Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

madamebovary“Madame Bovary”… recalls “bovine”, doesn’t it? That’s what I thought when I heard the head of the Literature department at UCSC, Vlad Godzich, giving a lecture on it. The connotation is not an accident – the theme of romance mixing with, and being overcome by reality is the main theme of the novel. This is the story of a farmgirl (Emma) who dreams of mixing with high society and traveling the world, but she ends up getting married to a provincial doctor (Bovary) who healed her father’s leg. She is confronted with the mundane at every event in her life. She reads romantic books, overspends her husband’s money, and engages in two love affairs which lead to her ruin.

I got the Lydia Davis translation because it’s modern (copyright 2010) and written by a woman, and the story is about a woman, so I thought she might tell the story really well. I don’t have any other translations to compare it to, but it read pretty smoothly. It’s not super-poetic, but I’m not sure if that’s the work or the translator. The language is very realistic, even in the flightier passages you still feel like you’ve got one foot stuck on the ground. In my opinion, the writing is okay. I wasn’t swept away by it but I didn’t have to force myself to read it either.


I have the Penguin Drop caps edition which is really pretty and has this quotation on the back: “We should not touch our idols: their gilding will remain on our hands.”


This quote appears when Madame Bovary is getting tired of her lover Leon, thinking that he’s “incapable of heroism” “weak” “ordinary, softer than a woman, and also greedy and timid” (333). When they were apart, she thought she really loved him, but since they’ve been spending so much time together she’s beginning to see his flaws. In the quote, the “gilding” is the golden image of the loved one and becoming over-familiar causes it to “come off” as more weaknesses become visible. Funnily enough, it’s used on the back cover to sell the book, as if to say: “Flaubert is such a great writer that if you read this novel, some of his talent will rub off on you,” but in the book it means, “If you get too close to someone you idolize, you’ll realize that they were only gilded, not made of gold.” I guess you could argue that it’s just a good quote and they didn’t mean to take it out of context, but if it is intentional it’s actually kind of clever.

Books themselves are a huge theme in Madame Bovary. Her mother-in-law complains that Mme. Bovary’s mind is rotted because she’s read too many of them. “Reading novels, evil books, books against religion that make fun of the priests with speeches from Voltaire. But all of that has its effect, my poor child, and a person that has no religion often comes to a bad end,” she says, which is hilarious because she turns out to be right. [Spoiler: Emma ends up killing herself with rat poison; even the romance of suicide fails her and she dies a long, painful death that lasts a couple of hours or a day and involves a lot of bloody vomit] Emma and Leon bond over the way books can express one’s inner feelings better than one could oneself, and it’s one of the things that spark their romance.

This line confused me a little bit: “In Eugene Sue, she studied descriptions of furnishings; she read Balzac and George Sand, seeking in them the imagined satisfaction of her own desires. She would bring her book with her even to the table, and she would turn the pages while Charles ate and talked to her.” She reads books… to learn about furniture? What. Does she think that having fancy things in her home will bring extraordinary experiences to her? These are the two things that destroy her though – money and love – so I guess it makes sense that those are the things in books which tempt her.

This passage is beautiful: “Then she recalled the heroines of the books she had read, and this lyrical host of adulterous women began to sing in her memory with sisterly voices that enchanted her. She herself was in some way becoming an actual part of those imaginings and was fulfilling the long daydream of her youth, by seeing herself as this type of amorous woman she had so envied.” He’s kind of making fun of her, but it’s also pretty realistic; you can see how someone could get caught up in these kinds of daydreams, especially since most of the adventurous (or mischievous) stories were written about in the domestic sphere. Reading is a bourgeois creative outlet for Madame Bovary, but it feeds her romanticism and boredom with everyday life. It makes me wonder if she would have benefitted from a hobby, or some female friends… but that probably wouldn’t have satisfied her.

Flaubert is very aware of male privilege for a male writer. He does a good job of getting into his heroine’s head. In this quote, Madame Bovary is thinking about her soon-to-be born child: “She wanted a son; he would be strong and dark, she would call him Georges; and this idea of having a male child was a sort of hoped-for compensation for all her past helplessness. A man, at least, is free; he can explore every passion, every land, overcome obstacles, taste the most distant pleasures. But a woman is continually thwarted. Inert and pliant at the same time, she must struggle against both the softness of her flesh and subjection to the law. Her will, like the veil tied to her hat by a string, flutters with every breeze; there is always some desire luring her on, some convention holding her back.” The big difference between Flaubert and modern-day feminists, though, is that he attributes the source of these limitations to the body as well as society.

