Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

June 10, 2012

Plot summary (from the publisher): When Emma Rouault marries dull, provincial doctor Charles Bovary, her dreams of an elegant and passionate life crumble. She escapes into sentimental novels but finds her fantasies dashed by the tedium of her days. Motherhood proves to be a burden; religion is only a brief distraction. She spends lavishly and embarks on a series of disappointing affairs. Soon heartbroken and crippled by debts, Emma takes drastic action with tragic consequences for her husband and daughter. When published in 1857, Madame Bovary was embraced by bourgeois women who claimed it spoke to the frustrations of their lives.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • Emma Bovary, while not likable or sympathetic, is nevertheless a wholly compelling character. Her plight has resonated with me ever since I first read this book in high school, and since we both share an affinity for literature, I have long viewed her as a cautionary tale to prevent myself from putting too much faith in romantic notions.
  • The extended carriage ride with Leon, in which the two consummate their affair, is probably the most famous scene in this entire novel — and deservedly so. While Emma’s previous dalliance with Rodolphe was described as little more than her “yielding” to him, Flaubert goes all out (for 1857 I mean) here and says the carriage was rocking wildly back and forth. Wow.
  • I love Flaubert’s writing style, especially the way he often gave readers glimpses into the characters’ heads. For example, it was brilliant that we were allowed to hear Rodolphe’s self-congratulatory remarks as he wrote his “Dear Jane” letter to Emma. He deliberately chose words that he knew would appeal to her romantic fancies, and by doing so, showed that he understood precisely what she was all about.
  • I thought it was a nice touch that Flaubert showed people coming out of the woodwork after Emma’s funeral to claim that she owed them money. At that point, with her character so thoroughly assailed, what could Bovary do but pay up? It was kind of ironic that Emma had forged receipts to those various merchants, not to keep up her gold and diamond supply, but to serve her ends in allowing her to go see Leon whenever she wanted — and now they were extracting real money out of Bovary for it.
  • The arsenic eating scene was horrific. I always thought of people being “slipped” arsenic in a drink or something, with a tiny quantity sufficing to do the deed. So to have Emma just shove a handful of the stuff in her mouth was pure craziness and showed the depth of her despair.

Disliked:

  • There’s not much to dislike about this book, but if I had to choose one thing, I’d say I wish Charles wasn’t such a sad sack. He was every bit as dull and useless as Emma made him out to be — which almost (but not quite) justifies Emma’s affairs.

Rating:

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert is one of my favorite novels of all time. I loved it as a teenager, loved it in my 20’s, and still love it after another decade of life has passed me by. The book is wonderfully written and contains memorable characters as well as unforgettable scenes. I give this one 5 stars out of 5.

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