949)

This 1949 film starring James Mason frames the novel as Gustave Flaubert defending himself at trial by explaining his "immoral" heroine. It's a well-acted, well-costumed piece that adheres fairly closely to the novel itself, though it takes a few dramatic liberties. Emma is treated in this movie much as Flaubert treated her: a foolish woman, but not an entirely unsympathetic one. The Hollywood ending is a bit maudlin, but for the most part it did justice to the novel.

Madame Bovary (1975)



Madame Bovary (1975)

This four-episode Masterpiece Theater adaptation is quite faithful and dry and kind of boring initially, like most 1970s Masterpiece Theater adaptations. It follows every event in the book closely, so will make a passable substitute for actually reading the book.

In the final act, though, this adaptation really takes off. Emma's sordidness and desperation is portrayed brilliantly. Masterpiece Theater actors back then tended to perform like stage actors, and here it works well, becoming the most tragic of plays. It does, however, omit everything after Emma's death, ending on a suitable note for a movie but leaving out the final nail that Flaubert drove into the anti-Romantic coffin.

Madame Bovary (2000)



Madame Bovary (2000)

A BBC adaptation that starts like any other bonnet drama — the first thing I noticed about this version is that there was no "Frenchness" to it. The actors and the settings conveyed nothing to indicate the whole story wasn't taking place in England.

Madame Bovary's adultery is played up, while Hugh Bonneville as Charles Bovary seems less mediocre and spineless than in the book. Emma is completely unsympathetic in this version, making it more a tale of a bored woman's adultery than a girl raised on romantic fantasies trapped in a stultifying marriage. However, the acting and filmography is much better than the preceding adaptations, making this a pretty production that took a few artistic liberties.

Bonus points for salaciousness, though: naked boobies and explicit humping!


Poll #1878281 Madame Bovary

Have you read Madame Bovary?

Yes, and I liked it.
9(39.1%)
Yes, and I didn't like it.
8(34.8%)
No, but now I want to.
2(8.7%)
No, and I don't want to.
4(17.4%)

Have you read anything else by Flaubert?

Yes.
5(21.7%)
No.
18(78.3%)




Verdict: Madame Bovary is an early work of realism, and a tightly-constructed novel about how even a "good" marriage can be miserable. It's also a withering attack on middle class values. Very well-written, but so realistic it's practically desiccating. Unless you just love this kind of book (or can read it in the original French, as I understand Flaubert is an impressive stylist), it's not a classic I can really say pulses with drama and interest for a modern reader.




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