Madame Bovary, c’est nous!

Madame Bovary” is the book I had to read as part of the Classics Club spin hosted by The Classics Club and I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading it. https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/2021/01/30/did-you-finish-your-spin-8/comment-page-1/#comment-18315

My review:

There was once a woman who was obsessed with the idea of love. She had a highly idealized image of romantic love thanks to the sentimental novels she read secretly during her girlhood in her convent school. She also suffered from enormous delusions of grandeur. That woman was Madame Bovary, the creation of Gustave Flaubert who was one of the pioneers of the Realist movement in literature. He is believed to have once declared: ” Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” though there is no actual proof of it in writing. Certainly Flaubert himself knew what it was to pine for someone, to indulge in excessive romantic ideals and to have your heart crushed. But he created a type of character and not just an individual.

Madame Bovary is a timeless character and could represent any woman or man dissatisfied with the cards he or she has been dealt with in life and pursues happiness only to realize that it is nothing but a chimera. In that sense, Madame Bovary could be anyone and everyone- Madame Bovary, c’est moi, c’est vous, c’est nous. She represents the loneliness of the modern soul who chases impossible ideals and fills his or her void with compulsive spending and the acquisition of materialistic things.

Flaubert was charged with blasphemy and obscenity when the novel was first published in serialized form in the ‘Revue de Paris’. The book may seem very tame today but it was revolutionary for the time for depicting a bored housewife who engages in adulterous liaisons. He was eventually acquitted and the novel became a classic that has withstood the test of time. Madame Bovary was the original desperate housewife, the precursor of an entire sisterhood of literary adulteresses.

The motherless Emma Roualt is a beautiful girl raised on a farm who yearns for all the finer things in life. She looks for an escape in marriage but her husband turns out to be a dull and unimaginative man. She also craves wealth and status but he is an unambitious and mediocre country doctor who is barely qualified to be one. He dotes on her but she is irritated by him:

Avant qu’elle se mariât, elle avait cru avoir de l’amour; mais le bonheur qui aurait dû résulter de cet amour n’étant pas venu, il fallait qu’elle se fût trompée, songea-t-elle. Et Emma cherchait à savoir ce que l’on entendait au juste dans la vie par les mots de félicité, de passion et d’ivresse, qui lui avaient paru si beaux dans les livres.” 

Before she got married, she had believed what she was experiencing to be love; but since the happiness that should have resulted from this love had not come, she must have been mistaken, she thought. And Emma tried to understand exactly what was meant in life by the words bliss, passion and intoxication which had seemed to her so beautiful in books.

She has a little girl but she is not the maternal sort and does not feel connected to her. At the Marquis d’Andervilliers’ estate where she secures an invitation to a ball, she realizes that her life is devoid of glamor and excitement. “…. sa vie était froide comme un grenier dont la lucarne est au nord, et l’ennui, araignée silencieuse, filait sa toile dans l’ombre à tous les coins de son coeur. ”  …..her life was as cold as an attic whose small window faces the north, and ennui, the silent spider, was spinning its web in the shadow in every nook and cranny of her heart. She is afflicted with ennui, that insidious bourgeois malady which makes her feel trapped in her limited life. She embarks on two adulterous affairs neither of which bring her lasting happiness. Emma Bovary is also a woman who lives beyond her means. She is extravagant and is quickly crippled by debts. She gets mixed up with L’ Heureux, a ruthless and scheming businessman who loans her sums of money and forces her to sign promissory notes. In the end, she is responsible for the financial ruin of her family.

Her first lover is the worldly but manipulative landowner Rodolphe. At first their clandestine trysts and the sentimental epistles they exchange are thrilling but soon everything becomes routine and Rodolphe breaks off the affair in a letter. She becomes ill and depressed, tries to take refuge briefly in religion and bounces back when Leon, a young law student who was infatuated with her and whose feelings she reciprocated during the early years of her marriage, reenters her life. He is more sincere than Rodolphe and seems to share her appreciation for literature and music. She meets him on a romantic rendezvous every Sunday in the nearby town of Rouen under the pretext of taking piano lessons. But this affair too runs its course. “Elle était aussi dégoûtée de lui qu’il était fatigué d’elle. Emma retrouvait dans l’adultère toutes les platitudes du mariage.” She was as fed up with him as he was tired of her. She had rediscovered in adultery all the banalities of marriage. I think these are my favorite lines from the novel and they summarize the plot succinctly. 🙂

Emma Bovary is considered to be one of the most unlikeable characters in literature. It is not only because she commits adultery and lacks a moral compass. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, another famous literary adulteress also lives according to the dictates of her heart but elicits more sympathy. Although flawed, she is a much more complex character who is more grounded in reality. You can see why it is easy to despise Emma Bovary. She is a narcissistic and selfish woman who puts her needs above everything and everyone else. At first you do see her in a sympathetic light. In the 19th century, a woman’s world revolved around her husband and children. What about those women who were not cut out for marriage and maternity? Besides what choices were there for a woman in a passionless marriage?

The very fact that she chooses to assert herself within the constraints imposed by the society of 19th century France is remarkable. The novel sows the seeds of later feminism by questioning gender expectations and recognizing that a woman can have sexual desires as well. She wants to be more like a man in other spheres of her life too and even starts taking care of the finances. The outcome is tragic nevertheless for women were not financially independent at the time and therefore incapable of escaping from the tedium of their everyday lives.

