A rebel with a silly cause

November 1, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. 1856. Translation by Eleanor Max-Aveling.

Flaubert_Madame_BovaryGuy and I decided to re-read Madame Bovary after his review of The Doctor’s Wife by M.E. Braddon, based on Madame Bovary which Ms Braddon found immoral. Given her lifestyle, I was surprised of that statement. Actually, we both wondered why Madame Bovary was more immoral than other novels previously published and a re-read imposed itself. I had that nagging question in mind while I was reading: What did Flaubert do to make it so immoral?

Now I’m a bit intimidated at the idea to write about such a masterpiece. The first time I read it, I was 15 or 16. I read it for the story. The next time I was in my twenties and still read it for the plot. Now that I’m older, I saw much more in it than before and the difference comes more from a better knowledge of the history and literary currents of that time than to maturity, although it has its part, of course.

Given that it’s a very famous novel, maybe THE French novel Anglophone readers know the best –with the Three Musketeers— I don’t feel like writing too much about the plot and there will be spoilers in this billet. So if you haven’t read it and intend to read it and don’t want to know how it ends, you may want to stop reading now.

Let’s make a quick summary though. The book is set in Normandy, in the countryside near Rouen, during the Restauration. (1830-1848). Charles Bovary is not the brightest guy in school (In French, I’d say, “Il n’a pas inventé le fil à couper le beurre”, which is appropriate for a Normand) and he barely manages to study medicine. He’s a bit of a mama’s boy; his mother chose his career and his first wife. He’s widowed and settled as a GP in Tostes when he meets Emma Rouault. She’s the daughter of a farmer and was educated in a convent. Charles is smitten by her, she thinks this is love and they soon get married. Emma is full of high ideas about love and romance. Nothing can cheer her up from her ennui. Charles decides to change of setting and moves to Yonville. Emma is pregnant at the time and will have a daughter, Berthe. Emma is pretty and graceful; she’s a male magnet. Léon, a clerk at the local notary practice falls in love with her but doesn’t reveal his feelings. Then she is seduced by Rodolphe Boulanger, the local womaniser. After he left her before eloping, she becomes a devout. Then Léon and she mutually seduce each other. All that time, she doesn’t care much about her daughter, makes extravagant expenses and Charles remains blissfully ignorant of her actions and worships her. After her money troubles become public, she commits suicide with arsenic, leaving behind an inconsolable Charles. That’s for the plot.

So what’s the verdict? Do I know now why it was such a scandal at the time? The answer is yes, I think I do. So much that I have noticed the same quotes as Ernest Pinard, the imperial prosecutor who represented the State at the trial in 1857. (It is in my paper edition of the novel)

Everything in the book concurs to tag the book as immoral. It is impudent on several fronts at the same time: it criticises religion, mocks progress, shows adultery through a sensual side and without any remorse. It shoots at close-range at the rural society praised by the king. It attacks Romanticism as a literary movement and ridicules the Romantic attitude of young people. It tramples on literary geniuses such as Chateaubriand, Balzac or George Sand. It shows corrupted characters without condemning them, except with sarcasm. Stupidity is a character in itself considering that almost all the characters have contracted that disease. Not one character is likeable. Charles is bovine, as his name and his attitude let it know:

Et alors, sur la grande route qui étendait sans en finir son long ruban de poussière, par les chemins creux où les arbres se courbaient en berceaux, dans les sentiers dont les blés lui montaient jusqu’aux genoux, avec le soleil sur ses épaules et l’air du matin à ses narines, le cœur plein des félicités de la nuit, l’esprit tranquille, la chair contente, il s’en allait ruminant son bonheur, comme ceux qui mâchent encore, après dîner, le goût des truffes qu’ils digèrent. And then along the highroad, spreading out its long ribbon of dust, along the deep lanes that the trees bent over as in arbours, along paths where the corn reached to the knees, with the sun on his back and the morning air in his nostrils, his heart full of the joys of the past night, his mind at rest, his flesh at ease, he went on, re-chewing his happiness, like those who after dinner taste again the truffles which they are digesting.

