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

12 thoughts on “Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

  1. Why does Emma deserve a different story? She is an invention.

    What ethical responsibility does an author have towards his characters? I know Flaubert's answer (none, none at all), but wonder what other arguments would look like.

    In the spirit of disclosure, I am a reader who has both a strong emotional and intellectual response to Madame Bovary, but only to the book's style, to the writing.

  2. Maybe Flaubert hated Emma and wanted that to come out in his story about her. I almost feel like I remember reading that somewhere during the time that I was reading MB. Maybe she was a resemblance of someone who broke his heart, and he wanted to seek revenge. I don't know. I'm just throwing ideas out there. It would be interesting to find out why he made her unlikable or difficult to sympathize with – although I did sympathize with her.

  3. I always like when you show up Tom because you get me thinking ….. or I should say, thinking more deeply …….

    It's perhaps not that Emma deserves a different story but that I wish Flaubert had given her something in her character or experiences that connected her with humanity. She was a little too corrupted, too sheltered, too dense, too self-centred, too intentionally blind that I feel like I have to either label her as completely outside the realm of reality or feel disappointed that she wasn't given something human to connect her to life, and therefore, this reader. If she had a chance and decided not to take it, that's one thing, but I felt that Flaubert never gave her a chance at all.

    If, as Ruth says, Emma was a re-creation of a hated woman in Flaubert's life, his treatment of her character certainly makes more sense, although I still think she is a little overdone to make a point.

    I can certainly understand having an emotional response to the writing. One of my favourite parts of the novel was when Rodolphe was seducing Emma —- this intimate scene juxtaposed with the public bustle of the agricultural fair was very effective.

  4. I also read somewhere that when people asked him about Emma, he finally replied, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi." Speculations as to his meaning range from the supposition that he had gone through the same struggles as his character and possibly shared some of her traits, to the supposition that he simply wanted people to stop questioning him and therefore gave an enigmatic answer. I don't think we'll know who Emma was (in real life or paper), but perhaps that in itself is what makes her an interesting character.

  5. I did enjoy his style. Madame B. seems to be a book that people either love or hate. While I probably wouldn't read it again, I would like to read another one of his works to compare.

  6. Like you, I find the "realism" of Madame Bovary to be overstated by many people. Flaubert's next novel, Salammbô, is a wild, violent historical novel that is built on lots of real research but also stars a character who resembles Conan the Barbarian. "Realism," huh?

    For a second look at Flaubert, I recommend the novella "A Simple Heart," sometimes found in Three Tales. Many readers (including me) have an easy time connecting with, or at least pitying, the main character, the woman with the supposedly simple heart.

  7. Great post! I agree that it's hard to sympathize with Emma when she chooses to make these destructive choices. Flaubert could have explored some of the issues surrounding Emma's behaviour, but I guess he was more interested in commenting on the type of society that she was living in.

  8. Conan the Barbarian? :-Z I think I'll avoid Salammbô for now. Instead, I'll try to try to track down a copy of A Simple Heart . Thanks for the recommendation, Tom.

  9. Thanks, C.J.! You're right, he certainly does make quite a scathing commentary of that society, only he does it so heavy-handedly that again, I had difficulty accepting it. I felt that he showed a portion of the community that suited his needs to make his point. It was hard to believe that everyone was so unfeeling and harsh and hypocritical towards Emma. Certainly it emphasized her tragedy, it just wasn't completely real to me.

    Thanks for hosting the read-along, C.J. This is certainly a book that generates a lot of discussion!

  10. Great review, I enjoyed reading your opinion of the book. I agree with you as to "self-serving, emotional fantasy-life that was already expanding within her" . There is always some desire luring her on, some convention holding her back. I enjoyed searching for symbols i.e, wedding bouquet (new beginning) or gloves in your glass was a sign to mâitre d'hôtel (no wine for me) or the plaster statue of a priest in her garden that shatters into pieces. (an ominous sign….)

  11. Thanks for pointing out some of the symbolism. Some I noticed but I'm sure there was much I missed. I'm not sure that I'll re-read this book again though …….. Zola has the same themes in his novels but I feel his execution is far superior. You must have a review of Madame Bovary on your blog, so I'm off to find it now to try to glean some more insight. I so appreciate the deep reading you give to your books! 🙂

Thanks for visiting. I'd love to hear from you and have you join in the discussion!