Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

I knew that Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert was about an adulterous woman. But for some reason, I assumed that the title character was a despicable, ugly, tricky middle-aged woman. “Madame” makes one sound old. Besides, when I was young, my mother had a copy of Madame Bovary; it must have been an old copy of the book, and I remember an unattractive woman on the cover (a cover like this one). Just a dim memory of that cover never made the novel, and the character, seem appealing.

To my surprise, when I met Madame Bovary between the pages of Flaubert’s novel, I found that she was very young, beautiful, and skinny, and mostly known by her first name, Emma. Beyond that, the writing in this novel was full of beauty.

The Story

Book cover of "Madame Bovary (Oxford World's Classics)"
Book cover via Amazon

Much like Anna in Anna Karenina, Emma finds escape from her stifling 1800’s marriage through an extramarital affair. But Emma’s story is much simpler (and shorter) than Anna’s and differs in many ways. (It’s been a few years since I read Tolstoy’s classic, so correct me if I’m wrong.) While in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina the two parties to the affair actually love each other, in Madame Bovary, Emma is seduced by an unloving man who is basically using her. Emma’s story is of a woman who, marrying young, feels trapped in a relationship that is, to her, stagnant. And yet, while her husband loves her dearly, she fails to find any comfort from him and instead succumbs to boredom, thus opening herself to heartbreak.

Despite her foolish decisions, I still pitied Emma, much as I pitied Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Like Lily, Emma was restricted in society and longed to be more than she was. In some respects, I think Emma was trapped and made her choices as a way to escape. Emma spent money, as did Lily, as a comfort from boredom. But, unlike Lily, Emma also retreated to sexuality, as she’d read in “lurid” novels, to find expression and self-fulfillment.

By the end of Madame Bovary, I had stopped pitying Emma and felt annoyed. Flaubert’s side stories, in which he discussed the history and future of other characters and which comprised the first few chapters and the last few chapters, also bored me. To me, Madame Bovary should have been all about Emma, although I’m sure there is something in those chapters that I missed.

The Writing

Despite my annoyance, I still enjoyed the novel. Flaubert’s beautiful writing was what kept me going. I read the (free) Project Gutenberg translation by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, and I wonder if the novel would be improved with a different translation. Is there a better translation out there?

I don’t read novels with lots of sex in them, and this one had a fair amount underscoring the story. However, reading of Emma’s love affairs in Flaubert’s language reminded me that excessive sexual jargon should not be necessary to beautifully capture a sexual encounter in a love story. Take this example, which I think is beautiful, appropriate, and tactful:

The cloth of her habit caught against the velvet of his coat. She threw back her white neck, swelling with a sigh, and faltering, in tears, with a long shudder and hiding her face, she gave herself up to him–

The shades of night were falling; the horizontal sun passing between the branches dazzled the eyes. Here and there around her, in the leaves or on the ground, trembled luminous patches, as if hummingbirds flying about had scattered their feathers. Silence was everywhere; something sweet seemed to come forth from the trees; she felt her heart, whose beating had begun again, and the blood coursing through her flesh like a stream of milk. Then far away, beyond the wood, on the other hills, she heard a vague prolonged cry, a voice which lingered, and in silence she heard it mingling like music with the last pulsations of her throbbing nerves.

My Verdict

What does it say about me that I loved (most of) this novel? It is the basic story of a woman, married to a loving man, who has an affair with a man who doesn’t love her. I’ll clarify, as I did to my husband, that I love my husband, I am not bored in my life or my relationship, and I don’t have any desire to have an affair for excitement. So, then, why do I like this story?  I think the language and Emma’s boredom in her society were intriguing to me. I really did like Emma’s story.

Would Madame Bovary be more interesting if her husband didn’t love her and Emma’s affair was with a man who did love her? Would Emma have been justified in her affair? Was she justified as it was? I don’t know the answers, but I do know that the story, as it is, was very interesting to me!

I concede that Flaubert’s flowery writing style is not for everyone; it may be too dense or boring for you, and I could easily see how one could become bored (and annoyed) with Emma’s self-pity and stupid choices. That said, for those that are interested in such a story and a beautifully written and yet verbose novel about the many facets of love, lust, and boredom, I’d highly recommend Flaubert’s masterwork!

I read the Project Gutenberg version. But you’ll find plenty of attractive covers out there these days.

Madame Bovary is kind of opposite my personality, and I don’t have much in common with the “heroine.” Therefore, I’m confused why I like it. Nevertheless, I do like it. What novel do you like that is kind of opposite yourself? Why do you think you like it?

