Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert


“We were in Study Hall, when the Headmaster entered, followed by a new boy dressed in regular clothes and a school servant carrying a large desk.”

Emma Roualt has been raised in a convent but during her formative years and religious education, she has somehow managed to get sentimental romance novels smuggled in to her.  When she leaves the convent, the sisters are relieved to see her go as there is some indication that Emma is not the pious, compliant young woman that they were hoping to produce.  Does Emma come by her stubborn and idealistic outlook naturally, or are the novels responsible for corrupting her character?

Soon after Emma returns to her father’s house, she meets the doctor, Charles Bovary, and imagines the feelings of emotion she experiences under his regard, love.  When the first wife of Charles passes away, Emma is happy to become his wife, yet almost immediately begins to wonder why the passionate, overwhelming feelings of a romantic love seem to elude her.  Quite soon she seeks admiration and passion outside her marital relationship, first with Leon Dupuis, a law clerk, and then with the sophisticated Rodolphe Boulanger. Drawn into a web of deceit by her need for a story-like romance, Emma begins an affair, first with Rodolphe and later with a more worldly Leon, who has now spent years in the city and knows how to conduct himself like a truly indulged and hardened man-about-town.  Neither man truly cares for her.  Each is attracted by her beauty and her passionate regard for him, yet soon these shallow emotions begin to unravel and the men tire of their paramour.  Emma, now heavily in debt and still lacking the love and desire that she equates with a meaningful life, decides to take poison and her death culminates in the tragic death of Charles and the sentencing of her daughter to a life of poverty and toil.

The Death of Bovary
Charles Léandre (1931)
source Wikimedia Commons

And so, what can we say about Emma?  She is certainly not a sympathetic character and it seems rather apparent that Flaubert didn’t mean to make her one.  How is responsible is she for her fate?  Does she perpetrate her own demise or is she an unwilling victim of circumstances?

One could certainly make excuses for Emma and say that she was trapped, not only in a simple, colourless and rigid society, but in a loveless marriage (on her part), and in a situation where she had little opportunity for following anything other than the status-quo.  However, Emma had been given an education of a type through the nuns, and though it might not have been wide in its scope, it certainly should have taught her the importance of honesty and virtue and goodness.  Emma chooses to sneak sentimental romances into the abbey to read, just as she chooses to believe what she reads should be the way of life, in spite of the evidence in front of her face against it, and she chooses to have adulterous affairs at the risk of the ruin of her reputation and that of her husband’s.  She also chooses to borrow money, placing her family heavily in debt and, the means of borrowing the money are brought about with deceit on her part to keep her actions hidden.  So I don’t really buy the “poor Emma Bovary, she is a victim of circumstance” excuse.  She keeps her illicit relationships secret, as well as the fact that she is borrowing money, and by the very fact that she does these things covertly, she MUST know that these actions are wrong.  Instead she chooses to do them anyway, for her own selfish emotional gratification and, as we see, she reaps consequences that were perhaps beyond her scope of imagining.

I didn’t dislike this book, but when I read I like to find something that stirs an emotional or an intellectual response, which is part of the conversation with the author.  With Flaubert, while there were certainly moments that sparkled, overall I was left a little flat.  The whole plot was built around a shallow, vain, deluded young girl who was supposedly corrupted early in life by her choice of reading.  No one noticed and, judging by the manner in which Flaubert portrays the setting and characters, even if they did, they perhaps would have done nothing to enlighten her.  While I wanted to pity Emma and make excuses for her, there was something fundamentally wrong with her thinking and the mechanisms she used to process life and the world around her.  Was it due to her reading material, or was she already a damaged person and the books only served to increase the self-serving, emotional fantasy-life that was already expanding within her?  I don’t think we can know.  For me it would have been infinitely more interesting if Flaubert chose to investigate this issue but instead we only see the effect of her delusions without being able to truly surmise the cause.  And that is a tragedy because Emma Bovary deserved a story that generated compassion for her and not distaste and impatience at her emotionally bankrupt behaviour and dramatic actions.  In spite of some spots of brilliance, I feel Flaubert missed a great opportunity and, once again, Emma seems to be the one that pays for it.