I just see him as a cow in a field, chewing grass, moving slowing from one side of the field to the other. He’s a good person but Flaubert opens the books with Charles’s start at collège and he’s so ridiculous that it’s impossible to have another image of him afterwards. He’s blind to Emma’s every flaw and nothing she does will make her fall from the pedestal he put her on.

Homais, Yonville’s chemist, is criminally imbecile and self-satisfied. Léon is weak. Rodolphe is a scoundrel. Emma is …Emma, the one who created the term of bovarisme, which means being chronically dissatisfied with life. The micro-society of Yonville mirrors the society of the time and it compares to Balzac’s novels or even better to Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. Homais is the heir of the French Revolution and the Empire. He idolises Voltaire and can’t stand Bournisien, the priest. The said Bournisien tries to win back religion’s influence on people. Lheureux, the merchant has only one religion: money. The rest of the citizens fluctuate between the three summits of this triangle. The verbal confrontations between Homais and Bournisien are violent. Homais doesn’t mince his words and what Flaubert puts in his mouth doesn’t help his case:

Je suis pour la Profession de foi du vicaire savoyard et les immortels principes de 89 ! Aussi, je n’admets pas un bonhomme de bon Dieu qui se promène dans son parterre la canne à la main, loge ses amis dans le ventre des baleines, meurt en poussant un cri et ressuscite au bout de trois jours : choses absurdes en elles-mêmes et complètement opposées, d’ailleurs, à toutes les lois de la physique ; ce qui nous démontre, en passant, que les prêtres ont toujours croupi dans une ignorance turpide, où ils s’efforcent d’engloutir avec eux les populations. I am for the profession of faith of the ‘Savoyard Vicar,’ and the immortal principles of ’89! And I can’t admit of an old boy of a God who takes walks in his garden with a cane in his hand, who lodges his friends in the belly of whales, dies uttering a cry, and rises again at the end of three days; things absurd in themselves, and completely opposed, moreover, to all physical laws, which prove to us, by the way, that priests have always wallowed in turpid ignorance, in which they would fain engulf the people with them.

If this isn’t a strong attack against religion…

The young writer Flaubert depicts an Emma corrupted by literature. She has read the Romantics and loves trashy romance novels. She expects to live a flamboyant life like the heroines of her novels. She never managed to distance herself from what she reads. Instead of reading romance novels and treating them as fairy tales, she believes that it’s what love should be. She has a husband who loves her, behaves properly, has a steady income and is healthy. She should be content but she’s not because she dreams of a great passion:

Elle se laissa donc glisser dans les méandres lamartiniens, écouta les harpes sur les lacs, tous les chants de cygnes mourants, toutes les chutes de feuilles, les vierges pures qui montent au ciel, et la voix de l’Éternel discourant dans les vallons.


She let herself glide along with Lamartine meanderings, listened to harps on lakes, to all the songs of dying swans, to the falling of the leaves, the pure virgins ascending to heaven, and the voice of the Eternal discoursing down the valleys.

An exchange with Max about Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín had me thinking about how novels shape our vision of what relationships should be. We were at least three to think that the love story in Brooklyn is not very interesting in itself. And yet, it’s a plausible one between people who have an average life like most of us. We found this uninteresting and I wrote “you don’t expect this in a novel”. It’s mundane and deep down we think the characters of a novel shouldn’t be mundane. Anyway.

Charles is content with the quotidian, Emma expects grand passion. Charles’s imagination is turned off; Emma’s is working at full regime. They are imagination-incompatible. He won’t suspect her affairs, she’ll find fuel for her imagination in her lovers. He looks stupid; she looks silly.

Emma is immoral for the time because she isn’t ashamed of her affairs. She’s living the grand passion she reads about and nothing else matters. She has no remorse except for fleeting moments. She’s capricious and haughty.

elle ne cachait plus son mépris pour rien, ni pour personne ; et elle se mettait quelquefois à exprimer des opinions singulières, blâmant ce que l’on approuvait, et approuvant des choses perverses ou immorales : ce qui faisait ouvrir de grands yeux à son mari. Moreover she no longer concealed her contempt for anything or anybody, and at times she set herself to express singular opinions, finding fault with that which others approved, and approving things perverse and immoral, all of which madeher husband open his eyes widely.

