Madame Bovary, written in 1857 by Gustave Flaubert, is the story of Emma Bovary, a married woman who engages in multiple affairs while she piles on debt thanks to her “champagne” tastes. Of course, that is a very simplistic one sentence summary. In truth the story is more complex.
Emma is married to Charles Bovary, a country doctor, who loves her whole-heartedly, is totally devoted to her and completely blind to her faults. She, on the other hand, is completely bored with him. Not long into the marriage she imagines herself with a different husband.
She would ask herself if there might not be a way, by other combinations of fate, to meet some other man, and she tried to imagine what these unrealized events, this different life, this husband she did not know, would be like. None of them resembled her present husband. He might have been handsome, witty, distinguished, attractive, as doubtless, were all the men her old friends from the convent had married. What were they doing now? In the city, with the street noises, the hum of the theaters, and the lights of the ballroom, they were living lives in which the heart expands, in which the senses blossom. But her life was as cold as an attic with northern exposure, and boredom, that silent spider, was spinning its web in all the dark corners of her heart.
Emma’s fall from grace is gradual and occurs over a period of years. The story is tragic from beginning to end. Needless to say Emma has no concept of the idea of contentment. Nothing good comes of her adulterous relationships. In addition to the adultery she also has a spending problem. She manages to bring about the ruination of her household thanks to her boredom and the money lenders who are more than willing to loan with interest. When she cannot pay they are more than happy to extend the loans at even higher interest … until they don’t anymore. It gets very ugly.
Not only is Emma not a good role model for a wife but she would never have won the title “Mother of the Year” either. Her only child and daughter, Berthe, is pretty much ignored and neglected by her mother from day one. How I felt for the young child. The fact that Berthe’s life doesn’t run smoothly is a gross understatement!
After one of Emma’s affairs ends badly (she is abandoned by her lover) she spends close to a year consumed with self pity. I’m talking a pity-party to the extreme! She falls into a pit of despair. She barely leaves her bed, cries and moans and grieves, gets sick, and almost dies. Her poor husband is beside himself with worry never suspecting what is happening. Can you imagine me rolling my eyes, shaking my head, and wishing I could shake some sense into her?
Emma Bovary is without a doubt the most self-centered, narcissistic, unlikeable “heroine” (with absolutely no redeeming qualities), that I’ve encountered in literature. Now, mind you, there might be some with worse character, but so far, based on the books I’ve read, none were more distasteful to me than the doctor’s wife.
On the back of the library copy I read (so glad I didn’t buy it!) there’s a quote from Frank O’Connor, Irish writer (1903-1966),
“possibly the most beautifully written book ever composed; undoubtedly the most beautifully written novel…a book that invites superlatives…the most important novel of the century.”
Needless to say Frank O’Connor and I have very different opinions regarding the story. While parts of the book are indeed “beautifully written” I do not agree with his assessment of Madam Bovary being “the most important novel of the century.” But the book certainly did invite me to use a few “superlatives” when discussing the story.
Gustave Flaubert was accused by the French government of having “committed offenses of outrage against public and religious morality and decency” in the writing of Madame Bovary. He was brought to trial, along with the publishers of the book, which caused quite a sensation at the time. As it turned out all of the parties were acquitted of the charges. To twenty-first century readers it’s hard to imagine that this book would be considered so dangerous of public corruption, especially when compared with some of the books of today!
Times have certainly changed!
Rather than promoting public corruption this story should have the opposite effect. Just look how it turned out for Emma! Of course if you don’t know how it turned out for her, and you’re curious to find out, then you’ll just have to read it for yourself!
I’ve probably said too much already so I’m not saying another word!