Madame Bovary (1856) was the French writer Gustave Flaubert’s first novel.
The story focuses on a doctor’s wife, Emma Bovary, who was a bit of a tramp, had affairs, and lived way beyond her means.
She was trying to escape the banalities of her life in provincial France.
Seriously, what’s a girl to do?
The simple plot belies the true art of the book. Details and hidden patterns make it a literary dream, Flaubert’s perfectionism kept him in search of the perfect phrase or word for each scene, story, and line.
I envy the man his dedication and ability.
I’d love to write that way!
When it was first serialized in La Reveu de Paris in 1856, it was quite the scandale!
Flaubert was accused of obscenity and corruption which resulted in a trial.
You know it had to be shady; this was France for Pete’s sake!
Of course, since there really is no such thing as bad press, for a book at least, it became a bestseller when it was published in a single volume in 1857.
Now considered a masterpiece, and the seminal work of Realism, it is considered one of the most influential novels every written.
Take that Melville!
It is the blue print for the romantic novel, but it is not a Romance novel to be sure.
It’s a classic.
Madame Bovary takes place in provincial northern France, near the town of Rouen.
The story begins and ends with Charles Bovary, kindhearted man without much ability or ambition.
As the novel opens, Charles is a shy, oddly dressed teenager arriving at a new school amidst the ridicule of his new classmates. Later, Charles struggles his way to a second-rate medical degree and becomes an officier de santé in the Public Health Service. His mother chooses a wife for him, an unpleasant but supposedly rich widow named Heloise Dubuc, and Charles sets out to build a practice in the village of Tostes now called Totes, as in “totes my goats”.
One day, Charles visits a local farm to set the owner’s broken leg, and meets his client’s daughter, Emma Rouault. Emma is a beautiful young woman who has received a “good education” in a convent and who has a latent but powerful yearning for luxury and romance.
Translation: She read too many novels.
Charles is immediately hot for her, and begins checking on his patient far more often than necessary until Heloise’s jealousy puts a stop to the visits.
But, alas, Heloise dies, Charles waits a decent interval, then begins courting Emma in earnest. Her father gives his consent, and Emma and Charles are married.
At this point, the novel begins to focus on Emma.
Charles means well, but is boring and clumsy, and after he and Emma attend a ball given by the Marquis d’Andervilliers, Emma grows disillusioned with married life and becomes dull and listless.
Translation: she’s hot for the Marquis.
Charles, no fool, consequently decides that his wife needs a change of scenery, and moves from the village of Tostes into a larger, but equally bucolic market town, Yonville.
Emma gives birth to a daughter, Berthe. She’s a lousy mother, and motherhood proves to be as disappointing to her as she is to it!
She then becomes infatuated with one of the first intelligent young men she meets in Yonville, a horny, young law student, Léon Dupuis, who seems to share her appreciation for “the finer things in life”.
Translation: Warning, naughtiness to follow.
He also returns her admiration. Out of fear and shame, however, Emma hides her love for Léon and her contempt for Charles, and plays the role of the devoted wife and mother, all the while consoling herself with thoughts and self-congratulations for her own virtue.
Finally, in despair of ever gaining Emma’s affection, Léon comes to his senses, and heads out for Paris, presumably to study.
Translation: better chance of getting some in Paris.
Alas, a rich roué and landowner, Rodolphe Boulanger, brings a servant to the doctor’s office to be bled.
He spots smokin’ hot Emma and decides she is ripe for seduction.
He invites her to go riding – supposedly for her health!
Oldest trick in the book!
Charles, the husband, being a second rate doctor and obviously clueless about women, loves the idea and suspects nothing.
Emma and Rodolphe embark upon a four-year affair. Swept away by romantic fantasy, Emma risks compromising herself with indiscreet letters and visits to her lover, and finally insists on making a plan to run away with him.
He of course, has no intention of carrying Emma off, and ends the relationship on the eve of the great elopement with an apologetic, self-excusing letter delivered at the bottom of a basket of apricots.
Translation: texting and tweeting weren’t around for another 150 years.
The shock is so great that Emma falls deathly ill, and briefly turns to religion.
What else is a convent girl to do?
Later on, a nearly recovered Emma attends the opera with Charles.
The opera reawakens Emma’s passions, and as luck would have it, Léon , now educated and working in Rouen, just happens to be an opera fan.
Translation: They pick UP where they left off.
Charles believes that she is taking piano lessons.
Is this guy clueless or what?
Emma travels to the city each week to meet Léon, always in the same room of the same hotel, which the two come to view as their “home.” The love affair is, at first, ecstatic; then, by degrees, Léon grows bored with Emma’s neediness and general carzy.
She becomes ambivalent about Léon, who becoming more like the mistress in the relationship, compares poorly, at least we can infer, to the rakish and domineering Rodolphe.
Translation: mediocre in the sack.
Meanwhile, Emma, given over to vanity, goes on a spending spree buying luxury items on credit from the crafty merchant and dirt bag, Lheureux,
He arranges for Emma to get power of attorney over Charles’ estate, the credit card bills mount UP!
When Lheureux calls in Bovary’s debt, Emma pleads for money from several people, including Léon and Rodolphe, who both said, “Ah, no.”
In despair, she swallows arsenic, dies an agonizing death, and even the romance of suicide fails her.
Charles, heartbroken, abandons himself to grief, preserves Emma’s room as if it is a shrine. Starts taking on her tastes in a feeble attempt to keep her memory alive.
Translation: can’t let go.
In his last months, he stops working and lives off the sale of his possessions.
Even when he discovers the love letters of Rodolphe and Léon’s, he still tries to understand and forgive.
Translation: get a grip man!
Soon after, he becomes reclusive; what has not already been sold of his possessions is seized to pay off her debt, and he dies, leaving his young daughter Berthe to live with distant relatives who send her to work at a cotton mill.
Translation: not a happy ending.
So, why do I love this book?
The writing is awesome, the story great, and the story behind the story even better.
Plus, several film version have been made. My favorite, made in 1949, stars Jennifer Jones, Van Heflin, James Mason, and Louis Jourdan (as Boulanger).
Rent the movie first, then read the book!
This is one of my top 10 all time favorite movies. My sister, Zola, and I used to stay UP late and watch it with the sound down very low, lying on the floor close to the TV. I always think of that when I watch it now.