When she gives herself away to Rodolphe and starts their affair, she doesn’t put up much resistance. It happens at their third meeting; she’s quite bold in her rendezvous with him. Nothing else matters. She doesn’t care about her reputation, her family and doesn’t try to fight against her attraction. She’s immoral because she is not conflicted about what she’s doing. She’s not as vicious as Madame de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses or as manipulative as Valérie in La Cousine Bette. The Red and the Black was published in 1830 and neither Madame de Rênal nor Mathilde de la Mole is virtuous; Madame de Rênal is adulterous too. In the eyes of society, Emma doesn’t have a valuable motive to be unfaithful. She just wants to live the passion she’s heard about. She’s ordinary. She could be the wife next door and it frightens a society that such behaviours could reach the middle class.

Let’s see her with our modern eyes: she’s stuck for life with an oaf for a husband (no divorce possible), she has no profession (so she gets bored) and lives in a village. She’s intelligent enough to yearn for more but focuses her quest on love instead of something else. If I read between the lines, I figure that Flaubert the chauvinist thinks that women aren’t capable of more.

From the start, Emma is portrayed as a sensual woman. Her love is in her head, her heart but it’s not a platonic love. She enjoys the physical aspects of her affairs and is not ashamed of that. From the beginning, Flaubert hints at her sensuality, at her perversion.

Mais elle triomphait maintenant, et l’amour, si longtemps contenu, jaillissait tout entier avec des bouillonnements joyeux. Elle le savourait sans remords, sans inquiétude, sans trouble. But now she triumphed, and the love so long pent up burst forth in full joyous bubblings. She tasted it without remorse, without anxiety, without trouble. 
Elle se repentait, comme d’un crime, de sa vertu passée, et ce qui en restait encore s’écroulait sous les coups furieux de son orgueil. Elle se délectait dans toutes les ironies mauvaises de l’adultère triomphant. She repented of her past virtue as of a crime, and what still remained of it rumbled away beneath the furious blows of her pride. She revelled in all the evil ironies of triumphant adultery.
Quand elle se mettait à genoux sur son prie-Dieu gothique, elle adressait au Seigneur les mêmes paroles de suavité qu’elle murmurait jadis à son amant, dans les épanchements de l’adultère. When she knelt on her Gothic prie-Dieu, she addressed to the Lord the same suave words that she had murmured formerly to her lover in the outpourings of adultery.
Emma retrouvait dans l’adultère toutes les platitudes du mariage. Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage. 
Elle partit donc vers la Huchette, sans s’apercevoir qu’elle courait s’offrir à ce qui l’avait tantôt si fort exaspérée, ni se douter le moins du monde de cette prostitution. So she set out towards La Huchette, not seeing that she was hastening to offer herself to that which but a while ago had so angered her, not in the least conscious of her prostitution. 
Ensuite il récita le Misereatur et Undulgentiam, trempa son pouce droit dans l’huile et commença les onctions : d’abord sur les yeux, qui avaient tant convoité toutes les somptuosités terrestres ; puis sur les narines, friandes de brises tièdes et de senteurs amoureuses ; puis sur la bouche, qui s’était ouverte pour le mensonge, qui avait gémi d’orgueil et crié dans la luxure ; puis sur les mains, qui se délectaient aux contacts suaves, et enfin sur la plante des pieds, si rapides autrefois quand elle courait à l’assouvissance de ses désirs, et qui maintenant ne marcheraient plus. Then he recited the Misereatur and the Indulgentiam, dipped his right thumb in the oil, and began to give extreme unction. First upon the eyes, that had so coveted all worldly pomp; then upon the nostrils, that had been greedy of the warm breeze and amorous odours; then upon the mouth, that had uttered lies, that had curled with pride and cried out in lewdness; then upon the hands that had delighted in sensual touches; and finally upon the soles of the feet, so swift of yore, when she was running to satisfy her desires, and that would now walk no more.

