Gustave Flaubert - Madame Bovary

Gustave Flaubert - Madame Bovary
Rating - 9.1

Charles Bovary is a struggling Doctor, married to an older woman he supposes he loves, living out his daily life as one must: working, sleeping, eating. Mediocrity is what he has strived for, mediocrity is what he has attained. Though possessing a mild respect from his patients and immediate social circles, he is a nobody, a ghost: the sort of man you would not notice if, one day, he was to disappear completely.

One day, he is called to the farm of the wealthy Pere Rouault, though he is hardly a shrewd businessman. He sets the injured man's leg, and while he is at the farm, he meets a young, beautiful woman, Emma Bovary. Previously a candle without a flame, Charles sparks into life. Ignoring his wife's carping, he visits the farm, again and again, happy if all he sees of Emma is but the slightest of glimpses. Months pass this way, until finally, his wife grows sick of his behaviour, sharply restricting his freedoms to enjoy once more the role of dominant spouse.

Conveniently, Charles' wife soon dies, and he is free to court Emma. She - and it is from here that the story mostly stays with her - believes that what she feels is love for the young doctor, although the sensations in her heart and soul where not exactly what her romance novels told her they would be. But she accepts his proposal all the same, and they are married. Charles' passion, brought to life so suddenly, stutters and all but dies when his goal is achieved. Emma stifles under his routine, boring lifestyle, wanting more, wishing she could be as glamorous as the fine ladies she reads about in novels or hears about from Paris.

After Emma suffers from a self-inflicted series of fainting attacks, the doctor and his wife travel to the small town of Yonville, hoping that a 'change of air' would help fix her problems. It is in this small town that the story truly begins, and we begin to learn who and what she is.

Emma Bovary! The novel is a song to her, for no matter how deplorable her actions, how base her thoughts or behaviours, the faceless narrator never ceases his love affair with her. Clothes, gestures and facial expressions are lavishly described, and she is always portrayed in a sympathetic light. There is a sense that the narrator is as in love with her as most of the primary male characters are, and that, by encompassing her entire life in his reach, he possesses her more fully than Leon, or Rodolphe, or Charles.

The small village is not exactly what Emma had expected, but she learns to live there. Recently giving birth to a little girl, she is friendly and warm to the other citizens. Too warm, perhaps, for one young student, Leon, takes a fancy to her. He is forever sending smoldering looks her way, or lacing his sentences with passionate meaning. At first, she is repulsed by his advances, then curious, then aroused to passion herself. Their love grows through stolen glances, the slightest of touches, shared letters of love and lust. But it is not to be. Leon leaves, and Emma's heart is broken.

Enter Rodolphe. A dashing, charismatic man, he actively pursues her. There is a very brief scene, from his point of view, where he muses over the winning and discarding of Emma Bovary: 'Three words of gallantry and she'd adore you, I'm sure of it. She would be tender, charming...Yes, but how do we get rid of her afterwards?' Over a festival and a horse ride, he succeeds in seducing her, and they become lovers.

For Emma, Rodolphe is all she could want. Like a couple truly in love, they have clandestine meetings, they share secrets that would destroy them should another discover the truth, they have hidden crannies for letters. She is happiest when they are sneaking through fields to be with one another, because to sneak and hide and scheme is to live and to love. She deifies Rodolphe, placing him high above every other man. She is alive with him, in love with him, she is his. He enjoys the attention until she becomes too clingy, and this, her second adulterous relationship, comes to an end.

Throughout the novel, Emma's behaviour deteriorates from a respectable, upstanding wife of the local doctor, to a secretive, conniving woman who owes thousands. She steals, she lies, she cheats, but manages to rationalise it all because she loves so passionately. What matter for money, if there is love? And if there is money, what better thing to spend it on, than two people who have fallen for one another? She is unwilling - and perhaps unable - to appreciate the reality of what she is doing, as she turns her husband's carefully managed business into a financial wreck, a house of cards that is oh so fragile, waiting for that one tiny breath to send it all tumbling down.

When it does, the novel is at its very best. Emma Bovary is simply unable to accept what is happening to her, and flits from friend to friend, searching for a way out of her troubles. In her idealised romantic world, the heroine never experiences financial ruin, so why should she? In the novels she has read, the leading man and leading lady always triumph, so surely she will too. When this does not appear to be the case, cracks start to appear, and the ruin of her life escalates.

Madame Bovary is a fantastic study of the secret affects of an affair. What we have here is a woman unaccustomed to reality, treating everything as though she is the main character, as though the world is for her, that her will is the ultimate, and that, in the end, love conquers all. It is interesting that even her lovers cannot keep up with her, all eventually growing tired of her constant amplification of what is being experienced. And yet, Emma remains believable. Flaubert keeps her from stumbling into caricature, something that would be all too easy for a lesser author. She is a heroine, she is the star of the show, and though the storyline of the novel may not allow her to achieve what she desires, the beauty of description and the tenderness with which the narrator handles her does. A tremendous achievement.


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