Pages

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Madam Bovary by Gustave Flaubert


Madam Bovary by Gustave Flaubert is a very famous French novel. I thought that this book was an excellent literary work that dug in to all sorts interesting themes in complex ways. As far as I could tell while reading a translation, the  prose seemed distinctive and brilliantly crafted. The plot was also interesting. The novel was first published in 1856. 

 

The is the story of the title character, Emma Bovary.  The reader is initially introduced to   Emma’s future husband Charles Bovary, before he even knows her. Charles is a reliable but uninteresting doctor in a French village.  Charles’s domineering first wife dies. Simultaneously, Charles begins to provide medical treatment to Emma’s father and starts to develop a romantic interest in her. He begins to court Emma and the pair eventually get engaged and married. Though Emma is happy at first, she soon becomes bored with her marriage and what she considers a humdrum and unromantic country life.  She wants to live a more glamorous and materialistic lifestyle with a more interesting man. Emma proceeds to spend lavishly on clothing, furniture and all sorts of frills. After she has a daughter, Emma engages in affairs with other men. First, with a local land owner and later with a handsome clerk named Leon.   All this time Charles is oblivious to what is going on, even though Emma and her lovers are often indiscrete. Eventually Emma’s excessive spending catches up with her as debt collectors begin to move to sell the Bovarys’ possessions. All this eventually leads to calamity for the Bovarys. 

 

There are other important characters including the village pharmacist, Monsieur Homais. This man  supposedly befriends the Boverys but his friendship is eventually shown to be false. He is pompous and pretentious and ultimately very successful. He uses people for his benefit and abandons them when he no longer needs them. He is also a rationalist who likes to have philosophical arguments.

 

I would describe the  prose is this book as  both soaring but also intentionally pretentious. That sounds contradictory but the language sometimes seems sublime while at other times it seems to be very exaggerated. Sometimes it seems as if Flaubert is skirting the line between the two.  The over – the -  top language seems to be a reflection of Emma and her pretentious associates’ thoughts, personalities and feelings. Emma is often overemotional, phony and also sees the world in a kind of super - romantic state. Of course, I only read a translation of this book. I chose the Lydia Davis version because it seems to be very respected and multiple reviewers have commented that it is close to the original French. Thus, I feel fairly comfortable commenting on the language used in this book.  A good example of this language occurs when Emma’s lover Leon is waiting for her in a church.

 

At any minute now she would appear, charming, agitated, glancing behind her at the eyes that were following her, —in her flounced dress, her gold lorgnette, her thin little boots, all kinds of elegant refinements he had never tasted before, and with all the ineffable seductiveness of virtue yielding. The church, like a vast boudoir, was arranging itself around her; the vaults were leaning down to gather up, in the shadows, the confession of her love; the windows shone resplendent to illuminate her face; and the censers burned so that she might appear like an angel, amid clouds of perfume.

 

Despite the almost religious nature of the above, Leon’s hypocrisy and shallowness is illustrated when he fails to provide help or much support to Emma when she most needs it. 

 

The entire nature of Emma is at the heart of the book. She has the opportunity to live a comfortable life. Her husband, while not the most interesting man in the world, sincerely loves her, is hard working and is honest.  However, her actions, as well as her thoughts as reflected in the novel’s language, indicate that she has been seduced into believing that she needs to live in world of indulgence and a kind of faux depth. There are obvious connections to romanticism in her outlook. In fact, some have described this book as an attack upon romanticism. Others have described it as a scathing criticism on bourgeois values. I am skeptical of attacks by the elite on the bourgeois or middle class that have been leveled throughout history. However, I think that Flaubert is on to something with his criticism of a certain kind of over - the -  top, fake sophistication. With all that, though I did not live in the time and place that the author did, I suspect that, like today, many people lived life in a state of happy medium between materialism, over -  emotionalism and over - indulgence and more down to earth thoughts and pursuits. However, Emma has lost all sense of that balance. 

 

There is more complexity here however. The humdrum and unromantic life that Emma bristles over is also critiqued. Despite Charles’s virtues, he really is dull and hopelessly naive.  Monsieur Homais seems to represent much of what is bad about of the middle class “average life”. Perhaps, Flaubert is looking toward a happy medium or perhaps he is just being critical of multiples aspects of the human experience. 