In these quotes we see strong words like prostitution, triumphant adultery and a comparison between marriage and adultery. Shocking. Emma attracts men. Charles, Léon, Rodolphe, Justin (a domestic), her father-in-law (Her mother-in-law once hastens their departure from Charles’ household because she fears that Bovary Senior could attempt at sleeping with his daughter-in-law.) Emma is referred to with sexual innuendos. Léon is surprised by her dexterity at adultery. She enjoys herself and that’s unforgivable. Moreover, she doesn’t want to sacrifice her happiness for Charles and do her duty.

Emma’s behaviour is not acceptable for society at the time and the icing on the cake is Flaubert’s tone. He could be moralising to acknowledge that Emma’s behaviour is inadmissible and choose the side of bourgeois way of thinking. He doesn’t. Instead, he’s caustic. He doesn’t like his heroine and openly criticises her reading tastes:

Ce n’étaient qu’amours, amants, amantes, dames persécutées s’évanouissant dans des pavillons solitaires, postillons qu’on tue à tous les relais, chevaux qu’on crève à toutes les pages, forêts sombres, troubles du cœur, serments, sanglots, larmes et baisers, nacelles au clair de lune, rossignols dans les bosquets, messieurs braves comme des lions, doux comme des agneaux, vertueux comme on ne l’est pas, toujours bien mis, et qui pleurent comme des urnes. They were all love, lovers, sweethearts, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely pavilions, postilions killed at every stage, horses ridden to death on every page, sombre forests, heartaches, vows, sobs, tears and kisses, little skiffs by moonlight, nightingales in shady groves, “gentlemen” brave as lions, gentle as lambs, virtuous as no one ever was, always well dressed, and weeping like fountains.

With this, he criticises the authors who write these books or feuilletons. He also pictures the education received at convents as useless. The isolation grows young girls into women who have no idea of what real life is. They’re disconnected from reality. That’s another dart sent at the church (they run the convents) and at society (they consider this as good education). Balzac’s Mémoire de deux jeunes mariées proves Flaubert’s point.

In my humble opinion, Madame Bovary is much more than the tragic fate of a serial adulterer. It’s the writer’s rebellion against society’s hypocrisy (you can read Romantic literature but not put its ideas into practice), against an established literary movement, against stupidity and bourgeois thinking. I haven’t read Flaubert’s biography but I’d say that Madame Bovary is him because she does what she wants regardless of the consequences. She’s a rebel with a silly cause, that’s all.

I’ll leave you with a last quote:

Le devoir, c’est de sentir ce qui est grand, de chérir ce qui est beau, et non pas d’accepter toutes les conventions de la société, avec les ignominies qu’elle nous impose. One’s duty is to feel what is great, cherish the beautiful, and not accept all the conventions of society with the ignominy that it imposes upon us.

Tough program.

Don’t forget to visit Guy’s Blog to read his review of the book.

PS: As a side note, I never understood why Chabrol chose Isabelle Huppert to impersonate Emma Bovary. Emma can’t be a readhead. Flaubert keeps on describing her beautiful dark hair. How could he choose Isabelle Huppert, who is also too old for the role?

  1. November 1, 2013 at 3:03 am

    “Emma, the one who created the term of bovarisme,” A great quote.
    I’m not finished writing my post yet, but it’ll be up soon. This time around Emma’s passionate nature and desire for sex stuck out.

    I think Huppert plays a woman coming off the rails well. And I have The Bronte sisters here which stars Isabelle Adjani, Marie-France Pisier and Isabelle Huppert. Not quite how I’d imagined the Brontes stuck up there in the North with nought to do but, oh well, never mind.


    • November 2, 2013 at 9:15 am

      I agree with you about Emma’s sexual appetite. I don’t know how I missed this the last time, it’s so obvious.

      Yes, sure, Huppert is could at playing that kind of character but it bothered me that she was a redhead when it’s repeatedly mentioned that Emma has dark hair and more importantly, it’s part of her seduction. Remember the scene where Justin sees her with her hair undone. Another proof that she’s scandalous. I don’t picture Madame Homais showing her hair like this to Justin.


      • November 2, 2013 at 7:33 pm

        There’s always dye. I think of Emma as dark-haired too. For this reading, she comes across as a highly passionate woman. Even that old roué Rodolphe seems to remember her fondly for her sexual prowess and appetite.