The pharmacist, Monsieur Homais, turns out to be the true villain of the story. Bovary is not a very good doctor, in fact he’s not technically a doctor, but an officer of health. Homais, the pharmacist, has been prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license, but for some reason he’s really protective of his side business to the point that he tries some pretty sketchy means to get competing doctors to leave town. Homais exhorts Bovary to try a really dangerous procedure: fixing the innkeeper’s servant’s club foot. The servant, Hippolyte, says the club foot doesn’t really bother him, but Homais tells Bovary that if the operation succeeds, he could make a name for himself. Homais’s pressure eventually succeeds, and the operation happens, resulting in a horrific infection. The priest comes to help Hippolyte through prayer, but Homais shoos him away: “Leave him alone! You’re destroying his peace of mind with your mysticism.” Homais gives a long speech earlier about how he believes in God as seen through nature but he hates priests because all they’re after is parishioner’s money, however, his act of chasing away the priest is hypocritical because he stands to gain financially from Hippolyte’s death, since if he died Bovary would leave town and he would have all the patients to himself. Still, Homais has a comic aspect to his character – he loves to give long speeches without paying attention to whether his audience is actually listening. A lot of times while he’s talking another character will yawn or try to change the subject, but he just keeps on going, whether he’s talking about religion or medicine or whatever. He’s a pretty wealthy character and has three or four children, so you can kinda see how that level of privilege translates into that always-right all-important mentality which is just makes you want to roll your eyes when you encounter it in real life.


This is one of his rants:

I do have a religion; in fact, I have even more than any of them, with their masquerades and their hocus-pocus. Unlike them, I worship God. I believe in the Supreme Being, in a Creator, whoever he may be, I don’t really care, who has put us here on earth to perform our duties as citizens and family men; but I don’t need to go into a church and kiss a silver platter and reach into my pocket to fatten a pack of humbugs who eat better than we do! Because one can honor him just as well in a forest, in a field, or even by gazing up at the ethereal vault, like the ancients. My own God is the God of Socrates, Franklin, Voltaire, and Beranger. I favor The Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar and the immortal principles of ’89. I cannot, therefore, accept the sort of jolly old God who strolls about his flower beds cane in hand, lodges his friends in the bellies of whales, dies uttering a groan and comes back to life after three days: things absurd in themselves and completely opposed, what is more, to all physical laws; which simply goes to show, by the way, that the priests have always wallowed in a shameful ignorance in which they endeavor to engulf the people of the world along with them.

Speaking of embarrassing levels of edgy, Emma’s first suicide attempt is thwarted by two mundane things: the droning sound of her neighbor Binet using his lathe and the maid coming to call her to dinner. This reminds me of a kid acting all superior to other players in a video game and then his mom calls him down to do the dishes. They’re both swept away by drama… and then harshly brought back to reality.

I think it’s great that even though the book is making fun of Emma most of the time, she stays relatable. It never flies off into satire, it remains totally realistic. It’s a great accomplishment, but at times it’s kind of boring. If I want to see real life, I can look around me, but I go to novels for *romance* and *adventure* and stuff I don’t normally see… then again, in this book I did read about some things that were unfamiliar to me, like everyday life in France in the mid-1800s and the nature of adultery. I learned that in that time period children were sent away to a wet nurse for the first couple of months so that the mother could rest, that there’s a tree called a manchineel that is toxic and causes blisters if you stand under it during a rainstorm, and that home goods and medical care were a lot harder to come by then than they are now.

This book is interesting, but I wouldn’t say it’s required reading. It’s certainly good for a couple laughs and thrills, but a lot of its messages are kind of obvious in our modern age. Apparently it set a lot of precedent for the modern novel, but I’m not sure what that precedent was exactly. Maybe the “poetry” Vladimir Nabokov heard got lost in translation?

Rating: ☆☆☆✮✮


One thought on “Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

  1. That’s an interesting, insightful and very modern perspective.

    I think it is worth bearing in mind that this was Flaubert’s first published novel and that he was experimenting with a new manner of storytelling which intentionally moved away from the epic, mythic and melodramatic to turn a more focused eye on the mundane.

    The intent, however, is not merely to document reality, but to permit the reader to enter into an experience which is recognisable and empathic and through that to reach some sense of the truth of a story too small in scale to be treated in any other way.

    Yet in many other ways it treats of huge themes relating to narcissism, social isolation and the failure of the ‘fairytale ending’ that marriage at the time was supposed to furnish women with.

    You refer to her interest in reading about furniture and actually that is one of the beautiful, if painful, moments of irony in the book. Emma’s life is essentially meaningless and empty of purpose, despite the fact that it is filled with fine furnishings and beautiful objects. That books and furnishings are thus conflated is no mere accident, surely.

    But you are right that he makes fun of her ~ as he makes fun also of Rodolphe (remember the agricultural show?) But Flaubert himself wrote in a letter, “The irony does not detract from the pathetic aspect, but rather intensifies it. In my third part, which will be full of farcical things, I want my readers to weep.”

    And that, I think , is the point.

    Equally, your viewpoint reflects very accurately a great deal of the kind of response that Flaubert generated at the time and still does. Henry James wrote, “Our complaint is that Emma Bovary, in spite of the nature of her consciousness and in spite of her reflecting so much that of her creator, is really too small an affair.”

    Certainly, to use prosaic terms, Madame Bovary isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. However, I do think it is worth acknowledging what Flaubert was trying, for even if, in the last analysis, you don’t think he achieved it.

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