 

There is more going on here. For instance, there is an ongoing and debate that spans several years between Homais and the village curate Bournisien. The two men engage in a classic argument between science and rationality on one side and  and spiritualism and faith on the other.  This debate concludes for the reader when both characters eventually fall asleep in the midst of their argument. Obviously, there is much to this conclusion. This also provides one of the best and most amusing passages in the book. 

 

The pharmacist and the curé plunged back into their occupations, not without dozing off from time to time, something for which each would reproach the other every time they woke.

 

 And then a little later. 

 

Homais did not challenge these superstitions, for he had fallen asleep again. Monsieur Bournisien, being more resistant, went on moving his lips very softly for some time; then, imperceptibly, he lowered his chin, let go of his thick black book, and began to snore. They sat opposite each other, their stomachs out, their faces swollen, both scowling, after so much dissension united, at last, in the same human weakness;

 

Flaubert seems to be mocking the over seriousness and repetitiveness of some of these discussions. At the same time, he seems to be illustrating how human commonality, even when it is in the form of weakness, is more important than these philosophical differences. 

 

I will mention that complex characters are not this novel’s strong point. Almost everyone from Emma and Charles to the villagers and Emma’s lovers are close to caricatures. I think that it is fair to describe them as symbols. Because we really get into the Emma's head, there may be hints that there is some real depth underneath, but there are only hints. With all that, the characters are enjoyable to read about. Despite her flaws, at times Emma seems sympathetic and I suspect that many readers want her to find a measure of happiness.

 

This has been called one of the greatest novels ever written. While I would not go that far, I thought that it was fantastic. The plot was engrossing. It bandies about all sorts of interesting ideas.  The characters, m while not all that nuanced were entertaining to read about. The language, even in translation, is grand in a kind of ironic way. For those who like Nineteenth Century literature, I highly recommend this one. 

38 comments:

Kirk said...

I like the comparison of the church to a vast boudoir.

Dorothy Borders said...

I read this in translation so many years ago that I could barely remember the details, but your excellent review brought it all back. I agree with you that there was little depth to the characters. They existed mostly as stereotypes to represent specific points or ideas. That was intentional, I think, and was effective for the author's purpose. Overall, the fame of the novel is well-earned.

JacquiWine said...

I'd like to read the Lydia Davis translation of this. Did you do any comparisons between the different translations before you chose it? It would be interesting to see how they vary...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui- I did just a little side by side comparison between this translation and the Eleanor Marx-Aveling version. I found that translation a little awkward. Comparing translations is always interesting but I guess one would need to know the original language to do a true comparison.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kirk. That was very amusing.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Dorothy. Indeed. Complex characters are not this book’s strong point but they fit well into the world that Flaubert created here.

thecuecard said...

I like the writing and the passages you have included (especially of the church) ... they do sound mocking & amusing. Madame Bovary does look a bit bored on the cover ... nicely reviewed.

Reading Matters said...

Hi Brian, Excellent review. This is a book I really want to read and quite revolutionary for Flaubert to create a 19th century female lead character like Emma Bovary. I can't think off hand of a British Victorian counterpart to Emma who would be allowed to behave as Emma behaves. Also curious when it comes to 19th century novels that we have British classics, French classics, Russian novels but what happened with the rest of Europe during the 19th century in terms of great novels? We have Joseph Conrad but he had to move to England to make his career.

Debra She Who Seeks said...

At that time period in Europe, women were only expected to be (and only allowed to be) uneducated, unproductive, decorative roses in their husband's lapels, their main function to provide sex and babies. Emma Bovary's behaviour is just the extreme consequence and manifestation of that kind of oppressive restriction.

Lark said...

I wish I could remember which version of this one I read years ago because I lucked into a really good translation, and I remember enjoying the writing. And I always thought Emma's story was sad. She never found any real happiness in her life, but I guess that's what happens when you look for it in all the wrong places.

James said...

Excellent review. I read this some time ago and was not impressed. I believe that was due to its apparent anti-romanticism. If I reread it now I might have a better appreciation of his style, especially the use of language that you mention.

mudpuddle said...

i've read ABOUT this book for a long time but haven't actually read it, probably because what i learned from reviews wasn't very interesting... most likely i won't ever read it, as my interests have quite grown away from unresolvable problems such as engrossed Flaubert... comprehensive review, tho, and informative: tx...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Debra - Women were definitely oppressed in the way that you describe. Many writers, women and a few men, did write about it in all sorts of ways. I am just not sure that is what is going on here. Many of the make characters behaved just as badly and in similar ways that Emma does. In real life I also think that such behavior was more common with powerful men.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Susan. She does look bored in that painting. The book does really skewer and mock a lot of things.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy - Emma is an extraordinarily character. Both William Makepeace Thackeray in Vanity Fair and Anthony Trollope in The Eustace Diamonds depicted strong and unethical women but Emma was unique.