  2. November 1, 2013 at 11:32 am

    Brilliant review, Emma! I was surprised when I read this sentence – “It tramples on literary geniuses such as Chateaubriand, Balzac or George Sand”. Weren’t Flaubert and George Sand lovers for a while? I thought he would have been nice to her. I haven’t read ‘Madame Bovary’ yet but I thought that Flaubert would have been sympathetic with the heroine. So I was surprised to learn from your review that he doesn’t like his heroine. I think one thing that ‘Madame Bovary’ did was probably inspire other writers to write a novel with a leading woman character who gives more importance to her passions than fulfilling the duties that the society of her time expects from her – like Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’, Theodor Fontane’s ‘Effi Briest’, Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’ and maybe even Erica Jong’s ‘Fear of Flying’. From that perspective, I think the book was a literary watershed. Also it was a pioneer in the fact that the government of that time tried getting it banned but Flaubert won the case.

    Thanks for this wonderful review. It has inspired me to read ‘Madame Bovary’ soon.


    • November 2, 2013 at 9:25 am

      Alfred de Musset was George Sand’s lover. Musset was born in 1810, George Sand in 1804, Balzac in 1799 (he was dead when Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary) and Flaubert was born in 1821. They’re from different generations.

      This novel is a masterpiece and an absolute must-read. I’m looking forward to your review.

      I agree with you about Flaubert inspiring subsequent writers. I’ve read Effi Briest and Anna Karenina but not the other ones.
      I want to read The Awakening, it seems you’ve just found a writer from St Louis for my American booking tour. Thanks! 🙂


      • November 2, 2013 at 9:33 am

        Thanks for telling me more about George Sand, Emma. I didn’t know that she and Flaubert were from different generations. I somehow remember reading in Julian Barnes’ ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ that they were both lovers. I think I might have got it wrong or Barnes might have added some fiction there. This is what comes of reading novels and trusting them to be factual 🙂

        Hope you enjoy reading ‘The Awakening’. I will look forward to hearing your thoughts on it. From the plot overview it looks very similar to ‘Madame Bovary’ (the heroine steps out of her safe life and tries to fall passionately in love) but Kate Chopin was probably more sympathetic to her heroine than Flaubert. It also seems to have created a similar kind of controversy when it was first published.


        • November 2, 2013 at 9:38 am

          Or perhaps Sand and Musset’s affair overshadows the other one and I haven’t heard about it. (I’m not good at reading bios)

          On Wikipedia, they say that Madame Bovary was inspired by La femme de trente ans, by Balzac. I’ve read it a long time ago, remember I loved it. I don’t recall it enough to make comparisons though.
          We could make a whole reading cycle from La femme de trente ans to Fear of Flying.


          • November 2, 2013 at 9:50 am

            Interesting to know that ‘Madame Bovary’ was inspired by Balzac’s ‘La femme de trente ans’. I will add that to my ‘TBR’ list. I like that idea of making a reading cycle from Balzac’s book to Erica Jong’s book. It will be an interesting exercise.


            • November 2, 2013 at 9:54 am

              It would be great, if only I had more time to read…


  3. November 1, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    I never picture Mme Bovary as dark haired. Strange. That’s why Isabelle Huppert didn’t bother me. I guess I simply overread the description.
    I don’t find her a passionate character, sensual but quite lazy. What I really liked was the writing, the precision of it. The story as such, not so much. It has explosive elements and after all he said “Mme Bovary, ces’t moi” he probably saw more than just an adulteress in her.


    • November 2, 2013 at 9:30 am

      Her dark hair is mentioned throughout the book. It’s one of her beauty trait, with a delicate neck.

      I don’t think she’s lazy. When she sets her mind on something, she doesn’t mind the effort. She just wants to do what she likes and nothing else. No effort for the sake of duty on her part. And she’s very sensual.

      I agree with you about Flaubert’s style. He’s fantastic. There are beautiful descriptions of the countryside and I loved how he would transition from one passage to the other with a single short sentence. He manages to capture in a few words descriptive elements and revelations about feelings and thoughts. Stunning.


