Monday, April 25, 2011

Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary

"Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring; it all begins again with him. There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him. Flaubert decisively established what most readers and writers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible", critic James Woods in How Fiction Works (2008). 

Madame Bovary was Gustave Flaubert's first and most successful novel and is regarded as one of the masterpieces in Western literature.  It has been called a perfect work of fiction and is noted for its vivid detail and realism. Flaubert (1821-1880) spent five years writing Madame Bovary, a long-time by standards of the day.  However, Flaubert had a passionate need to find the correct word ("le mot juste") in his writing and he would spend long hours looking for the right descriptive adjective.  From reading his work, I think his effort was fruitful. I never felt like I was being inundated with trivial details, descriptions or facts.  Rather, I felt I could see, hear, smell and taste the world through these characters. I am not a fan of overly detailed descriptions, but Flaubert has an incredible talent for capturing imagery with words that kept pulling me in.

The title character is Emma Bovary, the young, attractive wife of Charles Bovary, a country doctor. Living in rural France in the mid-1800's, Emma dreams of travel, grand balls and enjoying the fine things in life which are quite beyond her current position. She is constantly comparing the dreariness of her bourgeois, middle-class life with the excitement of living in Paris or being surrounded by high society. She has a strong, reckless personality and is almost entirely devoted to satisfying her own need for pleasure.  She is a sensualist.  By the end of the novel, Emma has spent nearly all of her and Charles's money, largely in supporting her affairs with other men and a secret life of luxury. She does go through moments of repentance where she tries to be a good wife, mother, charitable to the poor and has an almost "born-again" Christian transformation.  However she then swings violently back to her furtive life of debauchery. I think today we would say that Emma is bipolar.

Emma has a strong personality which sharply contrasts with Charles.  He is a humble, dull and tractable man, easily manipulated by both his mother and Emma.  He doesn't recognize that Emma is spending all their money and easily caves into any request she makes.  I think Emma doesn't realize that her unhappiness is something that she creates.  She cannot accept the reality of her situation.  In addition, she refuses to engage in serious self-reflection to improve her life in ways that are within her power.  She is utterly capricious, manipulative, deceitful and a slave to her desires.

I cannot add significantly to the volumes that have been written about Madame Bovary.  However I definitely plan to return to this book and enjoy it again.  Not for the characters or the plot, but for the rich language that Flaubert uses to describe even the most provincial details of provincial life. 

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