It is interesting how creativity seems to flower in particular places and times. It could also be that authors from particular places just got more recognition.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lark - I think that there are a few respected translations of this.

It is true that Emma’s search for happiness was fruitless.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James. Though I took the opinion from others, there is a strong anti - romantic theme to this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Muddpuddle. Unresolvable problems indeed!

Sharon Wilfong said...

I read this some time ago. I remember thinking that Madame Bovary was the quintessential selfish person and also that Flaubert had an extremely cynical eye for people.

Thanks for the great review!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon. Emma is indeed selfish. Flaubert really was cynical, at least here.

Suko said...

I read this many, many years ago, but your review and commentary brought it the novel back to me. This novel is humorous at times. Thank you for taking the time to post such a thoughtful review.

Whispering Gums said...

Another classic that I have not yet read.

I was interested your comment that the characters are more symbols than realistic, and yet that you liked it. I think that can be common in ideas-driven books.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WG - Characters of the type found here are not realistic, but they can really make for it a good book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - The book is very funny at times. I should have talked about that a bit more.

CyberKitten said...

The (unread) copy I have is translated by Geoffrey Wall (1992). Not sure when I'll get around to reading it though! SO many books and all that [grin]. I do intend reading more Classics next year though, but first I really need to finish off my last 2 Jane Austen novels to complete the set. Nice review. You've definitely put this back on the radar for me.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks CyberKitten- I heard the Wall translation was a good one and I considered reading it.

I would definitely finish off the Jane Austen novels.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I haven’t read it, alas! It doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, but I can’t help remembering a very funny short story by Woody Allen in which a middle aged man wants to have a romance with Madame Bovary and gets into a magic trunk with a copy of the novel. Which changes when he appears...

Brona said...

I tried to read this a while back but found Emma to be as excruciating as a Kardashian!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Brona - Though I only know a little about the Kardashians, I do think that they are like Emma.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - I just looked up that sort story. That is very funny.

Carol said...

Hi Brian, I loved the way Flaubert wrote & liked how you described how he exaggerated his prose at times that it was pretentious. I didn't catch that when I read it. I did find M Bovary very hard to put up with at times. She was such an airheaded sort of woman.

Emma said...

To me, this is one of the greatest French novels ever written.

Flaubert makes fun of everyone in this:
- the stupid education Emma had that put silly things in her head,
- Charles and his bovine behavior,
- Homais who thinks he knows everything and is yet dangerously stupid. (Trump dangerous and stupid)
- the clergy with its dumb representative

It's a subversive novel : Emma never feels any remorse for her escapades and that's something scandalous for the times. Never mind that her lovers are callous, she's the one to blame.
She's not even saved by motherhood, another shocking point.

Flaubert is well-known for the care and the work he put into his prose. Not a word is not thought over. So you can be sure that every sentence has a purpose.

I wrote about Madame Bovary here, if you're interested.
https://bookaroundthecorner.com/2013/11/01/a-rebel-with-a-silly-cause/

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - The book really was cynical. As you point out everyone was skewed. Subversive is also a great work, especially in light of other things being written at the time. I have heard about Flaubert’s care in writing this. The language is something else.

I am off to your blog to read your review.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Carol - She really would be terrible to deal with in real life. The language was really incredible.

Judy Krueger said...

Excellent review of a great novel!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Judy!

baili said...

i found this review really compelling dear Brain
i would love to read this if i could find it around here

your introduction to characters, plot and events is remarkable indeed and one wants to dive it no the world created within this novel
i have seen movie with same name in one of the local language but there is no resemblance except name

i believe french has gave birth not to just literature but most complicated characters too which i have began to enjoy now though i still prefer characters like husband of bovary or may be i am born with much laziness to avoid complications that "being complicated person" bring
thank you so much for amazing review i really enjoyed it !
blessings!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili - As this is older free copies of it are available online. If I had to deal with a character in this book, it would indeed be Charles.

Have a great week.