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. This is one of those books that I’ve never gotten around to reading but know I should. I normally like all the older classics that I read. You’ve encouraged me to pull this one off the shelf and give it a try.

  2. I really enjoyed reading Madame Bovary last year!

    As for books that are the opposite of me, hmmmm…I’ll think on that and get back to you!

  3. Yeah, you already know I didn’t like this one. It was one of my more difficult books of the year. I imagine I had a bad translation (though it wasn’t terribly verbose, and was easy to read, just dry), which didn’t help, but even with a newer, better translation, I doubt I would have liked this (didn’t like Anna Karenina either). I guess that the reason I didn’t like it was because I never felt Emma was pitiable, nor were any of the other characters. She annoyed me from the beginning. I was also confused by the labeling of this book as “realism” when in fact it seemed much more romantic than realistic – the idea of people swooning on the spot and dying of broken hearts just doesn’t seem so realistic to me. Studying the depths fo the book afterwards, however, was far more interesting.

    I don’t think liking or disliking this book has anything to do with relationships with spouses. I dont’ think that liking a book’s plot means that we long to be like the characters in them. I love The Bell Jar, for instance, and have no desire whatsoever to have a mental breakdown. I think categorizing a person’s personality based on the plotlines they loved is just too simple of a test, you know?

  4. Lisa, I really enjoyed it! Like I said, not everyone will, I know that…
    Eva, glad you liked it too!
    Amanda, I didn’t know it was labeled “realism” and I think I”d have to agree with you about it being more “romantic.” As for the other thing, I know liking the story doesn’t really mean anything about me. But I still feel a weird guilt liking it!

  5. I read Madame Bovary years ago. My mother too had an old copy. She used to make jokes about it calling it “Madame’s Ovaries.”

    When you’re writing about an adulterous relationship, it’s hard to get away from writing about sex. But I too, found Flaubert’s writing of the sexual scenes refreshing and intriguing. Intriguing that they left much to the imagination concerning sex which is sadly lacking in much of today’s writing. Maybe you like it simply because it is romantic.

    As for Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth –uggh. Could not STAND it. Didn’t like the movie either. So utterly BORING! But that’s just my opinion. The one Wharton book I do like is Ethan Frome. A very tragic story. I may have read it in high school. Yeah, the wayback machine. But I believe I still have my copy of it.

  6. Yes, Rebecca, Madame Bovary is considered the definitive book of realism. The modern father of realism. The template and the instruction book for realism. That was really confusing to me. In doing research, I found that Flaubert wrote in the romantic style prior to this, and his friends were trying to “cure” him by challenging him to write realism. They gave him the dullest subject they could think of (their words, not mine) and challenged him to write a realistic book about it. Madame Bovary was the result. I find that fascinating.

    Blacklin, I love the “Madame’s Ovaries” title!!

  7. @blacklin: Not sure exactly what subject they gave him. Perhaps it was just that a poor couple lives in the country? I don’t know. That’s just what the lit crit said when I looked up the book for my book club in March.

  8. Blacklin and Amanda, I told my husband about Madame Bovary and he thought it sounded horribly dull. “You mean, the husband loves her and the lover doesn’t? That’s nothing new.”

    Amanda, about the realism thing. I guess I don’t know what novels there were before Flaubert’s, so I guess I can’t define what “realism” actually means then and i can’t compare his writing to the predecessors. It seemed pretty “romanticized” to me. I’m not an expert, though, so I know I’m missing something…..

  9. blacklin, I forgot to add that yes, I can see being bored by House of Mirth. I read it via email, a 20-minutes a day subscription, and it was a pleasant break every day (for a long while…). I liked and pitied Lily, though, so that helped me enjoy it.

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  11. I think it’s perfectly fine for you not to like the character but still love the book. I love the Crank series, which is about drug addicts, but hate the characters. And while I actually liked Emma at first, although that may just be my empathetic side showing through,  in the end I hated her.

  12. I read this a few years ago and found it fascinating — and I absolutely HATED Anna Karenina, couldn’t wait for her to die and get it over with. (Of course, it’s about 500 pages shorter). I found Emma to be a really interesting in a train wreck sort of way, sort of like Rosamond in Middlemarch.

    I was very surprised how much I liked this book since I’ve met several people who really disliked it. I remember a friend who was struggling with it in high school, but then I obviously bring a different perspective as a married woman with children than a high school student would! In retrospect, I can’t imagine assigning this book to a 16 year old boy. I wonder if I would have hated it then too.

  13. Karen, I too enjoyed it and I was surprised to hear that people strongly disliked it! At this distant point, I can’t remember why I enjoyed it so — but I think your comment is well said : A slow train wreck!

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