After working my way through some contemporary novels, I thought it time to return to the list of classics stacked in my To Read pile. For a while now, I have been waiting for a chance (when time and taste coincide) to pick up Flaubert’s celebrated masterpiece Madame Bovary. It is a book that I came to with few preconceptions, knowing only that it was the tale of a ‘fallen woman’. My knowledge of the book was, in fact, almost entirely dominated by the controversy surrounding it. The book was put on trial in 1857 for obscenity, a trial thankfully won by the book’s author. Today, Madame Bovary is held up as an example of the social and moral challenges that literature is capable of administering.
The novel follows the story of Emma Bovary, a country girl thrust into marriage with the devoted and simple doctor, Charles Bovary. Emma, a lover of romantic literature and an anguished fantasist, finds herself frustrated with the monotony of the provincial life to which she is subject. Dreaming of balls, Parisian theatres and fashion, and high society, Emma begins to loathe her husband and their life in the quiet town of Yonville. Seduced by the roguish Rodolphe Boulanger, Emma embarks upon an adulterous affair, brought to an end by Rodolphe’s loss of interest. Emma subsequently reignites a flame with the clerk, Leon Dupuis. As she pursues a path of self-destruction, it is Emma’s conflict with the society and conventions to which she is consigned that stands most prevalent and problematic.
“No matter! She was not happy – she never had been. Whence came this insufficiency of life – this instantaneous turning to decay of everything on which she leant? But if there were somewhere a being strong and beautiful, a valiant nature, full at once of exaltation and refinement, a poet’s heart in angel’s form, a lyre with sounding chords ringing out elegiac epithalamia to heaven, why, perchance, should she not find him? Ah! how impossible! Besides, nothing was worth the trouble of seeking it; everything was a lie. Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a curse, all pleasure satiety, and the sweetest kisses left upon your lips only the unattainable desire for a greater delight.”
I was blown away by this book. Flaubert’s prose is arguably unrivalled amongst his contemporaries – a unique combination of lyricism and realism. It is, in fact, his realistic style that is most celebrated as a revolutionary development in classical literature. Yet it is the ease with which he poeticises reality that I found most appealing. For a novel first published in 1856, it held none of the practical reading challenges that are typically found in other works of the period. It did not demand intense levels of concentration in order to tease out meaning and develop some understanding of the longer, descriptive passages. Madame Bovary reads with a real ease.
Beyond this, the book is truly remarkable in the social and moral challenges that it poses. To have an understanding of this, it is certainly necessary to know something of the social context in which Madame Bovary was published. An evolution in moral standards means that much of what shocked the Victorian readership would barely raise an eyebrow today. Through the character of Emma, Flaubert depicts a socially-wraught moral degradation. She is undoubtedly a woman undone.
“But with that superior critical judgment that belongs to him who, in no matter what circumstance, holds back, Rodolphe saw other delights to be got out of this love. He thought all modesty in the way. He treated her quite sans facon. He made of her something supple and corrupt. Hers was an idiotic sort of attachment, full of admiration for him, of voluptuousness for her, a beatitude that benumbed her; her soul sank into this drunkenness, shrivelled up, drowned in it…”
Yet what is remarkable about Flaubert’s description of Emma’s descent is the judgment that it brings to bear upon society. Emma is a product of the monotony and expectations to which she is subject. She dreams of romance and the bourgeois manners depicted in her novels. While Flaubert mocks this, he simultaneously highlights Emma’s heroism in daring to step outside of society’s restrictions. Emma is, from the first introduction of her character, clearly on a path of self-destruction. She is frustrated by the banality of her existence and manipulates her life into a deluded representation of her fantasies. In this, she becomes frivolous and wild.
“Or at other times, consumed more ardently than ever by that inner flame to which adultery added fuel, panting tremulous, all desire, she threw open her window, breathed in the cold air, shook loose in the wind her too heavy masses of hair, and, gazing upon the stars, longed for some princely love.”
It is all too easy to bandy the word ‘masterpiece’ around (my general enthusiasm for books means that I definitely tend towards overuse). But Madame Bovary lives up to the label. It is beautiful in its prose, precise in its descriptive settings, and magnificent in the themes and messages woven throughout its narrative. That Flaubert once proclaimed “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” (“Madame Bovary is me”) perhaps tells us more about the author’s purposes in writing the novel. Emma, in all her extremity, is a reflection on a society that posits dreams but makes them unrealisable through restriction. Despite critiques of the book, Flaubert is not advocating adultery. Rather, Emma’s adulterous affairs are to be viewed as the inevitable consequence of the conflict between dreams and social reality. She is doomed from the start.
Henry James described Madame Bovary as perfection. Taken of its time and with its purposes understood, I would have to agree.