Gustave Flaubert’s iconic and scandalous 1856 novel, Madame Bovary, explores what happens behind-the-scenes for a morally ambiguous married woman. And sadly no, I didn’t read this novel in its original French. I wish.
Madame Bovary follows the life of Emma Bovary, a beautiful and shallow woman who is married to the mediocre, yet well-meaning and very loving doctor, Charles Bovary. Raised on superfluous and romantic novels throughout her childhood, Emma is disheartened by the ordinariness of her married life to a middle-class, unattractive, man. Bored by small country-town life, and unmoved by the birth of her daughter, Emma uses her charm and good looks to attain the attention of other men, believing herself to be in love with them (until she grows bored with them of course). On top of her adulterous behaviour, Emma plunges the family into debt, buying beautiful things she believes she is entitled to, yet cannot afford.
When I first began reading Madame Bovary, I was disinterested and couldn’t find a connection with the central character, Emma. To me she was shallow, vain, not entirely smart and very entitled. She emphasised the bad that I believe is in most of us, and what was worse, she failed to understand the role she plays in her own downfall. Instead, she continued to put the blame on the numerous men within her life, from Charles, for being boorish and plain, to one of her lovers, Leon, because he failed to love her enough and keep her interest.
Her obsession with romance, which stemmed from readings novels as a young girl, allows her to justify her behaviour, and although she herself wasn’t wealthy or particularly intelligent, she was still a classist, looking down on those around her, including her own husband, for not having the same manners or money that she felt she had (or ought to have).
Yet, when I delved deeper, I realised that this novel, and essentially Emma’s undoing, was about coveting what we cannot, or should not, have. And haven’t we all been there before?
Who hasn’t wanted to buy something that we couldn’t necessarily afford? Who hasn’t lusted over an actor or daydreamed about a perfect lover that will one day sweep us off our feet? Who hasn’t wanted the love, or at the very least, the attention of someone whom we know we should not be concerned about? When I realised this, I began to understand Emma, and while her actions were not acceptable, and gluttonous by any means, I realised why she was acting the way she did.
Furthermore, I realised that Emma’s actions were a form of power, and although not successful, and not moral, it did make me pity Emma. In the middle of the 1800s, women had little to no control over their lives, save for the effect that they had on men. And Emma, who is charming, beautiful and elegant, realised that if she wanted to have any control over her life, it was to be through her sexuality. While there were underlying themes that offset this, as a reader, I continually saw Emma as a woman who was very, very unhappy with her life and tried to make changes the only way she knew how; by making men fall in love with her.
Of course, this backfires terribly on Emma, who, as someone who is used to being adored and loved (because, despite all her flaws and traitorous actions, Charles still continues to love her deeply), she fails to understand the importance and duality on relationships, and is left alone time and time again.
Then, when Emma is given financial power, she blows it on trinkets and clothing, trying to satisfy her need for beauty in her life. And although Emma may get some sort of temporary pleasure out of these objects, her small amount of power once again leads to her demise and she is forced to go to those that she once held power over to ask for money; Leon and Rodolphe.
Madame Bovary is considered one of Flaubert’s finest works because of his flawless use of Realism, all the more impressive considering Flaubert was a well-known fan of Romanticism. Realism is a writing style that depicts contemporary life and society as it was, without the flairs that many novels of that era had. Considering the juxtaposition of the excessively romantic Emma, the novel portrays the mundane and mediocre life that many women were forced to endure in loveless marriages during that time.
Considered by many a ‘perfect’ work of fiction and established as one of the greatest novels ever written, Madame Bovary shows the effects that mediocracy can have when there is nowhere left to turn. Although at times I found the writing excessively detailed, yet very beautiful, and Emma hard to bear, I would suggest Madame Bovary to anyone who wishes to explore a different era, a well-known writing style or a complex character.
Have you read Madame Bovary? What did you think? Let me know!