Translated by Lydia Davis

Madame Bovary Read-Along Part III

Madame Bovary Read-Along Hosted by ebookclassics &         Cedar Station

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Part III

This is going to be a quick post to finish up my read-along comments before my review.  I’ve been left little time for reading lately, let alone posting, that I’m falling behind!

Honestly, the drama and copious introspection about how and why people commit adultery is getting rather wearying, especially given the limited aspects of Emma’s character.

Her reconnection with Leon Dupuis is telling, as he is no longer the simple, infatuated provincial law clerk but now a sophisticated man-about-town, after his three-year stint in the city.  They begin a passionate affair, yet meanwhile her debts are piling up as she is regularly cheated and manipulated by M. Heureux.  Although Emma still attempts to delude herself into believing she is living a fulfilling life, her spiral downward increases.  For me, the most tragic part in the novel is where Emma, feeling the screws of debt tighten around her, asks for help from a number of people who either try to use her in her desperation, or cruelly turn her aside.  Rodolphe, her former love, rejects her in her need and this final abandonment appears to extinguish any hope.

The Death of Madame Bovary
Albert-August Fourie
source Wikigallery

Finally, rejected by each man she hopes will save her yet neglecting to go to the one who will (Charles), Emma takes arsenic and her death brings further consequences.  Charles is immersed in a grief which finally brings about his death and poor Berthe, their daughter, is condemned to live in poverty and toil.

I must admit I was somewhat glad to see this book come to a close.  I’ll try to gather my scattered thoughts into a coherent review in the next few days.  Many thanks to C.J. at Ebookclassics and Juliana at Cedar Station for being wonderful hosts for this read-along!

Madame Bovary Read-Along Part II

Madame Bovary Read-Along Hosted by ebookclassics &         Cedar Station

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Part II

Well, the change of scenery has improved Emma’s spirits in one aspect, at least ……….. she has found someone to worship her.  Quickly disillusioned with her marriage, Charles is barely thought of as she seeks to satisfy her self-important ego by engaging a worshipful admirer.  Leon Dupuis, a law student, takes one look at Emma and falls in love.  Yet while soaking in his adoration initially, she tortures the young man by springing from flirting with him, to ignoring him, to a nervous ennui.

In spite of giving birth to a lovely little girl, Emma barely gives her a thought as she pursues her idea of  a fulfilling life.  I didn’t get the impression that she despised motherhood, only that she was ill-equipped for it; children must not have been a part of her sentimental novels, and she doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with them, therefore the easiest course is to ignore her daughter.

The operation on Hippolyte had tragic results but gives more insight into the character of Charles; he is entirely well-meaning but not the best judge of human character or circumstances.  He also does not like to face anything unpleasant, which leads us to believe that even if he had insight into Emma’s character, he would not have known what to do with her dalliances and would have retreated from the problem instead of facing it.

Albert Fourié (1885)
source Wikimedia Commons

The scene at the agricultural fair in chapter 8 was an attempt at brilliance by Flaubert.  What irony to have the illicit private seduction of Madame Bovary (by Rodolphe), occur in the middle of the festivities and raucousness of the townspeople during the speeches.   The personal nature of the act contrasted against the backdrop of the merry, yet public celebration added to the tension.  It brought to mind a symphony.

Again, Emma turns to books to justify her emotions.  Lacking a moral compass, she does the only thing she has learned to do, trust her emotions and support her desires with her reading material.  She is in a circular spiral to tragedy but Emma, because of her self-deception, is the least likely to see it.  She is rather a pitiful figure and I wonder if it was Flaubert’s intention to make her so.  Her mood swings, rather than being a psychological manifestation, appear designed to illicit the response that she requires from the person she is engaged with, and the expected response is based on bad plots from sentimental novels.  So far Emma doesn’t appear to be able to realize that, since her relationships do not appear to be going the way she wants or expects, perhaps there is something wrong with her expectations. Instead she attempts force and manipulate all behaviour and emotions to fit into her fantasy world.

