Title: Madame Bovary
Author: Gustave Flaubert
Genre: Literary Realism
Is there really a point to me reviewing a book that has long and widely been hailed as the ‘perfect work of fiction’? Am I adding anything to the discussion that thousands of students poring over this work for decades have not already discussed to death in torturous essays for literature classes? No, I didn’t think so; but then again, the point of the blog has always been primarily to voice my thoughts on the works of fiction I consume and if in the process I end up adding something new to the discussion then that’s all the better. To that end, I have to start this conversation on this French classic by saying that I did not particularly enjoy it. Despite that, I had no real difficulty in appreciating the quality of the art itself; even though I obviously did not read it in its original French, it was apparent very early into the book that this was the work of an insightful and observant mind, capable of distancing himself enough from his immediate social surroundings to observe the invisible bonds holding it all together.
The story follows the tumultuous love lives – yes, multiple – of one Madame Emma Bovary, who struggles against the chains that bind her to her rustic life in the countryside but ultimately cannot overcome the rigidity of the social structures around her. It is meant to be a tragedy; but how tragic it is depends on how much agency you wish to attribute to the characters. In some ways, how you respond to the novel’s events depends very much on how you view the death of a drug addict in modern times – is it a sad, needless occurrence that results from society’s unwillingness and inability to help those in need; or is it an inevitable consequence of poor decisions made by these individuals? Most of us, I suspect, hold a mixture of both these views and such is the conflict in Madame Bovary.
Emma Bovary is not a sympathetic character in my eyes. That is not to say that I utterly despise her, but it is hard to look at her and her actions and see a woman making good decisions. Her story is still tragic, however. Her character is one that wants it all; love, excitement, intellectual stimulation, culture, money, power. It’s a long list for a woman of the era; it’s a longer list still for a woman in a rural farm. When her marriage turns into a boring, uninspiring slog, we can sympathise with her; when she turns down the opportunity to leave with a younger lover for Paris for fear of how it would appear, it is hard to feel as sorry for her. Her neglect of her daughter and her poor treatment of her unsuspecting husband – who remains devoted to his wife throughout all this, if in his own clumsy, ham-fisted way, makes it difficult to take her side. Her decisions to live beyond her means in material ways – buying fine clothes and luxury goods – just to stave off the mind-numbing inanity of her day-to-day life, is perhaps understandable, but not quite forgivable once the consequences come back to haunt her. The best summation I can come up for her character is that she is someone who is keenly aware of what she must do to break free of her social restriction, but is ultimately too much a product of that very environment to do so.
Beyond my mixed feelings about Emma Bovary, however, the only other real issue with the novel is its pacing. This is obviously a highly subjective matter – and honestly, it might be a consequence of the way that I read the book, scattered over a few weeks – but there are stretches of the book that just seem to drag on forever. Flaubert is excellent at capturing the feel of the life in the French provinces in the decades after one of the most turbulent periods in French history. Yet, like Tolkien, his descriptions can carry on longer than necessary and while they let you paint a very vivid picture of the scenes as they take place, they do also slow the pace down a great deal.
My favourite thing about Madame Bovary is its rejection of many of romantic fiction’s favourite tropes. When Charles Bovary visits Emma’s farm, it appears, for all intents and purposes, to be the case of a Prince Charming swooping in to rescue this poor woman from the evils of an idle mind. Unfortunately for everyone involved, there is no salvation awaiting Emma once he does so, and it is the tedium of life in the small towns that ultimately break Emma. Likewise, when Emma makes the fateful decision to take her own life, the poison is not the quick-acting serum of death that fiction often conveniently makes it out to be; her death is slow, and excruciating, and her shame is clear for all to see and hear. Her husband, still unaware of her many infidelities, grieves in the Romantic fashion, preserving her memory with a steadfastness she never deserved – until he learns of her dalliances and dies of a broken heart. This is the brutal realism of not just Flaubert’s creation, but our own world and I suspect much of the timelessness of this novel comes from Flaubert’s unflinching depiction of the injustices and cruelties of life. There is little in the way of karmic justice in Madame Bovary. Charles Bovary’s only fault in all the book is dullness and slowness of mind – neither of which are really his fault and neither of which rank very high on the list of sins in a spouse. Yet, the reward for his diligence and dedication is only betrayal and misery. The characters of the merchant Lheureux and pharmacist and then doctor, Homais, evade all the punishment due to them and their nefarious schemes and end the novel prosperous and wealthy.
I’ll end this with my own takeaways from the novel. Empathy is a concept not deeply explored in the novel, at least not explicitly. Yet, its lack is something that we can perhaps hold Charles Bovary more directly accountable for. His inability to understand the complex nature of the woman he married has dire consequences for both of them. He projects happiness on to her; twisting his own interpretations of her actions in ways that allow him to believe that she is happy and that their relationship is healthy. Again, this is not the heaviest sin one can commit but as the novel demonstrates, it has the potential to become a fatal one. That tension between what is real and what something could be is central to the novel in another way. There is a conflict in all of us, perhaps even more so in our modern day and age than in Emma’s, between the harsh realities of life and the seemingly infinite possibilities of our potential. Popular culture praises the dreamer; it is seen as noble to dream of greater things and the person who achieves those dreams is widely admired. Yet, if I were to tell someone that their dreams were far removed from the realities of their situation, if I told them to set their sights lower lest they not be disappointed, I think I might be roundly boo-ed as a dream crusher, a heartless realist with no capacity for understanding the potential of a person. Emma is the quintessential romantic in Madame Bovary. She dreams of greater things every day but without thought or consideration of either her own station in life or her responsibilities to those around her. Flaubert’s world – our world really, given how meticulous he is in its depiction – is utterly unforgiving of her fancies. Social stigma, religion and debt are non-negotiable barriers that squeeze and squeeze until the romantic has but one choice left – give up her high minded self-image to accept the grim realities of her life or end that life without ever having to confront herself. Emma chooses the latter and it is a tragedy, but perhaps, also a harsh lesson for modern times.
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