Castigated for offending against public decency, Madame Bovary has rarely failed to cause a storm. For Flaubert’s contemporaries, the fascination came from the novelist’s meticulous account of provincial matters. For the writer, subject matter was subordinate to his anguished quest for aesthetic perfection. For his twentieth-century successors the formal experiments that underpin Madame Bovary look forward to the innovations of contemporary fiction.
Flaubert’s protagonist in particular has never ceased to fascinate. Romantic heroine or middle-class neurotic, flawed wife and mother or passionate protester against the conventions of bourgeois society, simultaneously the subject of Flaubert’s admiration and the butt of his irony – Emma Bovary remains one of the most enigmatic of fictional creations.
Flaubert’s meticulous approach to the craft of fiction, his portrayal of contemporary reality, his representation of an unforgettable cast of characters make Madame Bovary one of the major landmarks of modern fiction.
I first read ‘Madame Bovary’ for my degree in Literature and Language. When I saw that lovely book blogger Jade at Scatterbooker was attempting the David Bowie reading challenge, I was thrilled to see so many of my favourite books on the list, including this one, and decided to join in. I didn’t need much of an excuse to revisit ‘Madame Bovary’ – for me it is one of those books that teaches you so much, whether you’re a reader or a writer, but especially if you’re a writer.
Charles Bovary is dull. He manages to qualify as a doctor and is married off to a wealthy widow who soon dies. He meets Emma Rouault – the daughter of a patient – and falls in love. Emma is bored with life. She has dreams and fantasies, mostly concocted from reading, and she yearns for a life of beautiful clothes, dancing at balls, rides in carriages, socialising with the nobility. This may not seem much to aim for by today’s standards, but for Emma these dreams offer an escape from the mediocrity and limitations of everyday life, particularly for a woman. Stupidly, she thinks that Charles can offer her what she wants. Once she becomes Madame Bovary however, she soon realises that life as the wife of a provincial doctor is boring and dull.
She has affairs, acts selfishly and thoughtlessly, spends too much money, has no interest in her child. All in all she should be the villain of the piece. But Flaubert’s mastery lies in the fact that as a reader you are conflicted. Yes, I want to shake Emma, particularly for the sake of her child, but I also feel sympathy – this is the lot of women, to never fulfil their dreams, to be criticised and marginalised. Emma could be so much more, but society pigeonholes her, and when she refuses to conform, she is destroyed, or at least destroys herself. She isn’t likeable, by any means, in fact she is, on many levels, a thoroughly horrible person – but was she destined to be that way? Was she made that way by her situation, and the situation of women in general?
It’s not an easy read, but it is definitely a novel that should be read. And if you are a writer, Flaubert offers you here a masterclass in the art of characterisation – never will you feel so conflicted about a character, or so devastated at an ending and at the sheer waste.
I’ll be honest, some of the reviews on Amazon make me want to spit. Ignore them, and read this. It’s wonderful.