Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

February 7, 2012 Books 14

Preconceived notions.

I had them.

About Madame Bovary.

They were wrong.

This is good. And this is bad.

Firstly, a little bit of a plot summary, as only my twisted brain can put it. Girl grows up, without a mother and a rather indulgent father. She goes to a convent for her schooling, where she learns to read, write, all that lovely stuff. She comes home to her father’s rather large farm and is indulged in her reading of books. HER preconceived notions of love, marriage, and life are formed. A young doctor comes to fix her father’s broken leg. He falls in love with her, Emma, and marriage soon follows. Emma’s preconceived notions do not help her in the love and marriage department. Affairs ensue. Many trysts are arranged (my favorite remains the arbor scene!) (or maybe the carriage ride!). Money is copiously spent. Tragedy, Oh Glorious Tragedy! completes the tableau.

Now, MY preconceived notions. I thought this would be a hard book to read. A realist novel, written in French, translated by Karl Marx’s daughter over 100 years ago, and well, you know, it has a reputation. It caused quite the scandal, even leading to the publisher and it’s author being tried in court “for having offended the Church and public morals. The prosecution argued that the novel challenged public mores, blasphemed against the Church by trying to justify the mortal sin of adultery, and included provocative images intermingled with religious affairs, therefore promoting the concept of a fictional utopia devoid of decency and moral values.” (from MadameBovary.com) And also, many readers had told me just how much a bitch Emma is.

So, can you see where I expected something rather, well, lascivious?

Did I get it?

Well yes, and no.

Andi and I read this together and, as she noted in her review, it is rather “lacking in loins.” No heaving bosoms. Just a woman whom every man seemed to wwaanntt *wink wink*. I quickly found that the scandal itself was much more interesting than what caused the scandal. I understand why it was scandalous, of course, but the story of it, the trial, the success of the book when it was finally released, and how Flaubert based Emma on one of his former lovers (who did NOT appreciate it one bit) was infinitely more interesting. Don’t get me wrong, I really really liked the book, just not the absolute love I was kinda hoping for. The numerous affairs came off as slightly silly to me, especially the carriage ride (side note: wonder if Flaubert based THAT on anything! *snigger*) and Emma beyond silly. She bordered on ridiculous. I could, at least a little bit, understand why she did what she did. The poor girl had nothing to do! The wife of a doctor, with a servant of her own, she had little to do but sit and home all day and mend his shirts, see that dinner was ready, and, what? Read? (I know, I’m slightly jealous too.) At one point, her mother-in-law mentions the girl needs manual labor! I was left wanting to smack her around a little bit, she was so annoying. Yet, somehow, I did enjoy the novel. The writing was just so… readable. Being a translation, of  a book written in the 1800s, and a realist classic, I (preconceived notion here!) expected it to be more difficult. The pages flew, however, and, in that tradition of watching a train-wreck, I couldn’t wait to see what mischief Emma got into next. Of course, reading with my Andi-bug made it so much fun. Our near daily check ins were like a daily gossip fest! I’m so glad I finally gave Madame Bovary a chance.

I’m also really glad I read this after The Doctor’s Wife by M.E. Braddon (my review), seeing as how The Doctor’s Wife is a re-imagining of Madame Bovary’s story. Comparing the two “heroine’s, Isabel from TDW is infinitely easier to take. She is just as silly as Emma, but her silliness comes off as being more air-headed than anything. I got the feeling she didn’t really know what she was doing and was genuinely sorry for all the trouble she wrought. Emma knew EXACTLY what she was doing. She just didn’t care. And she, perhaps, paid a higher price. I’m really glad I read the two together for comparisons.

And yes, that is the cover of the edition I read. Horrible, isn’t it?

Favorite quotes:

At the bottom of her heart, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know what this chance would be, what wind would bring it her, towards what shore it would drive her, if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, laden with anguish or full of bliss to the portholes. But each morning, as she awoke, she hoped it would come that day; she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, wondered that it did not come; then at sunset, always more saddened, she longed for the morrow.

Love, she thought, must come suddenly, with great outbursts and lightnings,–a hurricane of the skies, which falls upon life, revolutionises it, roots up the will like a leaf, and sweeps the whole heart into the abyss.

An infinity of passion can be contained in one minute, like a crowd in a small space.

She was not happy–she never had been. Whence came this insufficiency in life–this instantaneous turning to decay of everything on which she leaned? But if there were somewhere a being strong and beautiful, a valiant nature, full at once of exaltation and refinement, a poet’s heart in an angel’s form, a lyre with sounding chords ringing out elegiac epithalamia to heaven, why, perchance, should she not find him? Ah! How impossible! Besides, nothing was worth the trouble of seeking it; everything was a lie. Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a curse, all pleasure satiety, and the sweetest kisses left upon your lips only the unattainable desire for a greater delight.

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14 Responses to “Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert”

  1. Aarti

    I really liked this book, though it's been a long time since I've read it. I've really enjoyed your and Andi's discussion on it- brings it back to mind very quickly! May be time for a reread- perhaps I'd enjoy the humor more.

  2. Chris

    I have to admit that I'm still terrified of this book and books like it :p Classics in general just scare the bejeezus out of me, lol. So honestly I'm not likely to read it soon but I'm glad you enjoyed it!!

    • Heather

      Don't be scared Chris!! Classics are still around for a reason, you know. Because they're good! Or scandalous. Or, you know, at least slightly relevant. Anyway, you should give it a try. As I say to my kids, "try it, you might like it!" and then I have a little more food to cook you. :D

  3. Amanda

    Well you already know how much I hated this book. I didn't find it difficult to read or anything, readability-wise, but GAH I hated Emma! I kept begging for what I knew must come at the end to hurry up and come already, and I was so relieved when it did. I think I actually said out loud "oh thank god now the book can end" for which Jason sniggered at me. :D

    Having said that, though, I did find this a very interesting book to study after reading. Far more interesting to study than to read!

    • Heather

      Oh Amanda, I think it's been WELL documented, your hatred of this book! ;P I'm sniggering that Jason sniggered at you.

      And yes, i think I found the backstory more fascinating than the actual book!

  4. Andi

    EXCELLENT review, dahling! You've done quite a smashing job with it. I snorted a couple of times reading this. That carriage! That arbor!

  5. bermudaonion

    I have the same preconceived notions you did. It sounds like I need to get over them and try this book.

  6. Kailana

    I am not sure if I will ever read this book. There are just too many choices in the classics world, but one never knows.

    Let me know when you are ready for a classics break and I will pull Rothfuss off the shelf. :) (Although, then you might need a break from chunskters. I am in no rush.)

    • Heather

      Oh I will be ready very, very soon. I'm feeling the pull. I need some fantasy, after all this realist fiction I'm reading!

  7. Amanda

    That is so cool you two read it together. I can see how you'd be sniggering together – now I want to read it. I understand that I'd probably not LOVE the book either (who can with an, ahem, unlikeable character) but the whole scandal around it all sounds rather interesting. And I want to know what scenes you are talking about :) The cover is rather awful.

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