  4. November 2, 2013 at 1:40 am

    Love it! And thank you for providing the bilingual quotations, it all helps my efforts with French:)


    • November 2, 2013 at 9:32 am

      Thanks Lisa.
      I remember we had a discussion about it when you read it.


  5. Alex in Leeds
    November 4, 2013 at 3:42 pm

    Fascinating to see your post (and Guy’s) as I am long overdue a re-read of Madame Bovary and very curious to see how my perception of it has shifted since my last read. I always found Emma unlovable but very understandable in previous reads.


    • November 4, 2013 at 10:05 pm

      Thanks Alex.
      I share your view of Emma. Not likeable but you can understand how she gets there. Like other heroines, I can’t help thinking that if they had a job, they would have less time to think and elaborate theories and beat their feelings up like egg white.


  6. leroyhunter
    November 4, 2013 at 4:58 pm

    Great post. You don’t sound intimidated! I love the description of the book as “impudent”.

    Were you surprised at how much you found in it? Sounds like it really struck a chord this time around.


    • November 4, 2013 at 10:08 pm

      Thanks. I find writing about such books daunting because, what can I say that academicians haven’t already said?
      Like Guy, I could write several billets about it. There’s a lot more than I saw the last time I read it. I was much younger. At least for literature, getting older is an advantage.

      I didn’t remember how funny Flaubert is. That was the biggest surprise.


  7. November 4, 2013 at 7:19 pm

    I always feel slightly daunted writing about books like this too. Still, great review.

    “Not one character is likeable.” Exactly. I sometimes see people criticise books for a lack of sympathetic characters, yet here we have one of the greatest novels ever written and nobody in it is remotely sympathetic. Fiction isn’t about identifying with the characters, not really good fiction anyway.

    I absolutely agree with your humble opinion, and I think the last paragraph (last sentence even) of the book absolutely underlines that point.

    To build on something Leroy said, what strikes me when I write about books like this is that there’s so much in them to be found, so much depth. That’s why they bear rereading and multiple interpretations and why they remain relevant, as Madame Bovary surely is.


    • November 4, 2013 at 10:26 pm

      I don’t think characters need to be likeable and that’s why I was so disconcerted by my reaction to NW.

      If other readers read this, the last paragraph of the book is :

      Since Bovary’s death three doctors have followed one another at Yonville without any success, so severely did Homais attack them. He has an enormous practice; the authorities treat him with consideration, and public opinion protects him.
      He has just received the cross of the Legion of Honour.

      So, the imbecile (and faithful husband with a dutiful wife) wins the social game.
      Flaubert was young when he wrote Madame Bovary and I can’t help seeing it as a rebellion against older and established writers.

      As often when I read books like this, I’m fascinated by the historical and political context of the novel. It interests me more than the actual story, sometimes.

      This book remains relevant because of its glorious style and the underlying criticism of the society and its social conventions. That’s universal; the conventions may not be the same but they exist in every society.


      • November 5, 2013 at 3:41 pm

        No, we’re of similar mind on that. Still, occasionally characters can be so annoying as to spoil a book even so.

        Exactly re the ending. Convention wins.


  8. November 5, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    Thanks for the review, Emma!

    I read Madame Bovary for the first time last year (a parallel read in French and German because it was rather too difficult for me to understand everything without help) and was very impressed. I agree that it’s the story of a rebellion, but unfortunately a vain one because society wouldn’t allow Emma the life she yearned for – as it was too immoral and self-determined for a woman. In the end the loss of hope for change and true fulfillment as she always invisaged it with the stories from her novels in mind breaks her. The tragedy is that suicides like hers also happened in real life and for the same reasons… I think I read somewhere that Flaubert was inspired to write the novel by a real case which made it in the newspapers.

    Personally, I liked Une vie by Guy de Maupassant better. The end seems to me more in line with the character of the protagonist since women like Emma and Jeanne were brought up to be passive and to endure.


