14. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
History: The work was attacked for obscenity by public prosecutors when it was first serialized in La Revue de Paris between October and December, 1856, resulting in a trial in January 1857 that made the story notorious. After the acquittal, it became a bestseller in book form that year.
Plot: The first part of the novel focuses on Charles, his boyhood, education and life as a doctor until he meets Emma. His wife dies, and he marries Emma, then the book focuses mainly on her. She is a bored married woman, even after having a child she longs for more romance in life, is not happy. One day, a rich landowner brings a servant to the doctor's office. He casts his eye over Emma and decides she is ripe for seduction. To this end, he invites Emma to go riding with him for the sake of her health; A three-year affair follows. Swept away by romantic fantasy, Emma risks compromising herself with indiscreet letters and visits to her lover, and finally insists on making a plan to run away with him. But her lover has no intention of carrying Emma off, and ends the relationship on the eve of the great elopement with an apologetic, self-excusing letter delivered at the bottom of a basket of apricots. The shock is so great that Emma falls deathly ill, and briefly turns to religion. Soon after, Emma and her husband attend an opera, and Emma sees a young man she had a crush on earlier in her marriage, and begins another affair with him. The love affair is exciting at first, but then each grows bored and disillusioned. Emma, purchases increasing amounts of luxury items on credit. When the banker comes to collect, Emma cannot borrow enough money, and in despair, she swallows arsenic and dies an agonizing death; even the romance of suicide fails her. Charles, heartbroken, abandons himself to grief, but then finds some of her old love letters, and goes into a terrible depression. He dies, and his daughter goes to work in the cotton mills.
Review: I read this as a class assignment, and although I appreciated her struggle. I was not really into this book. And what a meaningless tragedy. As I am now older, I can recognize the dullness of life for women in that time, and recognize the realism in the story. The quick fix to her unhappiness and boredom is found through affairs, but the mad and passionate love that is produced is no solution. Even when in a love affair, Emma does not seem happy. As with Anna Karenina, Emma’s happiness seems to fluctuate based on the men in her life.
Opening Line: “Our class was in session when the head master entered, followed by a new boy, not wearing a school uniform, and a servant of the school carrying a large desk.”
Closing Line: He has just received the cross of the Legion of Honour.
Quotes: "Before she married, she thought she was in love; but the happiness that should have resulted from that love, somehow had not come.”
"for her, life was as cold as an attic with a window looking to the north, and ennui, like a spider, was silently spinning its shadowy web in every cranny of her heart."
Rating: rubbish poor mediocre okay good very good superb