Back to the Classics Challenge 2015 · Books

Reading Goals 2015: Sixth Book Review

I’m halfway through the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge  now that I’ve finished my sixth book. This book, Madame Bovary falls under the category of A Classic With a Person’s Name in the Title.

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

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!

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5 thoughts on “Reading Goals 2015: Sixth Book Review

  1. I only skimmed through your review because I am planning to read this book soon. Not too sure how much I'm looking forward to it, though, after reading this. haha! 🙂
    Maybe the fact that I own a beautiful copy will help me through this one.

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  2. A beautiful copy is motivation enough to read! Like you, I avoided reading reviews of it before I read it. I did see quite a few positive reviews on Goodreads as well as people who said they've read it x number of times. As always, it's each to his own. I'll be anxious to see what you think of it.

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  3. Linda. I lost a long comment I wrote yesterday.
    I told you that I enjoy real readers reviews the most. We don't write reviews to impress anyone, or as homework, we just read and comment.
    I have only seen a great movie adaptation and know the story line, which does not make me loose interest in a book, but in this case it might. I am still curious about how beautiful his writing is too. Books are a conglomerate of qualities that make them or break them. Then, as one book reviewer and reader wrote, there is bad literature, and good literature “I hate”, he said. I agree with him, this may be a great literature title we may, -if not hate-, not love much either.
    I believe it is still inside a moral code, not postmodern. Maybe he also thought about men, and wanted to show them how many women who grow up immature and spoil can be (no matter how beautiful). It has a place and a value. Do we want to read it? That's a different question. We have to see if it enriches us somehow. Nowadays we have so many books with characters like Madam Bovary, I thought about Anna Karenina too, and looking at dates, Karenina was published on 1878, so this one precedes it. I also think the attempts to ban it happened because Flaubert wrote a book that criticized the apparent harmony of French society, and many believe that reading about a bad behavior promotes it. And it could be the case, but I find it, like you Linda, quite the opposite. The last book about marriage and more I read, Fortunata y Jacinta, like this one, instead of promoting adultery show you the ugly consequences and ramifications of it. Reading is wonderful, talking about books too 🙂

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  4. I also meant to say that, though I am a believer in good translations, and optimist, many times, the style of a book and what it evokes can be lost in translation.

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  5. The “lost in translation” is so true. I didn't spend time researching which translation to read. I simply read what my library had available. I didn't want to know too much about the book before I began reading it either. I knew the general gist of the book but no details before I began. And the more I got to know Emma the less I liked her. At one point I considered not even finishing it because she was driving me crazy, but the hope that she would wake up and change her ways made me continue forward.

    By the final chapters I was almost irritated and wishing I'd never even started the book. Yes, there are some beautifully written passages but overall, in the grand scheme of things I feel this book was more of a waste of my time rather than enriching!

    I didn't like the character or personal story of Anna Karenina either but there were other characters and stories within in the book that were inspiring and edifying. When I finished that one I wasn't left feeling as empty as I did upon finishing this one.

    Each to his own I guess! LOL

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