    • November 6, 2013 at 10:17 pm

      I parallel read in French and English sometimes (like for Dubliners). It helps a lot and it’s not as frustrating as giving up the original for the translation.
      I agree with your vision of Emma: the society she lived in couldn’t accept her rebellion, at least not in her social class. She could have been a cocotte but she was stuck in Province. If she had rebelled for something more honourable or commendable (like wanting to be a doctor herself or a lawyer or any profession inaccessible to a woman), the outcome would have been the same. Perhaps Flaubert wouldn’t have been brought to court for writing an immoral book but Homais would still be the winner.
      This is why I entitled this post “a rebel with her silly cause”. She fights for something I find shallow but whatever the fight, the society wasn’t ready to accept a woman who would fight for her right to do what she wanted. (even if that something was vain)

      I’ve only read Une vie once, in collège (I was 15) and didn’t like it that much . With hindsight, I’d say I was too young to understand it properly. Unfortunately, it put me off Maupassant for years.


  9. November 5, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    The last time I read “Madame Bovary” – some ten or so years ago, I think – I got the impression that Flaubert was anti-*everything*. It isn’t that he’s anti-bourgeois as such: he is anti-everything-else as well. Homais’ attack on religion is, indeed, severe, but look whom it’s coming from – Homais, a self-important idiot! Flaubert can’t see Homais’ secularism as being any better than the religion it seeks to replace. It could be, as you say, that “Flaubert the chauvinist thinks that women aren’t capable of more”, but the men are a pretty miserable lot here, and they aren’t capable of more either! If Flaubert is anti-woman, he is equally anti-man.

    Emma Bovary, it seems to me, longs to rebel against the values she finds so stifling. And indeed, these values *are* stifling. Flaubert finds them stifling also – which is why, I think, he famously identified with Emma Bovary. But the tremendous sadness of the novel – for I do find this a tremendously sad novel – is that the values Emma tries to live by are no less stupid. There’s nothing to choose between her rebellion and what she is rebelling against.

    Flaubert is, of course, caustic and cynical, but there does seem to me much more. I strongly get the impression that Flaubert finds all this infinitely sad. These peoples’ lives are mundane, dull, graceless, and unutterably stupid: there is no possibility of transcendence.
    Flaubert says at one point that all we can do is to beat out tunes on a battered kettle to make bears dance, when what we really want to do is to move the stars with pity. These are not the words of a mere cynic: these are the words of a man who recognises the impossibility of transcendence – the impossibility of moving the stars – but who finds this impossibility unutterably sad.

    Underneath all that caustic cynicism, there is, I think, a genuine feeling for Emma Bovary, stupid and trivial though she may be. And for Charles Bovary as well. He is, throughout, a ridiculous, absurd figure. And a lesser writer would have kept it there, but not Flaubert. If all Flaubert wanted to do was to show the futility of our lives, he would have got Charles’ mother to arrange a third marriage for him after Emma’s death, but that’s not what happens. Charles, if I remember correctly, effectively dies of grief. Yes, this absurd and ridiculous man could nonetheless feel so strongly, that he dies of grief. The scene after Emma’s death, where Homais, self-important as ever, stays up with Charles, I really found heartbreaking. That moment when Charles waters the flowers and remembers that Emma used to do this was almost unbearable. But even so, Charles remains an absurd figure, and the stars aren’t moved with pity. That, for me, the real sadness of it.

    I really must read this again. I think you’re right that outside the Francophone world, it’s “Madame Bovary” and “The Three Musketeers” that are the best-known of French novels. Well, you can’t get a better example of the art of storytelling than the former; while the latter, as a work of art, defies superlatives!

    PS Back in the 1970s, BBC serialised “Madame Bovary” with Francesca Annis in the title role, so I always think of Emma Bovary looking like her!


    • November 6, 2013 at 10:35 pm

      I also had the feeling that Flaubert criticized everything and that’s why all the characters are flawed. He mocks the Homais and the old guard who still sticks to the ideals of 1789. (they existed in the French society, if I understood well what I read about Anatole France’s background) Homais has a blind enthusiasm about the French Revolution that reminds me of Sartre’s incredibly stupid comments about the USSR.

