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!