Madame Bovary is one of those books I constantly passed up. Don’t ask me why, it just never happened. Admired by nearly every writer I’ve read, Gustave Flaubert was not always such a literary darling. Serialized in 1856, Bovary was condemned by French courts for obscenity. Like most other forms of censorship, the suppression only produced the inverse; the novel became a hit and Flaubert was acquitted. So what still makes this book so notorious?
As noted by most readers and scholars, Madame Bovary ironically opens (and closes) with Charles Bovary, a provincial boy from the Northern French province of Normandy. Arriving in the classroom on the first day of school, young Charles is ridiculed for a ridiculous hat. As he grows older, Charles manages a subpar medical degree and position in the Public Health Service. After his studies, a widow is chosen by Charles’s mother to be his wife. The couple head off to the village of Tostes after the marriage to begin a practice and life of their own.
During one of his home visits, Charles meets Emma Rouault, a beautiful young daughter of a farm-owner. Fixing the owner’s broken leg, the doctor earnestly returns to re-affirm the successful procedure. When Charles’s visits become questionable to his wife, she forbids him from visiting. Eventually his wife dies, and after a brief period of sadness, Charles pursues Emma.
Now we focus on Emma. While Charles is a caring, but dull husband, Emma yearns for the luxurious lifestyle from popular novels. This fantasy becomes a seeming reality when the couple attends a ball giving by a nearby Marquis. The lavish soiree paves a posh life in Emma’s mind and contempt for her current marriage. Though escaping her provincial life for a more proper one isn’t as easy as Emma would wish.
One of the most important, yet overlooked, aspects of Madame Bovary is the subtitle: ‘Mouers de Province’(Provincial Lives). As mentioned in the Geoffrey Wall’s Introduction, Flaubert kept a scrapbook entitled The Dictionary of Received Ideas, where the “voices” of his village in Normandy were recorded.* When Charles and Emma relocate to Yonville (where most of the novel is centered), a wide array of characters enter the text. Much like the Bovarys, we enter a new social group, and becoming acquainted with the village characters takes time. By the end of the novel, we find Flaubert’s inclusion of these seemingly superfluous inhabitants much to our delight:
“Clattering across the floorboards in his clogs, he went up the stairs in front of Emma, and showed her into a little office, where on a large pinewood desk stood a number of ledgers, secured behind a padlocked iron bar. Against the wall, under some calico remnants, you could just see a safe, but one of such dimensions that must have contained other things besides the bills and money. Monsieur Lheureux made small loans on security, and this was where he kept Madame Bovary’s gold chain, along with the earrings of poor Pere Tellier, who, forced eventually to sell up, had bought an ailing grocery business in Quincampoix, where he was dying of a catarrh, with a face yellower than the candles in his shop.”
As you can tell the excerpt above, Flaubert makes careful use of his voice. Known for his re-writes, the author composed over 4,561 pages in which 400 became Madame Bovary. This certainty of writing within the novel allows Flaubert to be a “pioneer” of Realism in literature. The main component of movement is, as you imagine, reality over romantic notions that previously held a foothold in narratives. Despite Bovary‘s airy prose, the author even makes explicit mention of grounded parochial landscape over former Romantic themes. Notice Charles’s Mother attack her son on Emma’s “spoilt” reading habits:
“Ah! Busy indeed! And with what? Busy reading novels, wicked books, things written against religion where priests are made a mockery with speeches taken from Voltaire. It al leads to no good, my poor boy, and anyone with no religion always comes to a bad end...Therefore, it was decided to prevent Emma from reading novels. This was by no means an easy matter. The old lady took it upon herself: on her way through Rouen she was to call in person at the lending library and notify them that Emma was canceling her subscriptions. Would they not have the right to tell the police, if the librarian still persisted in this poisonous trade?”
There is much difficulty in finding fault within Madame Bovary‘s pages. Henry James dedicated a significant portion in his 1914 book on literary criticism, Notes on Novelist:
“‘Madame Bovary’ beyond question, holds first place…The elements of the picture are of the fewest, the situation of the heroine almost of the meanest, the material for interest most unpromising; but all these facts only throw into relief one of those incalculable incidents that the proceedings of genius.”
And later Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa would pen an autobiographical admiration for Flaubert’s novel in The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary:
“In the summer of 1959 I arrived in Paris with very little money and the promise of a scholarship. One of the first things I did was to buy a copy of ‘Madame Bovary’ in the Classiques Garnier edition, in a bookstore in the Latin Quarter. I began reading it that very afternoon, in a tiny room in the Hôtel Wetter, near the Musée Cluny. It is at this point that my story really begins. From the very first lines, the books power of persuasion was like an extremely potent magic spell. It had been years since any novel had vampirized my attention so quickly, blotted out my physical surroundings so completely, plunged me so deeply into the story it told. As the afternoon wore on, as night fell, as dawn began to break, the magical decantation, the substitution of the fictional world for the real one, held me spellbound. Morning had already come, Emma and Léon had just met in a box at the Rouen opera when, dizzy with fatigue, I put the book down and went to bed: in my troubled sleep at that hour the Rouaults farm, the muddy streets of Tostes, the figure of Charles, good-natured and stupid, the ponderous pedantry of Homais (who might well have been Argentine) continued to exist, as vividly as when I’d been reading about themand above these persons and these places, like an image foreshadowed in a thousand childhood dreams, dimly glimpsed from the moment I’d begun devouring books so avidly in adolescence, there hovered the face of Emma Bovary. As I woke up so as to go on reading, two certainties flashed through my mind, like two bolts of lightning: I now knew what writer I would have liked to be; and I knew that from that moment on, till my dying day, I would be in love with Emma Bovary. In the future she would be for me, as for Léon Dupuis in the first days of their affair, “the beloved of every novel, the heroine of every play, the vague she of every volume of verse.” “
Flaubert’s Madame Bovary legacy obviously carries on today; why else would I feel bad about not reading it until now? Despite it’s intoxicating prose and Vargas’s obsessive reading of the novel, I took my time dipping into the provincial lives outside of Rouen – why rush reading about a location where time stands still? My advice is to fill yourself with the comedy, romance, and tragedy of Madame Bovary and enjoy the country landscape as Flaubert did, even if it’s trivial.
*Though Flaubert condemned with narrow minds, he would remained cooped up and kept company by the middle class he so loathed.