Have you heard of Madame Bovary? If not, the internet will inform you that Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 work is actually one of the ‘greatest novels of all time.’ Intrigued, I decided to read an English translation of the French work and I must say, I’m not sure what all the hype is about.
In short, without spoilers, Madame Bovary is a tale of a young family living in a small French village. The story starts out from the point of view of Charles Bovary, an average man with average dreams, who is set up by his mother to marry a rich woman. We do not learn much about the first Madame Bovary, but after her unexpected death, Charles begins to court the beautiful Emma, a country woman who is living with her father. It is Emma, rather than Charles, who becomes the focus of this novel. The second Madame Bovary is filled with energy and zeal. Although a village girl herself, her love of literature has her dreaming of Paris, adventures, and fine clothing. Not long after moving in with Charles, Emma’s highly-anticipated marriage has left her feeling unfulfilled. Now, when she looks at her husband Charles, she does not see a prince charming, rather a boorish man without passion or interests. Although Charles proves to be dependable and doting, Emma is appalled that she ever had the ability to love someone so ordinary.
Emma has a thirst for finery, luxury, and lust that simply cannot be quenched. Her humdrum marriage, while necessary for financial stability, is not worth her time or energy. Instead, she seeks out romantic relationships with other men and even plots to leave her husband for good on more than one occasion. Emma’s taste for excitement and the finer things, however, ultimately lands her into a good deal of trouble and the book takes a dark turn.
Overall, I did enjoy the story even though I found the characters of Emma and Charles to be a bit melodramatic. However, when I reached the final page of the book and let everything digest, I still could not pinpoint why this book received such great praise. Through a few Google searches I learned a bit about why Madame Bovary received critical acclaim. First, it is important to note that the book was novel for the time. The romantic rendezvous mentioned in the book were so scandalous that Flaubert was actually taken to court for obscenity. Second, Flaubert’s proses are considered to be genius in French. Each sentence was crafted to convey a certain tone and meaning, which created a perfect cadence in French that is impossible to translate. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Madame Bovary is a psychological novel. Through Emma’s life dissatisfaction and search for happiness, the reader explores the human experience in a way that was not commonly done in novels. While the plot is relatively simple, the search for meaning and happiness is profound. The fact that the reader is aware of Emma’s desires and internal struggles is no big deal to the modern reader, however a candid look at life in this way was enlightening at the time.
So, when it comes to Madame Bovary, I will say that if you are interested in classic fiction, make sure you add this title to your reading list. If you are seeking a modern psychological thriller like Gone Girl, this comparatively simple drama will not hold your appeal. Regardless, every once in a while it is nice to read something new, and I am glad that I made some room on my reading list for this classic tale.