Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert

This is a superb translation by Francis Steegmuller of Flaubert’s famous 1857 novel. One is quickly impressed by the details that make the setting and the era come alive, details that are so appropriate to the mood of each scene that they also bring the characters to life. Interestingly, the novel begins by presenting a young Charles Bovary, not his future wife, and this through an unknown narrator. Is this because he is to be an unknown cypher to her, and a negative presence as well to the reader?

Their meeting is a natural one. Charles grows up to become a doctor, visits the Rouault home to treat the father, and is impressed by daughter Emma. She, in turn, frustrated by a provincial life at home, quickly identifies him as a possible suitor and an escape into what she considers the real world. And so they marry. But Emma soon finds she has married a dull husband and is now living in another dull home no better than the one she has left. One might note here that Charles’ life has been narrated from the outside, while we absorb Emma’s life, her thinking, her emotions, from within.

Emma becomes so despondent that Charles moves them to another town. There, she encounters a young clerk, Leon, who intrigues her, but he is too shy to show his feelings, and she is too well-behaved to reveal her own interest. Whereupon, another suitor, a cad, Rodolphe Boulenger, pursues this beautiful, ripe, frustrated wife who needs consolation and is waiting to be swept off her feet. And she is, because she is a romantic, and this is the first man who has made her feel beautiful and wanted.

And when her seduction culminates in one phrase, “she gave herself to him,” this reader stepped back to mark how the literary world has changed. In Flaubert’s time, as in ours, one knows what this phrase means. One doesn’t need the details spelled out to understand the release of Emma’s emotions. Which is what the literary world is all about. The physical details we read about today do not make the act of love any more convincing. Nor the characters, by their actions, more richly portrayed.

Such a reaction will never, of course, change today’s literary world. The cat, so to speak, is out of the bag. And it’s a big commercial cat. But Flaubert’s era understood where literary propriety should lead one—to the characters emotions rather than on their physical exertions. Lurid descriptions, I feel, even distract the reader today from the author’s purpose. That is, the “freedom” authors seek to express themselves can get between themselves and the reader, can divert the reader from the novel’s emotional, philosophical, or psychological objective.

Emma’s own declarations of love are, of course, futile. You cannot oblige a man to love you when what he seeks is only physical. Flaubert makes this clear. And as he does so, he is deepening this portrait of a woman who is a dreamer and a product of her era. She is unfulfilled and lives for her emotions, is otherwise insecure, and will become a victim of the next man who declares his love.

On the other hand, critic Victor Brombert, acknowledging Baudelaire, writes that Emma, “is the only dignified and poetic figure in her small world. Her feverish yearnings experienced in the context of the most banal daily existence and in the most mediocre provincial setting, reaffirm the powers and prerogatives of the imagination. She not only towers over her lovers…but positively gains in stature as she approaches her doom, always in pursuit of an unattainable ideal of love and happiness.”

Yes, we relate to her and sympathize with her pursuit, but it is all a little too baldly stated for modern taste, especially when she collapses after the inevitable rejection by Rodolphe. This is somewhat exaggerated for a modern reader. She even asks herself if life is worth living. But it soon is, when Charles takes her to Rouen to hear an opera, and they encounter a mature Leon who has learned much while studying in Paris. Now, he does pursue her, and again she succumbs to a man’s intentions.

There is a clear pattern here, a portrait of this woman who comes alive only when she is loved, who perhaps reflects the women of her era whose lack of an internal fulfillment must be satisfied by the male society around her. Otherwise, a woman is incomplete, and Emma is desperate to become a complete woman. Whether she will or not becomes unclear. She does make an effort to control her husband’s finances, but this seems simply to provide an excuse for meeting her new lover, Leon.

Emma is still a dreamer, and the bloom is eventually off this new rose. She is also naive, and soon gets into hot financial water, frustrating her even more. The words “death” and “suicide” surface, as the author begins to prepare the desperation she will soon feel. Indeed, what is interesting here is that the emphasis is now not on her emotional frustration but on her financial straits. It is a shift by Flaubert to a more realistic approach to Emma, rather than on an emotional weakness that male critics then, and all readers today, might find difficult to relate to.

Now we come to the ending. It is a dramatic scene, I grant. It involves an act of desperation, and then a drawn-out, very realistic death. But the novel continues. And Charles, for the first time, becomes human and quite sympathetic in his grief. Indeed, his prominence at the end balances his prominence at the beginning of this novel.

For some reason, however, the pharmacist, Homais, also rises in importance at the end. And seems to illustrate the perfidy of mankind. Steegmuller notes that his prominence is to emphasize the “bourgeois banality” of the provincial backwardness that Emma is rebelling against and that Flaubert is criticizing in this novel. Also, Brombert notes that this three-chapter epilogue makes the reader aware “that the real tragedy of the novel is the victory of existence over tragedy. Life simply continues, indifferent to tragedy; it continues, mediocre and unaware.”

Is this note of negativity intended to bring a sense of realism to this novel? For me, more significant is its negative tone. That the romantic Emma has simply been taken advantage of, first by two lovers and then by the endless debt she has incurred by signing promissory notes at the persuasive hands of Monsieur Lheureux. And that when Charles says at the end: “No one is to blame. It was decreed by fate,” he is absolving himself. And Flaubert is labeling her as an innocent victim of this provincial world.

My conclusion is that Flaubert did create an inevitable ending, and perhaps one that was quite original for his era. But his handiwork is visible in today’s terms. In the manner of her fate, yes, but even more in the negative social portrait he draws at the conclusion. No one comes off good here. No one. And I wonder if the author would justify this in the name of realism.

One must grant, however, that Flaubert has created here a real society, a provincial society, a society of various tradesmen with their wives and children. It is a society that does give substance to Emma’s role as a victim and a dreamer, as well as significant substance to the novel itself.

Brombert notes that a comparison has been made between this novel and Don Quixote. This is true. Like Quixote, Emma has been seduced by novels into becoming a romantic, into believing in a world, a way of life, that is long gone, that has no connection with her era’s own reality.

To sum up, these critics have helped me to better understand the context in which this novel was written. That it was ahead of its time. That the internal musings of Emma, so helpful in both understanding her and sympathizing with her, were new. That the reality which she dreamed of escaping was not itself new, but that both the expression of her sexual transgression and her financial rebellion against her society were new. And that with this novel Flaubert was breaking new literary ground, even as his world did not yet possess the literary tools for doing so.

This novel has survived because it is truly a modern novel—in its subject of an unhappy woman in a heartless world, in its themes of sexual desire seeking an outlet in a frustrating provincial society, and in its exploration of the internal thoughts and emotions of its main character. It is less successful than a modern novelist might be, however, because today’s novelists have the literary tools and training that Flaubert did not have.

As a result, for modern tastes, this novel is too obvious at times, such as when Emma’s passions arise so readily as she is seduced, when she collapses so completely when rejected, and when both she and her husband succumb so easily to signing promissory notes when they are in financial trouble. On another level, the negative portrait of this provincial society is also too obvious, extending the novel beyond its obvious end and leaving this reader, at least, with an unpleasant image of humanity. Which negates, to a degree, the sympathy for Emma which one should be left with.

Reading this novel provides an education about the world’s literary past, and an appreciation of the literary advances that have been made since. This is an imperfect classic in today’s terms, but it is a classic nevertheless in its portrayal of a lost, helpless woman. (April, 2015)

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