Reading “Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert

Note: These are my personal observations upon reading Madame Bovary. Needless to say, they can be totally contrary to what anybody else might grasp from reading the book. Throughout the text, I have included excerpts from Madame Bovary and other books; for the texts originally not in English, whenever not mentioned, the excerpts are translated by myself. In translating them, the aesthetic side of the translation is neglected for the sake of accuracy:

Most people read Madame Bovary in their teen years; although I believe this first statement is so delusional that it can disqualify this entire post right here. Anyway, this was my third attempt to read Madame Bovary after dumping two other versions of it because of their horrible translations. Now a year into my third decade of life (OMG!) I finally read the original French version of it and I’m extremely proud of myself.

Why is Madame Bovary so important? I belive Madame Bovary is written for Emma Bovary herself. The first person who should read this book, probably in another life, should be Emma so she can get her facts straight about love and how love is depicted in books.

Something on my part is missing here. Several times throughout the book, Ivanhoe by Walter Scott is mentioned to have influenced Emma strongly. About two months ago, while reading a book by Terry Eagleton I listed Ivanhoe as one of the books I should actually read and now more than before, I feel the need.

Flaubert, in writing Madame Bovary, seems to be addressing the inadequacy of the novels that were being written under Romanticism. In my opinion French Romanticism lasted longer than it lasted in the rest of Europe. Whereas Romantics in England, who had gotten on board with the French Revolution, took a step back quickly during the Terror, French writers maintained the Romantic tradition for a longer period which is probably because of the continuous turmoil in the society and the repetitive revolutionary tendency that maintained the hope of instating social justice alive.

The 1848 Revolution and what happened after that, Napoleon III and the coupe, was probably the point where the political frustration enjoined the literary need to a new sort of novel that would address both inadequacy of Romanticism and its consequence too; that is to say, the remarkably unjust society which was being constructed as the outcome of the Industrial Revolution. The French version of this new literature is Gustave Flaubert; the English version is Charles Dickens.

To some extent, I believe Madame Bovary follows Don Quixote. Both Emma and Don Quixote, read books who depict narrations which are far from reality, one principally in chivalry and the other principally in love. Both books are pictures of how these images fail to be realized in real life and of course, the completely different reactions to this failure; Don Quixote goes mad and Emma Bovary…. I’m not going to tell you what happens here!

Perhaps you can find a relief to your boredom in marriage. A woman, children… they will occupy your days and who is the woman who will not seek to cheer you? The fervor of your soul, your noble and passionate being, your proud and tender stare will all guarantee you her love and fidelity.

(René, Chateaubriand)

Then her ideas, little by little, started to form and sitting on the lawn, that she was skimming through with slight beats of her umbrella tip, she repeated: Why, dear God, did I get married?

She would ask herself if under any means, or other chances, it would not have been possible for her to meet another man; and she tried to imagine how these unhappened events would have seemed, that different life, that husband she had never met.

(Madame Bovary, Part 1 – Chapter 7)

The first excerpt could have well been one of Emma Bovary’s reading list. The second is her own reflection, briefly after being in Charles’s wedlock. Emma’s doubts arise pretty quickly when she finds out that her husband is not the curious person to go to the Parisian theater shows in Rouen, or did not even know how to swim. (Part 1 – Chapter 7)

In the face of Charles’s plainness, it is the Vicomte, a remnant of the Ancien Régime, that revives the thought in Emma that what she had once read in her books, and felt frustrated with, might also materialize in the outside world. Emma feels fascinated with everything about him; Even the fall during the dance is sweet and charming, specifically because it is cushioned by Emma’s head resting on the Vicomte’s chest. (Part 1 – Chapter 8) Vicomte’s Parisien origin, and the excitement that his life promises to Emma, makes her wait a full year in order to get another chance of a second meeting:

From the beginning of July, she counted her on fingers how many weeks were left to October, thinking that Marquis of Andervilliers might hold another ball in Vaubyessard. However, September passed by without neither letters nor visits.

(Madame Bovary, Part 1 – Chapter 9)

The complete title of the book is “Madame Bovary: The Manners of Province.” This, in my opnion, is another demonstration of Flaubert’s frustration with the post-revolutionary France. The revolution was partly the reaction of the French to the fact that France was merely Paris under Ancien Régime and the rest of the nation was being ignored by the royal court whose entire resources was being used to keep Paris in order. How accurate this observation was though, is a matter of debate because as a matter of fact, the royal court’s focus was simply the court itself.