      Like I said, our vision of Charles is biased from the start as he’s pictured as a slow boy in collège. That part has no other goal that planting in the reader’s mind that Charles is stupid and ridicule. (The description of that cap!!!) If you disregard that part and try to have an objective look at Charles, you’ll see someone who’s a bit slow but not such a bad doctor. He works hard. He’s nice with his neighbours and patients. He’s affectionate with his daughter. He respects his parents. He’s patient. And above all, he’s head over heels in love with his wife. Nothing can shake his love for her and yes, the part after her death is poignant.

      Flaubert says at one point that all we can do is to beat out tunes on a battered kettle to make bears dance, when what we really want to do is to move the stars with pity. These are not the words of a mere cynic: these are the words of a man who recognises the impossibility of transcendence – the impossibility of moving the stars – but who finds this impossibility unutterably sad.

      I don’t fully understand that part because I don’t get the concept of transcendance, sorry. (I’ve looked at the wikipedia article about it in French and even then, I don’t understand. I’m terrible at philosophy; most of the time I can’t get my mind around the concepts)

      Re-PS : I’ve looked at a picture of a young Francesca Annis and she was a great choice to play Emma. (or at least, that’s how I imagined Emma)


      • November 8, 2013 at 2:05 am

        I think by “transcendence” I meant the perception of a significance in life that goes beyond – that transcends – the physical; and the perception of ourselves as more than the sum of our constituent physical parts. In Flaubert’s vision, transcendence is not possible; but I seem to sense a tremendous sadness that this should be so.

        As for Homais, I think he is too stupid to understand to understand the ideals of 1789, or their significance. He is too stupid to understand anything, really! He merely claims to adhere to these things because doing so gives him a warm feeling of being a progressive and a freethinker. But it’s all mere self-aggrandisement. (I’m sorry I’m only making unargued assertions here: it’s been too long since I say read this, and I do not remember the details well enough to argue my case!)

        As for Francesca Annis, I was about 16 or so when I saw her as Madame Bovary in that BBC series. I remember thinking then that she was remarkably beautiful, but 16 year old lads do tend to fall in love rather easily … 🙂


  10. November 5, 2013 at 11:15 pm

    Not anti-everything, Himadri – art, beauty! Transcendence is not impossible, but rather exceedingly rare, the result of the perfect combination of sentence and image, fragment and whole.

    Flaubert’s life is not dull, graceless, etc. because he is occasionally, after much agony, able to produce a moment of beauty.

    I like the reversal you set up in your next to last paragraph, however unlikely it is.


    • November 8, 2013 at 1:51 am

      Indeed, he was completely devoted to his art. It always did strike me as odd that he should regard everything as futile except his depiction of that futility!


  11. February 16, 2021 at 3:48 am

    A great review of Madame Bovary. Just found your blog. I read Madame Bovary just a couple of months ago, and I made my own « billet »: http://textflight.blog/2021/02/06/madame-bovary/
    I wondered like you, what made this novel cause such a scandal. Before I read it, I expected something perhaps sexually explicit enough to cause such a scandal. And maybe for its time, it was too explicit; I am not familiar with French literature of that time period. But I agree with you that there was much more in the novel to give offense. It’s a wide-ranging criticism of French middle-class life and hypocrisy.
    « She could be the wife next door and it frightens a society that such behaviours could reach the middle class. » Very well said.
    And my favorite part of your billet: Emma and Charles being « imagination-incompatible ». Uniquely put, and so true!


  12. February 17, 2021 at 4:19 am

    Thanks for that link, Emma, it gives some sense of the difficult environment in which Flaubert was writing. In such an environment it seems less surprising that he got in trouble by writing Madame Bovary, even though, as you say, he didn’t even make any direct political commentary in that novel.


    • February 18, 2021 at 7:34 am

      The 19th century is such a fascinating century and the change of regimes in France is mind-blowing.


  13. February 17, 2021 at 4:19 am

    And thanks for the comment on my blog too!


    • February 18, 2021 at 7:35 am

      You’re welcome, it was an interesting post.


  1. November 2, 2013 at 3:36 am
  2. December 21, 2013 at 8:00 pm
  3. December 23, 2014 at 6:51 pm
  4. May 24, 2021 at 1:51 am
  5. December 25, 2022 at 11:43 pm

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