Lo's Reviews > Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
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Jan 13, 2012

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Alternate titles for Madame Bovary could have been "A Case for Divorce" or "Money Corrupts", which would have just as well captured the underlying theme of Flaubert's revolutionary novel.

Picture a Jane Austen book where the characters have realistic depth with the ethics of Dicken's novels interwoven into the plot line and you have Madame Bovary. This book is not a romance or "what life should be..." novel; no, Gustave Flaubert writes of what life and marriage can be/fall into with time - a platitude of frustration and lost dreams (especially of his time with the arrangement of marriage).

The heroine of this story, Emma Bovary, is married young to Charles Bovary at her father's behest. In her naviety and youth, she desperately tries to love the banal Charles - a truly average man who is fortunate enough (or misfortune enough) to marry an exceptionally beautiful and intelligent Emma Bovary. Without gumption or drive, Charles just lives his life at the hands of his mother and Emma, doing whatever they command and never fully appeasing either of them. Emma, in time, realizes the void in her marriage, and falls into the seduction of romances with other men. Give her this, she fights it (to some degree), but she falls for the fabulously wealthy and suave womanizer Rodolphe and ultimately her true love, Leon.

However, Emma, who probably would be diagnosed with biopolar disorder in modern times, swings from each romantic high to the pits of depression as easily as turning on a light switch. When at a low, she frivolously spends all of Charles's money (which, being average, he doesn't have a lot of) and racks up a terrible debt over time. Charles, hopelessly in love with Emma, does whatever she says and gives in to her every whim (including "piano lessons" which are actually visits to her lover). After chasing the dreams of extravagance and passionate romance, Emma finds herself rejected by two men she worships and in an impossible debt. With no other option and the walls closing in around her, she commits suicide to escape. Her death, unmourned by her loves, completely devastates Charles, who dies from heartbreak after discovering her letters from her two lovers.

Written over 150 years ago, Madame Bovary's themes and character personalities are still relevant in modern times. As aforementioned, the title "A Case for Divorce" would be appropriate because about half way through the book, you see the pain and misery the Bovary's marriage is/will causing/e
them both. Emma literally feels trapped by her marriage, which causes her to take out her unhappiness on her innocent husband. Yes, divorce would have deeply upset him, but it might have spared him the tragic ending that Emma brought on him from the grave. The description of marriage and relationships are captured well by Flaubert - the excitement of a new romance and a beautiful woman soon give away when you realize (1) she's insane (2) she's incredibly clingy. Rodolphe's personality and character traits are quite the bane of modern women's existence today - the "oh I love him, but he treats me poorly" and the "he says he loves me though..." are still exclaimed by women presently.

Gustave Flaubert's writing is beautiful, which is a serious bonus for this book. It is a little hard to get in to, but if you can make it to about 1/3 in, you'll find yourself captivated by Flaubert's style (if not his story line). One of my favorite lines was the narrator describing Emma's sentiment towards marriage: "and ennui, the silent spider, was weaving its web in the darkness in every corner of her heart". So elegant!

Another interesting point in this book is the complete neglect of Emma and Charles's daughter, Berthe. While her father fawns over her mother and her mother suffers mentally, this poor child is utterly forgotten and unloved. While her mother is buying expensive trinkets, Berthe is left with holes in her stockings to be raised by the servants. The ending for Berthe is tragic - a woman who could have been a lady, encompassing the best of Emma's looks and Charles's steadfastness, instead is left an orphan to work in a factory. The poor girl in no way deserved her fate, and throughout the book, she is presented as an obstacle to both her parents (less on Charles's part, but he doesn't even really notice her until Emma dies).

I would definitely recommend this book. I gave it three stars (high three) only because I did not care for the ending. However, it should be noted that Gustave Flaubert really had no other option to end his book about an adulterous free spirited woman in his time period than with suicide in a very painful fashion. It just felt rushed and it was somewhat dissonant with the rest of the novel, with the mental destruction and death of just about every main character (besides the male escorts, they make out just fine). But as mentioned before, the writing of this book is so beautiful and intelligent, it would be worth reading just for that fact.
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