Emma’s specific fascination with cities, and anything related to them, and her hostility towards the countryside seem to be the evidence for the failure of the French revolution to bridge the gap between the urban France and the rural one. Emma’s low regard for the countryside provides evidence that the bourgeoisie that conducted the French revolution, is living a new cultural reality that is in contradiction with its failure in conducting a social reform:

– ‘Actually,’ said the clerk, ‘it seems to me that these works of art, not reaching your heart, fail to grasp the real purpose of Art. It is so sweet, among the misfortunes of life, to be able to immerse in thoughts of noble characters, pure affections and the portraits of pleasure. As for me, living here, far from the world, it is my single distraction; but Yonville is really scarce in resources.’

– ‘Just like Tostes obviously,’ said Emma ‘therefore I was always subscribed to a library.’

(Madame Bovary, Part 2 – Chapter 2)

‘When I was younger,’ she said, ‘I loved novels more than anything. Heavens, how happy I was on a Sunday if I could find myself a conrner and sink myself heart and soul in the good and bad fortunes of some Miss Jenny or other.’

(The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, translated by David Constantine, Book 1)

After Leon and Emma meet and converse, the narration centers on Leon. Throughout the first part of the book, we are made familiar with what Emma craves; therefore Flaubert swtiches character immediately to Leon to hint us that what we might have felt to please Emma in Leon, is also pleasant for Leon:

Never, so far, had he talked to any lady continuously for two hours. How could have he then explained, in such a language, the amount of things he had never before said so well elsewhere? … He had found someone in Yonville with the right manners.

(Madame Bovary, Part 2 – Chapter 3)

When Leon eventually leaves the village, there is a shot that Emma is doomed never to experience any sort of her readings but her acquaintance with Rodolphe to some extent changes the direction of the book as well. Emma’s relationship with Leon, who works as a notary clerk, is a part of the bourgeoisie whose conformism towards the old values has resulted in the failure of the French revolution in achieving its goals. Whereas Rodolphe, who is a landowner, is from a different social reality.

Under Rodolphe, Flaubert’s book turns pretty much into what it is trying to nullify. Rodolphe and Emma’s conversations, early in the morning and late night stealthy encounters, extremely frequent love letters, their back and forths and their plans together is to a big extent according to what Emma has read in her books. Rodolphe’s manner largely coincides with the lovers from the Romanticism era who sit down by the fireplace in well-decorated living rooms, keep a box of love letters from several women and:

Emma listened with her head lowered, while removing the bits of wood from the ground with the tip of her foot.

But to the sentence “Aren’t our destinies one now?” She replied: Oh no, you know it pretty well! It is impossible!

(Madame Bovary, Part 2 – Chapter 9)

The affair with Rodolphe, seems pretty much to provide Emma with the know-how of materially conducting its stealthiness. On the other hand, Leon’s city life has now given him the new ethical code, and freed him from the scrupulousness he used to have; thereby allowing him to have an affair with a married woman,

Emma’s affair with Leon is more realistic and less similar to the affairs that we have previously seen in the Romanticism era. The new bourgeois society demands a new framework for love, which sounds more realistic and less idealistic. However, Emma is still refusing to admit that love in the new society is devoid of heroism (Part 3 – Chapter 6) and is centered on many other issues, including specifically money and the individualism that prevents the lovers from holding their beloved to higher priority:

All night long, she would read extravagant books in which there were orgic pictures in exorbitant situations. She would usually be terrorized, screaming, Charles would run to her door. “Go away” she would say.

Or, some other times, burning excessively in the internal flame lit inside her by adultery, panting, moved by desire, she would open the window, breathe cold air, scatter her thick hair to the wind, and looking at the stars, sought the love of princes. She would think of Leon. She would give everything for a rendez-vous, that would satisfy her.

Those were here gala days. She wanted them splendid! And when he couldn’t pay the expenses on his own, she would lavishly pay the deficit, which was almost every time. He tried to make her understand that they would be good elsewhere as well, in a more modest hotel; but she would object it.

One day, she took six small silver spoons out of her bag (they were her wedding gifts from her father) and asked [Leon] to pawn them for her immediately. Leon followed her order, although the request annoyed him. He was afraid to compromise himself.

(Madame Bovary, Part 3 – Chapter 6)

Emma tries to live the old reality in the new one and the new society, which is based on the economical liberalism, disallows it. Emma’s actions seem to be completely driven by her first encounter with the Vicomte but the new order, is no longer a place for the aristocracy.

It is Mr Homais, the apothecary, and his triumph in Yonville, in my opinion, that demonstrates the mechanism of success in the Napoleon III’s period: it is not simply belief in progress and the extraordinary human capacities but the ties to the political power that ushers a person to success.

Madame Bovary is an incredibly profound analysis of the newly emerging society. I am planning to read more of the French realist novels in the mid 19th century and I am pretty sure I am going to get back to writing about this novel and its contemporaries again.

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