The title reinforces the fact that women had to efface their individuality. The eponymous heroine is not the only Madame Bovary. There are two Madame Bovarys that precede Emma; her mother in law and her husband’s deceased first wife. The first two Madame Bovarys were discontented with their lives but resigned themselves to their fates. Emma refuses to be circumscribed in the role of a devoted wife, mother and housekeeper. Although I admired Emma for her courage, what irked me personally about her was her inability to reflect and grow. Kitty Fane from Maugham’s The Painted Veil is a shallow and self absorbed woman who is also trapped in a loveless marriage and has an affair, but she shows the capacity for introspection and growth and by the end of the novel you actually start liking her when she finally matures. I wonder if Emma would garner more sympathy if she had a few redeeming features like being a good mother or financially sensible. One thing I don’t get is why adulteresses are almost always portrayed as lacking maternal instinct. Wouldn’t they be more human and fascinating if they were depicted with more nuance? My heart broke for Berthe, her little girl who clamors for her attention but is constantly pushed away.

Emma’s husband is a rather pitiful character. Not only does he turn a blind eye to her affairs, he encourages them inadvertently by his cluelessness. I hoped he wouldn’t find out about her indiscretions not because I cared about her image but I couldn’t bear to think of the heartache he would have to endure. Flaubert carefully chose a name that makes you think of ‘bovine’ for Charles Bovary is doltish and oblivious to everything around him. The story is a means for Flaubert to mock the vulgarity and pettiness of the bourgeois class and he does not spare anyone.

The secondary characters are equally interesting as the principal ones. Homais the pharmacist who lives next door is a deceitful and self -serving pseudo intellectual who encourages M. Bovary to perform an experimental club foot operation on Hippolyte, the stableman that ends up leaving him crippled. Homais shows no remorse but seeks to further his own interests. His bombastic language and the satirical retorts he exchanges with the sanctimonious priest Bournisien provide some comic relief. He reminded me at times of Moliere’s Sganarelle although he has a much more sinister role. He is also the male counterpart of Emma who dreams big like her but ends up achieving what he seeks which she as a woman fails to do.

Flaubert’s style of writing is objective, ironic and humorous. There is a scene where Emma starts feeling guilty for having an affair with Rodolphe. I was convinced she was thinking of her husband but as you keep reading you realize she feels guilty for cheating on Leon, her other lover. His superb use of irony is evident in a long scene at the local agricultural fair where the pompous speech on morality delivered by the councillor is juxtaposed with Rodolphe’s seduction of Emma. The insincere words of the councillor are no different from the insincere words of Rodolphe and before long their sentences cut into each other. Another scene vividly portrayed is the passionate carriage ride that Emma and Leon enjoy secretly through the streets of Rouen; the pace of the vehicle matches the lovemaking inside and the scene reaches its climax with Emma’s hand reaching out to throw scraps of paper she had crushed to the wind.

Flaubert was known for his meticulous attention to detail and the writing style is descriptive and lyrical.

L’amour, croyait-elle, devait arriver tout à coup, avec de grands éclats et des fulgurations, — ouragan des cieux qui tombe sur la vie, la bouleverse, arrache les volontés comme des feuilles et emporte à l’abîme le cœur entier. Elle ne savait pas que, sur la terrasse des maisons, la pluie fait des lacs quand les gouttières sont bouchées, et elle fût ainsi demeurée en sa sécurité, lorsqu’elle découvrit subitement une lézarde dans le mur.

Love, she believed, had to come, suddenly, with great bursts of thunder and lightning flashes, a hurricane from heaven that falls upon your life and turns it upside down, pulls out your will power like leaves and hurls your entire heart into the abyss. She did not know that up on the roof of the house, the rain will form pools if the gutters are blocked, and she would have stayed there feeling safe until she suddenly discovered a crack in the wall.

At the same time you also have amazing one liners: “Elle souhaitait à la fois mourir et habiter Paris.She wanted to die, but at the same time she also wanted to live in Paris.

Emma’s mother in law believes the books she reads should be confiscated from her. Did literature ruin her life? She was probably reading potboilers and not brilliant books like the one penned by her creator. If she had read the book written about her, she would have probably viewed it as a cautionary tale and death could have been averted. Isn’t this the biggest Flaubertian irony of all? The end is inevitably tragic with a description of her long drawn out agony. Everyone knows that Madame Bovary dies. I am not revealing what happens next. All I can say is the ending and especially the last sentence of the book left an awful taste of arsenic in the mouth.

Was it worth it to pursue this ephemeral happiness even if it meant death was the price you pay for it or would it have been better to suffer a slow death in the stifling bourgeois life? The irony is that the woman looking for love is herself incapable of loving and the only person who genuinely loves her is the boring man she marries. Flaubert has portrayed a character who is devastatingly human in her inhumaneness even resulting in a new word in the dictionary called ‘bovarysm ‘ defined as ‘a conceited or romantic conception of one’s own importance.’ Yes, Madame Bovary is as contemporary as classic. Madame Bovary, c’est nous!

  • The translations are all mine.

6 thoughts on “Madame Bovary, c’est nous!

  1. It’s a long time since I read this, but your review makes me want to go back to it. The portrayal of women like Emma and Anna is so complex because it’s through a male lens, and you can’t help being conflicted – you want to cheer them on but you don’t always like them and you fear they will come to a bad end. Great post! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you! You make a very interesting point. We are indeed seeing them through the male gaze. Although recently I read “ The Awakening” by Kate Chopin whose heroine is strikingly similar to Emma Bovary- perceived by society to have a ‘nice’ husband, lacks maternal instinct and suffers the same fate in the end although written by a woman. Maybe there was no other option in the 19th century.

    Like

  3. This is such a great review,I haven’t read MB but my husband is reading it with a friend to brush up his French so now I have an idea of what they’re up to, thank you! I will put it on my next classics club list, the language is gorgeous and the references you make to other literary heroines need exploring!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you! Although a depressing book, I think it is a brilliant piece of literature. The language is superb. Apparently Flaubert chose each word carefully- he wanted the mot juste and you can certainly tell he strove for perfection.

    Liked by 1 person

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