Friday, July 27, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

I re-read my classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.

Written in the mid-nineteenth century, this French novel tells the story of a bored, shallow middle class young lady. When her father broke his leg, she attracted the attention of a local doctor, Charles Bovary. After a short courtship (and the death of the doctor’s first wife) they were wed. They were mismatched from the start.

Charles Bovary is a placid, dull fellow. He is delighted with his beautiful young wife and believes her to be happy because he is. He plods through life, doing what is expected of him. Emma Bovary, on the other hand, frets her way through life. She yearns for high romance and shiny things. She grows furious with her husband and seethes with resentment because he cannot understand the depths of her unhappiness. She spends money they do not have. And finally, she finds the excitement she craves by taking a lover.

Naturally, this does not end well. Rather than a plot summary, which can be found here and other places, I just want to highlight the benefits of re-reading a classic.

I read this many years ago and the details faded in my memory until I remembered little more than a blurb. It’s a book about a woman who commits adultery and pays the price. But that isn’t exactly what I recalled from the book. I wanted to see what all I had forgotten.

What stuck out in my mind mainly was Charles Bovary’s failed attempt to cure the servant’s clubfoot. (Why on earth did that make so big an impression? It’s actually a very minor scene. This time it was a little thing, but I swear it was the defining moment the first time I read the book.) I also recalled that Emma’s wild spending played a bigger role in her downfall than her adultery did. But I didn’t remember how she got "caught." I thought her affair was exposed also. Now I know why I couldn’t remember that scene. Her adultery never really was publicly exposed.

On re-reading, I was struck by just how sad a life Emma lived. She hasn’t even the excuse that she married the wrong man and then met the great love of her life. Emma was just a bored woman on the prowl for a little excitement. And the excitement of the affairs didn’t last. The men eventually grew bored with her. She was trapped in a situation she didn’t know how to escape. I think I had a little more empathy for her–for her thought processes. I could understand the downward spiraling of her boredom and frustration. However, she lost me with her self-absorption.

Finally, I was surprised by the humor/irony in the book. The druggist, Homais, is an ambitious man and a chatterbox, a wonderful foil to Charles Bovary.

The book is, of course, a recognized masterpiece of realism. The marvelously detailed writing will sweep you back into the small-town nineteenth century French world.

I’m now just past the half-way mark in my Back to the Classics Challenge reads. I hope I make it!


  1. I want to reread this at some point. Like you, I think Emma is to be pitied as someone who just needed to do something productive with her life - she had too much time on her hands.

    Good luck with the rest of the challenge!

  2. Never read this one. I will put it on the list.... Great insights.

  3. I love the French classics, I haven't read all that many, but the ones I've read have been so rewarding. I remember that tenotomy scene very well too. I'm sure it's your medical background, like mine that made it so memorable. I didn't blog Madame Bovary, but talked of it when I blogged Flaubert's Parrot.