Spoiler alert! Plot point giveaways straight ahead!
She was discontent. She was married to a country doctor and lived in a small town in France not far from Rouen. Her husband would do anything for her and loved her dearly but he was just a country bumpkin and he bored her. Emma Bovary had two love affairs that did not end well and she ran her household into debt trying to buy gifts for her lovers and trying to keep up appearances. Then, when everything was about to come crashing down on her head and the creditors were at the door ready to repossess all her belongings, she ate a handful of poison and died a painful death. Her heartbroken husband followed soon thereafter and her little daughter wound up working in a cotton factory. A story that one might say had tragic dimensions.
Now, this all might seem rather straightforward, hackneyed, and mundane, but it is not so. One, it is a prototype for many stories just like it that were to be repeated again and again into the future. But, two, it is the writing style Flaubert engages in that holds our attention and keeps us turning the pages. The book has been called a masterpiece and for good reason.
I came upon this novel the same way I come upon so many things in life, by way of another novel: My Life as a Man, by Philip Roth. In it, Roth refers to Flaubert again and again, quoting him liberally. For example, in a letter to his mistress, Colet, in 1853, which Roth cites as an example to his writing students, Flaubert writes the following: “What seemed to me to be the highest and most difficult achievement of art is not to make us laugh or cry, but to do as nature does – that is, fill us with wonder.” And that is exactly what Flaubert has achieved in this magnificent work, he has filled us with wonder. I was hooked and vowed to read Madame Bovary as my very next novel.
In his description of country life in the small town of Yonville, Flaubert has created some unforgettable characters and has given us a taste of what it must have been like to live among them at that time and place. We have presented to us two funerals and a wedding, and a country fair. They spring to life for us before our very eyes.
We meet such characters as, Homais, the town pharmacist who was a know-it-all and loved to hear himself talk. Leon, a young law clerk who falls in love with Emma. Rodolphe, is a wealthy landowner, and a ladies’ man. Lheureux, is a local merchant, and a moneylender. Binet, the tax collector who retreats to his attic and spins out countless wooden napkin holders on his wood lathe. Abbe Bournisien, the town priest. And an assorted number of other colorful characters.
It is alleged that Flaubert once said, “I am Emma Bovary.” I haven’t been able to substantiate that claim anywhere, but I wouldn’t doubt that he identified with his heroine. Quite frankly, I identified with her as well. She must appeal to the anima that resides in my soul. But more than that she is a romantic figure much influenced by her reading of romantic novels and being in love with love. At one point she muses, “Love, she believed, must come suddenly, with great thunderclaps and bolts of lightning, – a hurricane from heaven that drops down on your life, overturns it tears away your will like a leaf, and carries your whole heart off with it into the abyss.”
Emma also rails against the French Bourgeois society of 19 th century France, which Flaubert also hated. She is trapped in a society where women have no agency and only a limited amount of freedom. Her only power comes from her sexuality.
Flaubert also explores the theme of fate (chance) vs free will illustrated by the following passages:
“You and I, for instance, why did we meet? What chance decreed it? It must be that, like two rivers flowing across the intervening distance and converging, our own particular inclinations impelled us toward one another.” Rodolphe to Emma
“One can’t fight against providence; one can’t resist the smiles of an angel!”
“Our destinies are bound together now, aren’t they?”
“Fate is to blame, only fate!”
And boredom. Anna was bored: “…boredom, that silent spider, was spinning its web in the darkness in every corner of her heart.”
A note about the translation. There is nothing more important to me in the enjoyment of a book written in a language other than my own than a good translation. The version I read was translated by Lydia Davis and it is excellent.
This is what Flaubert had to say about the importance of a good translation: “A good sentence should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous.” And Davis has achieved this as the novel reads like poetry and it goes down like drinking a glass of cool refreshing water.