Madame Bovary

Good heavens! why did I marry?

And there’s the tale of woe in a sentence by Madame Emma Bovary, the country doctor’s wife whose eyes can pierce a man’s heart, whose pale complexion is much adored.

In summary, the eponymous french novel is about a woman who, to her misfortune, discovers that her husband taught nothing, knew nothing, wished nothing. Taking advantage of his simple-mindedness and stupidity, she entertains an affair with a rake, Monsieur Rodolphe. When he tires of her romantic ideals, he leaves her and she breaks down. When recovered, she meets a former admirer,  Monsieur Leon, with whom she begins a hedonistic lifestyle, compromising and compounding her family’s dire financial situation.

Gustave Flaubert uses realism, which accounts for the chilling familiarity of its characters and their motives.

Rodolphe’s treatment of Emma, when he realized that she is the same as all the women he used, is especially cold, but not surprising. Leon, on the other hand is whipped, a lap dog, the mistress, who’s no better than the dominating Rodolphe in controlling Emma’s downward spiral. Charles Bovary, who is no more amorous nor moved by Emma’s initial affections, is the embodiment of incompetence. One wonders why Emma even bothered to glance his way, if he had nothing to offer but his heart.

Love is not enough for Madame Bovary. It doesn’t meet her needs, it doesn’t give her excitement. Because nothing happened to her, she created a life she thought she deserved.

As this is my first reading, I can’t decide yet if Emma is to blame for all her troubles. Bu I’m curious as to why Emma has no female friends, not even a cousin or a neighbor or an aunt who could have given her wise counsel. Madame Bovary senior could have been that one special friend. But as mothers-in-law in real life are more aloof and suspicious than friendly, Gustave Flaubert gives us a heroine deprived of the power of female friendships, of female enlightenment.

This is not romantic fiction.

In the end, even Berthe, the Bovarys’ only child, does not escape the consequences of her parents’ actions and beliefs.

Tragedy aside, I love how Flaubert captures the reality of his characters’ disposition or situation. For instance, the innocent, like Justin or Berthe, remains voiceless, powerless,  and dependent as any individual with limited means and experience by virtue of their youth or status. The arsenic poisoning is as horrible and as haunting as I think it is. (Meaning: not ideal to read on a stormy night in an empty house).

Recommended for fans of realism and for those who wish to explore french literature.

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