Review: Madame Bovary

Posted 30 April, 2013 by Lianne in Books / 6 Comments

Madame Bovary
By: Gustave Flaubert
Format/Source: eBook; my copy

Emma Bovary is beautiful and bored, trapped in her marriage to a mediocre doctor and stifled by the banality of provincial life. An ardent devourer of sentimental novels, she longs for passion and seeks escape in fantasies of high romance, in voracious spending and, eventually, in adultery. But even her affairs bring her disappointment, and when real life continues to fail to live up to her romantic expectations, the consequences are devastating. Flaubert’s erotically charged and psychologically acute portrayal of Emma Bovary caused a moral outcry on its publication in 1857. It was deemed so lifelike that many women claimed they were the model for his heroine; but Flaubert insisted: ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi.’

Some time ago I was on the hunt for some novels featuring a lot of internal drama (one of my favourite topics/facets in novels); someone had mentioned this novel. I’ve been slowly getting around to my classics (this year is shaping up to be the year of French classic literature) and decided to read this book at long last. Contains spoilers ahead!

This book is part of the Books on France Reading Challenge 2013 that I am participating in.

Madame Bovary starts off a little slow–trying to get used to the society in which these characters live in and such–but once the story picks up, it doesn’t let go. Gustave Flaubert really lays out the history and psychology of these characters very well, which makes up half the brilliance of this novel. Emma Bovary is a fully-realised character with all of her flaws and her strengths; I found myself going back and forth between sympathising and pitying her and wanting to throttle some common sense in her. Throughout the course of the novel, Emma finds herself facing disappointment after disappointment, which prompts her to people and activities that fuel further disappointment. It’s a vicious cycle that Emma can’t break from, leading up to her tragic end.

The theme of expectation and reality plays a major role in this novel. Emma’s decisions are fueled by the idea that things will be better after she marries or after she has a child or after she pursues this extramarital affair. Each time she is disappointed that her happiness is not fully achieved and that these things do not reflect the flowery visions she has read from her books. She has never realised or considered the idea that marriage and parenthood requires work or that these extramarital affairs can be only temporary. That sense of disappointment is pretty relatable yet at the same time she sort of struck me as the type of person who doesn’t have a firm sense of reality either, which can be a little frustrating at times. But this also extends to the other characters as well: her husband is quite clueless and passive in thinking that everything is fine between him at Emma and Leon, the lawyer, also comes to realise the reality of pursuing a relationship with Emma, whom he had a rather lofty vision of.

I also found myself wondering whether this book is a cautionary tale for shopaholics. Due to Emma’s frustration and disappointment in her life, she starts channelling those feelings towards her vanity, purchasing more lavish items and giving in to her luxurious tastes despite knowing full well that her husband is but a middle-class, provincial doctor who only makes enough money to live comfortably. Part of her tragic end lies in the fact that her tastes ballooned to the point that she could no longer pay off her debts at a considerable amount of time. It’s sad, but also a good reminder of the importance of moderation as Emma’s excesses are also evident in the way she acted during her affairs and her lack of compromise or reality with her expectations. Her husband is also to blame here; despite feeling bad for the impetuous way that Emma’s treated him at times, he should’ve moderated her expenses rather than indulged her, especially as he’s the one bringing the money in. Talk about poor financing skills =/

I think this is where I was most frustrated with Emma, that culmination between her her failure to compromise and her selfish spending. I mean, yeah, Charles is far too passive, clueless, realising things far too late and presenting no sense of drive or ambition to better himself and his position but I think she never really gave him the full benefit of the doubt that of course he wouldn’t match up with her expectations and gave up on him very easily. I also thought it was very selfish of her to treat him so meanly, that he was repugnant, while spending all of him money *shrugs* But I guess this goes to show just how complex or ambivalent or well-rounded a character Emma Bovary is, complete with her frustrating and tragic characteristics.

I found that the more I went along read this, the more I found myself being reminded of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (review). Both Anna and Emma are unhappy in their lives and the course of their stories end rather tragically, though the comparison ends there. With the way that Emma is unhappy with everything, I get the feeling that Emma is unhappy with herself; I think had she allowed room for a change of perspective, things would’ve ended up differently for her.

Madame Bovary is a wonderful novel that leaves a lot to be contemplated on. This is the second book I’ve read by Gustave Flaubert and his grasp of the human condition and internal drama is wonderful and multi-faceted. If there’s any character I really felt sorry for at the end of the novel, it was Bertha, Emma & Charles’ daughter *le sigh*

Rating: ★★★★☆

Read more about the author on Wikipedia || Order this book from the Book Depository

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6 Responses to “Review: Madame Bovary”

  1. I read it some four years ago and I’m currently – and still -reading Anna Karenina. I do see some similarities, but I think the tone in Madame Bovary is so much intimate while AK is a little bit of a coral novel. I loved Madame Bovary by the way, I think I should revisit it.

    • Mmm, I agree, Madame Bovary is definitely much more intimate since, in comparison, we’re following more than one character/storyline in Anna Karenina. You know, I was thinking whether you had read this book as I was reading it since I was drawing similarities with AK…

      How’s AK going for you?

  2. Madame Bovary was mandatory read in my high school. I remember that I liked it more then Anna Karenina (another mandatory book) but that I could not connect to her. Maybe I was too young… I do remember I also felt sorry for Bertha. Great review!

    • Interesting that both books were mandatory for you in high school! I don’t think my English class would’ve made it if we were required to read AK, lol. I always wondered whether that’s a drawback to having classics mandatory in high school; it’s harder to appreciate some of the character developments and experiences because we don’t fully understand it at the time.


    • It was mandatory for me in college and my first impression was to hate it because I couldn’t connect with Emma at all. I didnt get all the ways she was trapped for a few years and then looked back in it with a better appreciation. It’s a brilliant dissection of a woman that would drive me crazy in real life. I can’t spend time on people who perpetually make destructive decisions, it gives me anxiety.

      • I think it’s definitely a book to read a bit later on, not necessarily when you’re in high school and college because it’s hard to relate to (I think I’d also appreciate Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” but I think I still kind of dislike it because I don’t like stories where any parent essentially abandons their young children. I draw the line there). Haha, but I hear you; thinking back on it now I think if I knew someone like Madame Bovary in real life I’d be exhausted by her.

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