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Madame Bovary (Oxford World's Classics)

Madame Bovary - Mark Overstall, Malcolm Bowie, Margaret Mauldon, Gustave Flaubert Reading (and re-reading) the 10 best novels of the 19th century.

Part 2: Madame Bovary

This is another book that I moaned and complained through (see Part 1: Anna Karenina), and indeed for many of the same reasons. The burgeoning bourgeois culture of mid 19th century France is about as unrelateable to a post-modern reader as the courting culture of Tsarist Russia. In fact, Madame Bovary capitalizes on many of the same themes as Anna Karenina. Both deal with dissatisfied wives of humdrum middle class husbands who indulge in romantic fantasies of “the perfect life” much to their inevitable disappointment. Unfortunately for Mr. Flaubert (though I hear he was quite meticulous with his choice of wording) the Project Guttenberg translation I read was nowhere near as poetic as Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of the Russian Anna Karenina. As such, I’m forced to evaluate Bovary on plot and character development alone with many of the vagaries and frustrations of a somewhat clunky interpretation marring what I’m sure were some profound subtleties given the place of honor this book holds in the pantheon of classics.

Madame Bovary is credited with being the first in a long line of realist novels in the French and English tradition and certainly the novel is almost condescendingly scathing towards the romantic values embraced by the bourgeoisie in mid-century France. The story’s titular character is the daughter of a farmer, raised, in the absence of a mother, on secular novels that glorified high-flown and romantic notions of love and marriage. As such, Emma Bovary’s life is one of such high expectations that her well-intentioned but rather dull husband Charles cannot possibly hope to fulfill. Set in the rural north of France, Flaubert makes use of the dirty day-to-day life and scrapes for survival to contrast with Emma’s imaginings of the exciting society life she thought marriage would open to her. She gradually begins to find “normal” life unbearably monotonous and a bit of a bummer, all the more so after she and Charles attend a ball where the glamor she expects in every day of her existence is put on highlight, like a tantalizing dream that she is forced to withdraw from. The experience leaves her feeling ill and Charles suggests a relocation to a larger, but still rural town that may satisfy some of the longings his wife is experiencing. This shift works for a little while, but the old disappointments sink in again and Emma again finds her life, her marriage, even her newborn child to be unbearably boring and unfulfilling. It is at this stage in her life that she begins to cast about for the romance and feeling she craves beginning a long cycle of seduction and overspending that ultimately proves just as hollow as her serious attempts at marriage earlier in life.

What’s powerful about Madame Bovary is the painful recognition one gets when watching Emma’s decline into madness, for lack of a better term. Just as in Anna Karenina, the author just finds the right words to identify sidelong feelings that we’ve all experienced, to one extent or another, and then gives their characters the “madness” to follow up on them and make of them something more powerful and meaningful than we logically do (or is it for lack of courage?) then shows us the consequences. There is a bit of Anna and Emma in all of us (“Madame Bovary, c’est moi,”as Flaubert says). I think the one thread that still makes both of these novels somewhat readable and identifiable to us in America (bastion of the shrinking middle class, but home to millions who aspire to be in its ranks with all of its values and worldviews) is the degree to which we still cling to romantic notions of what love should be like, what life should be like, what religion should be like. And how is that exactly? ALWAYS fulfilling, exciting, and captivating. The slightest hint of tediousness, banality, ennui or normalcy and (gasp!) something must be wrong. Our lives must be re-examined, we must make a change, we must fix the problem. We see this trait particularly in Emma who seems to have a delusional, but again, identifiable, belief that changes in her life will bring her a greater sense of fulfillment. “I’ll be happy when I get married! No, wait - I’ll be happy when I have a child! No, that’s not it...” The result of course is that you spend your life (“I’ll be happy when I can finally retire!”) waiting for contentment that you should perhaps find in what you already have.

Flaubert for his part seems scornful of everyone and everything, albeit indirectly. Like Tolstoy, he doesn’t criticize or condemn Emma’s choices or lifestyle directly in the text, a failing the French authorities thought bordered on the licentious and tantamount to glorifying her adulterousness. Frankly, only the prissy sensibilities of 19th century Europeans could think that he condones her lifestyle when you see the trouble he heaps upon her for her naiveté and overly sentimental view of the world. Her pursuit of pure love and excitement causes an overstimulation that first her lovers, then ultimately she feels, leading to dissatisfaction even in her “glorious” pursuits. Likewise, Flaubert seems condemning of the coldly rational scientific realism that and neoclassicism that preceded and followed the Romantics. Exhibit A: the bumbling, stupid, idiotic chemist Homais, who, for all his reading of Rousseau and atheistic philosophy has no more meaningful a life than Emma in his vain pursuits of intellectual and professional recognition, which, ironically he rather hollowly achieves.

Sigh. This was a pain to get through to be honest. Perhaps in the original French, it is utterly captivating and I’m quite sure it could be as good as everyone says. I find it hard to weigh its rather weighty and significant merits (its stark and meticulously thought out realism and character development) with the poor packaging in which I was forced to read it. My recommendation: spring for a good translation or learn some French and you’ll enjoy this book a whole lot more than I did. There’s a lot here and it is well deserving of the recognition it gets.