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.
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.
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.
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?