Book Reviews: Madame Bovary

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Madame Bovary

by Gustave Flaubert

I read this Lydia Davis translation of Madame Bovary as part of the read-along hosted by Nonsuch Book.

Let me begin with saying sometimes it’s hard to read classics because there are so many references to their plots mentioned in other books and movies, that when you finally read them you find out that you already know too much.

I started Madame Bovary already knowing the ending and much of the plot, which is unfortunate. I can only imagine how powerful this novel was for people who had no idea what was going to happen, especially when it first came out. That being said, I knew very little about the first half of the book and was surprised by quite a bit of the plot.

At the beginning we meet a sweet farm girl, Emma. Charles Bovary is married to a horrible woman and he falls for the lovely girl. After his wife passes away, Charles marries Emma, making her the title Madame Bovary (not to be confused with his first wife or his mother, both of which are frequently referred to as Madame Bovary).

Emma is infatuated with the idea of love, but neither she, nor her husband, actually understand what real love is. Emma expects something like the passionate affairs she’s read about in books. Charles’ version of a marriage is a simple relationship with little interaction beyond basic marital relations and discord. He expects very little from his wife and in return he gives her very little.

Soon Emma is completely disenchanted with married life. As a newlywed she wonders what will happen to her bridal bouquet when she dies. Later, feeling completely numb and emotionally dead, she burns the bouquet herself, demonstrating just how detached she’s become.

SPOILERS: The following comments discuss aspects in the Part II and III of the novel.

Emma is searching for something to save her from her boredom and she falls for a young man, Leon, with whom she has wonderful discussions. Soon he leaves, because she’s married, and she sets her sights on Roldolphe, a local bachelor, instead. He has decided he’ll take her as a mistress and sees their relationship as a casual one. She, on the other hand, sees him as her salvation. She’s miserable and hangs all of her hopes on him. When they decide to run away together she thinks of her daughter as a mere afterthought, she’s so wrapped up in her affair. She becomes more desperate and reckless as she feels her lover slipping away from her.

The scene at the opera was incredibly poignant to me. Emma watches the love affair unfold on the stage just as her own did, while her husband sits next to her, never comprehending what his wife is thinking.

The book begins and ends with Charles, which is fitting. He is completely oblivious to most of what happens in his wife’s life and she passes in and out of his life before he even knows what happened. He only lets himself see what he wants to see. He pictures Emma as an innocent doll, incapable of intentionally doing anyone harm. He’s both a victim and enabler in this tragic story. He does love his wife, or at least the idea of her, but he never really gets to know her, which just increases her isolation.

The real victims in the story are all of the people left behind when Emma is gone. Her daughter’s story was particularly sad. She’s no more than a footnote in most of the book and then at the end, she’s orphaned and alone in the world. Her selfish mother was never willing to put her daughter’s happiness before her own.

Even though, in the end, Emma proves herself to be self-absorbed and immature, I still loved the book. It was a wonderful portrait of a woman who begins with a romantic vision of love in her mind and is heartbroken by its realities. Instead of choosing to find meaning in her relationships and give them depth, she flits to other lovers hoping to find that illusive “romance.” She looks to wealth, spending money like she can buy happiness. She thrives on lies and the thrill of getting caught. She seeks only momentary pleasure and in doing so she ruins not only herself, but her whole family. Flaubert’s talent is obvious, because despite all of those things, we still care what happens to her.

One note on the translation:
I can't compare all of Lydia Davis' new translation to previous ones as this is my first time reading Madame Bovary. I did read a few of the same passages I’d highlighted in Davis’ translation in another copy of the book and found them to be very similar. But Davis certainly has an elegant way with words, which enhanced my experience with the book.

To participate in the rest of the read-along, visit Nonsuch Book here.

She will post on Part 2 on Thursday, Oct. 21 and on the final section on Thursday, Oct. 28.


B said...

I really love the cover of this novel. I don't know much about the plot, or the ending, and I didn't read your spoilers. Maybe this would a good one for me to pick up, when I am looking for something powerful.

LindyLouMac said...

Another blogger I follow is reading this (Jessica)maybe you are in the same read a long group? Interesting you do not mention at all if you found this relevant to modern times sat all?

Thanks for your comment earlier this evening to which I have now replied, must say I was surprised.

Jeanne said...

I haven't reread this since I was 18, but loved it deeply, to the point of homage, as I will reveal tomorrow!

Teacher/Learner said...

Have always wanted to read this, so I had to skip the spoiler part :o) That's an interesting point about translations. I wonder how interpretative they are & what kinds of differences bilingual readers notice...

Ana S. said...

I haven't read this yet - I plan to someday, but unfortunately I too will be going in already knowing pretty much the whole story. But I hope that like you I'll love it despite that.

Bybee said...

I read this novel a few years ago and loved it. The genius of it was in the way Flaubert told the story. If he had told it in a flighty, romantic way resembling Emma's preferred reading, then the book would barely be noticed today. I really love that cover!

Susan E. Harris-Gamard said...

I am definitely interested in what this new translation brings to the equation. I have a very old copy of it myself. I also would love to read the book in the original French, but I think that is way too ambitious for me! Haven't read the whole book in a while, so thanks for the review! I've also noticed other bloggers reading this one. Must be the read-along.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Isn't that cover gorgeous!

LindyLouMac - I do think it's relavent to modern times, but I don't think women are in the same position now. It's always compared to a "desperate housewives" plot, but back then women were much more dependant on their husbands, so deciding to have an affair was a much bigger risk than now.

Bybee - I completely agree. Flaubert's writing saved the story form being shallow and flighty. The beauty of his words gave it a wonderful weight.

Wingchair - I always feel like a slacker for not learning to read in some other languages so that I can read the original text of books. Maybe one day.

Jenners said...

I never would have thought that I would consider reading this... but your wonderful review is making me reconsider. Well done!

Frances said...

Love that you point out that the book begins and ends with Charles. A starting point that grounds us and alerts us to the mediocrity of the bourgeoisie that we will encounter. Also allows us to meet Emma through his eyes as young and innocent with her expectations of life still intact. And ending with him brings us back to earth in a startling way, a departure from the dizzying heights preferred by Emma.

Thanks so much for reading along!

Amanda said...

I read this in 2008 and hated every word of it. I kept begging her to please go through with it and kill herself so that book could end. It reminded me way too much of Anna Karenina, which I also hated. I do wonder if part of my problem was the translation, which was very old and very dry, but I'm not sure I would ever want to try a different one...

Shelley said...

Your assessment of their lack of understanding of real love is very accurate in my opinion. I quickly scrolled though the spoiler section, and was even afraid to read the comments, so I'll come back again after I finish!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Amanda - I think this one, and Anna K., worked for me because I let myself dislike the main characters and focused more on the plot. I did get frustrated with both women though, because they're so selfish!

Shelley - I can't wait to see your final thoughts.

Richard said...

I loved Madame Bovary, Melissa, largely because of its psychology, its writing, and the presentation of the characters from such differing points of views. With this in mind, I have to echo Frances and say it's interesting what you point out about the novel beginning and ending with Charles--after all, most of the middle part of the book is all about Madame Bovary's point of view!