Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary I read Madame Bovary during April as part of a readalong hosted by Juliana of Cedar Station and CJ of ebookclassics. It was a book I’d been thinking about reading for a while anyway so the announcement of the readalong couldn’t have come at a better time for me.

Madame Bovary is a French realist novel published in 1856. The title character, Emma Bovary, longs to experience the drama and excitement she has read about in romantic novels but she is unlikely to find it in her marriage to Charles Bovary, an unambitious country doctor. Charles loves his wife and is not unkind to her, but Emma finds him boring and her life dull and meaningless. After she and Charles attend a ball hosted by the Marquis d’Andervilliers, Emma becomes depressed and miserable; she has had a glimpse of a more glamorous world and it has left her even more disillusioned and dissatisfied with her own situation.

Charles wonders whether a move to a larger town will make her happy but Emma is no more content in their new home in Yonville-l’Abbaye than she was in the small village they’ve left behind. Seeking an escape from her unhappy existence, Emma has affairs and spends money she can’t afford, but as she becomes more reckless in both her romantic and financial entanglements, her life begins to spiral out of control.

It has been interesting to read the opinions of other readalong participants, because while I think we all agree that Emma’s behaviour is silly and self-destructive, the amount of sympathy we have for her seems to vary widely. Some readers can relate to Emma and admire her for doing something to try to change her life and find some happiness; other readers find her very selfish and annoying.

I’m one of those readers who didn’t like Emma at all, though I did have some pity for her, because I know there weren’t many options open to women in the 19th century, particularly those living in provincial areas, who wanted more from life than just to be a wife and mother. I can see why she may have felt that adultery was a way of escape and a way to find the passion she’d read about in books. I thought it was sad that Emma couldn’t even take any pleasure in her daughter (when Berthe is born, her first emotion is disappointment that the baby isn’t a boy). Later, when Berthe comes up to her hoping for affection Emma pushes the little girl away so that she falls and hurts herself. Poor Berthe – and life doesn’t get any better for her later in the book either.

I don’t think Charles was entirely blameless as he could have made more effort to understand his wife’s feelings and he was so naïve that he seemed completely oblivious to what was going on, but my sympathy was definitely with him and with Berthe more than with Emma. I noticed, though, that Flaubert himself seems to stay neutral throughout the novel, reporting on his characters’ thoughts and actions without actually passing judgment on them and telling us what we should think.

There were parts of this book that I really enjoyed, but I’ll have to be honest and say that much as I wanted to love this book I just didn’t. I think my dislike of Emma was part of the problem, but not the whole problem, as I didn’t find the writing style very engaging either. The version of Madame Bovary that I read was an older Penguin edition (pictured above) translated by Alan Russell – I had no reason for choosing this translation other than that it happened to be the one I already had on my shelf, which seemed as good a reason as any. I didn’t really have any problems with it and found it easy enough to read, but having since read that Flaubert prided himself on always searching for the perfect word, in this case it’s possible that the translation did affect my enjoyment. I didn’t like the book enough to want to read it again in a different translation to find out, though!

While this has not become a favourite classic, I’m still glad I’ve read it. If nothing else, I can now see where Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s inspiration for her novel The Doctor’s Wife came from!

16 thoughts on “Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

  1. Naomi says:

    I enjoyed this rrad-along and reading everyone’s different reactions to the book. I think now that I have read it, I may start seeing things in other books that remind me of Madame Bovary. The themes from this book are timeless and universal.

  2. Anbolyn Potter (@anbolynp) says:

    I’ve read this book twice in my life – the first time I completely sympathized with Emma, the second time I thought she was ridiculous. I wonder what I would think now! It made a great impression on me as a teen – it is one of the books I remember most from that time in my life because it made me think about women and our options.

    • Helen says:

      It’s interesting that you felt so differently the second time you read it…I wonder if Emma is a character younger readers will identify with more.

  3. Lizzi says:

    I read this a couple of months ago after it had been sitting on my shelf for years. I’m glad I read it too, but I have to say I did not enjoy it much. Though I loved Falubert’s writing the whole story was so grim I couldn’t do anything but think about all the ways all this unhappiness could have been avoided! I found Emma a bit unsympathetic though I agree with your point that she has very few options and one can understand why she sees adultery as her only way to feel free. I just wanted to shake her and show her the good things she already had, poor little Berthe is particular.

    • Helen says:

      I had a bit of sympathy for Emma at first, but couldn’t forgive her for the way she treated Berthe! As you say, so much of the unhappiness and suffering in the story could easily have been avoided.

  4. Lisa says:

    I read this years ago, in French, when I was briefly a French major in college. I’m sure I missed a lot, since I was still learning the language. I’ve always meant to re-read it, in English, and I was reminded of it after reading The Doctor’s Wife.

    • Helen says:

      I wish I understood French well enough to be able to read this book in the original language. It’s difficult to know how much my enjoyment and understanding of it may have been affected by the translation.

  5. N@ncy says:

    I read it in French in 2012 as part of a challenge ‘read French for a year’ . I took me 3 months to get through it! At one point I hoped Emma would take the poison asap so I could close the book. Of course there were moments of great writing by Flaubert. He descrbes Charles’ mother ‘growing old like a bottle of stale wine who is slowly turning into vinegar”. It remains a wonderful piece of literature.

    • Helen says:

      Congratulations on reading the book in French and not giving up, even if it took three months! I agree that this is an important and influential piece of literature – I just wish I had loved it as much as I was hoping to.

  6. piningforthewest says:

    I read this one a year or so ago and like you I’m glad that I read it but I really didn’t like Emma at all, so it is never going to be a favourite with me.

    • Helen says:

      I can often still enjoy a book even if I don’t like the characters, but in this case not liking Emma was a big problem for me!

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