Madame Bovary Read-Along Part I

Madame Bovary Read-Along Hosted by ebookclassics &         Cedar Station

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Part I


Charles Bovary:  in Charles we see a character who is conventional, steadfast, responsible, yet with an uninteresting, mundane aspect to his nature, that is readily apparent.  After a short rebellion, while studying for his medical examinations, he passes with a fairly good grade and begins his life as a doctor.  After an arranged marriage (by his controlling mother) with a much older widow, he finds himself attracted to Emma Rouault, the daughter of one of his patients.  When his wife dies, he marries Emma quickly and, while treating her with a dog-like devotion, he does not see deeply enough within her character to truly understand her.  His life is lived in blacks and white and shades of grey; no colour is perceived and this is to his detriment.

Emma Bovary:  how do I describe Emma?  Is she spoiled?  Is she temperamental?  Is she sentimental?  Perhaps she is all these, but her character traits play out through a soul that seems wounded or perhaps, damaged.  Sent to a convent as a young girl to be educated, Emma complies with the rules to a point, but it is evident that she has a natural rebellious streak and the nuns are relieved when she finally returns to the home of her father.  Within the convent she has managed to acquire and adopt a steady diet of romantic, sentimental novels, from which, given her isolated circumstances, she develops a warped understanding of the manner in which life should be lived.  A poetic, dramatic, imaginative fantasy life permeates most of her waking moments and when Charles appears, she fits him into her illusions, hoping he will fill the emptiness inside her.  As a reader, while you can understand the difficulty of her isolation, her complete self-absorption is startling and, as a character, she is not at all sympathetic.

The Bovary’s Wedding Day

After learning about Charles’ childhood, I felt that his character was made up both by circumstances and an inherent ……. well, I’m not sure if I can say “goodness”.  There is a lack of action about him, his inertness perhaps being mistaken for a deeper integrity than he deserves.  I was somewhat disappointed that, because of his first wife’s shrewish character, he allowed himself to become unreasonably infatuated with Emma.  One can only wonder if he will have gotten what he deserves.

Emma’s time in the nunnery appears to have had little affect on her character.  She did not learn patience or temperance or sacrifice.  The explanation as to how she acquired all her romance books seemed a little weak to me, but the affect of their sentimentality is apparent.  I’m not sure that we can blame all of Emma’s character on the romances though; Emma does not appear to want to face reality if it does not correspond with her inner fantasy life.  I anticipate tragic results.

Madame Bovary
Illustration by Charles Léandre (1931)
source Wikimedia Commons

So far, the picture on the right speaks volumes about Emma:  no matter what is happening, no matter if there is upset or happiness or entertainment or silence, Emma Bovary is bored, bored, bored!

Madame Bovary Read-Along

C.J. at Ebookclassics and Juliana at Cedar Station are hosting a Madame Bovary read-along and I am going to be one of the participants.  I think I’ve read this novel before but, as you can see, it’s been so long that I can’t quite remember.

The rules:

Step One:  Sign-up by commenting below or linking to your blog post using the widget.  (Note: Widget will be available on April 1st)

Step Two:  Grab the button and post it to your blog

Step Three:  Make a note of our posting schedule.

Every week either Juliana or C.J. will host a check-in post with thoughts and discussion questions.  Please note the posting schedule below:

        Part One – April 10, 2014
        Part Two – April 20, 2014
        Part Three – April 30, 2014

Step Four:  Twitter Users – Don’t forget to use the hashtag #MadameBovary2014 throughout this event to help other participants find your posts and for informal chats about the book.

Step Five:  Please visit the blogs of your fellow read-along participants and say hello (this post [C.J.’s] will be sticky and the list will be regularly updated).

I’m looking forward to it!