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.