Taka's Reviews > Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
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's review
Oct 03, 08

bookshelves: japan_jul07-aug11, french_lit
Read in October, 2008

A perfect novel?

That's what the critics say. Some reviewers are more honest. They say it's admirably boring. The critics snub at them and say they don't understand the true literary value of the novel.

I for one found the first 140 pages supremely boring, with page after page of static descriptions and summaries of what happened. As a modern reader, I would've liked more scenes, but more than that, I wanted more drama. The novel may accurately and vividly depict what the provincial life was like back in the early 19th century France; it may make scathing social commentaries of the day; it may be rich in symbolism and themes that can be studied and discussed in English classes and further vivisected in academic papers; but despite all these seeming virtues, I just have to say that the first 140 pages was quite excruciating and the rest was just short of "good."

It got better after the first 140 pages, no doubt, but I must admit that I wasn't drawn into it. Punctuated by long expositions that didn't progress the story one bit or illuminate the characters in any way, the novel's tempo was much slow and the constant interruptions just plain annoying.

My philosophy is that literature ought to be entertaining as well as edifying and beautiful. Unfortunately, I found Flaubert's translated prose dull and clanky. And more importantly, it was, for the better part of the novel, hypnotically sleep-inducing. It may be edifying or informative or didactic or thematically and symbolically subtle. But without the beauty of the prose or an engaging story, I didn't think it deserves the high accolades it receives universally from anyone who studied literature.

I love reading literature, but when I'm evaluating any work of it, I try to leave what others have said before and be frank with myself. As far as Madame Bovary is concerned, the prose disappoints and the story sucks. That's my honest-to-God opinion of this much revered, (to me at least) overrated work.

Classics doesn't mean you must like it. If it doesn't make you fall in love with it, chuck it away and move on.

Overall, the first 140 pages sucked tremendously and the rest had its moments but was OK on average = it was OK

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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Rob (new)

Rob thank you. the hype had always forced me to keep this on the "one day" list, but my literary sixth sense always told me "booooring".

i have a strong suspicion that it's a translation thing. i love sartre, and sartre was majorly obsessed with flaubert. but it's so hard to believe that the genius sartre would be majorly obsessed with something that was mediocre. so maybe m. bovary IS mindblowing for native french speakers. but when translated by a non-genius into english, it becomes at best OK.

anyway, i'm grateful to have confidence that it belongs in the "probably never" pile.

message 2: by Taka (last edited Oct 04, 2008 11:10PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Taka Thanks for the comment, Rob.

It could very well be the translation, and the language in the original French may be unbelievably beautiful, but still, it's hard to see the translation having any major effect on the story. Translation doesn't (and shouldn't) alter the basic story, and so even if the book scores high on the aesthetic and social commentary scores, it fails miserably with story-telling.

As your six sense tells you, it's boring for the most part.

haha, yeah I don't think you'd be missing out by consigning it to the "probably never" pile. There are so many awesome and more entertaining books out there.

Petra X I really loved the book. Your review seems to say that honest people admit the book was boring and dishonest people pretend to have enjoyed it. I really loved the book, I'm honest. But I am happy to admit that lots of people really didn't like it. I don't think there is a book where a 100% of people agree that it is wonderful or otherwise.

I enjoy reading reviews where the reviewer has not seen the book in the same way as me, they often bring out points I hadn't considered.

Taka Petra X wrote: "I really loved the book. Your review seems to say that honest people admit the book was boring and dishonest people pretend to have enjoyed it. I really loved the book, I'm honest. But I am happy t..."

Thanks for stopping by, Petra :) I didn't mean what you thought my review seems to say at all. By "honesty" I mean I try not to let what other people/critics say or the status of the book as "classic" sway my opinion. If I don't like one of Shakespeare's plays, for example, I don't lie to myself and tell myself, it's Shakespeare, it must be good, hence I must like it. Rather, I'd like to just admit I didn't like it. Nothing to do with other people's honesty.


Shawn I don't think it is fair to judge a book, or any work of art for that matter, by contemporary expectations and standards. Stylistically and thematically, contemporary literature is obviously quite different. The reason why the 'classics' are classics is because of the timeless themes they explore. For those willing to place themselves within the context of the times the piece was written, these books are both profitable and enjoyable. Yes, they can be a bit tedious at times, but that is because novels were written differently. Who can argue that Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Poe, Hawthorne, and so many others are some of the best writers of fiction to ever put pen to paper? Yet, I am afraid that most modern readers will absolutely hate their style and delivery. I would propose that when we review books we take into consideration when the work was written. We need to be more objective.

As a last thought, we have to consider the intention of the author. Many contemporary books have the intentional of entertaining the audience as if it were a movie. Books aren't movies. They are entertaining, but they don't do so in the same way that movies do. A movie can show the viewer a scene in a matter of seconds, while a book might require several pages to describe a house or building or or the countryside. Books are also at times more interested in the psychic life of the characters and as such, can sometimes be a better vehicle than a film for exploring the psychic life of a character. Further, movies are constrained by time. Books aren't. Movie-goers expect the story to develop quickly and continue apace. We don't want to be bored. We want action and we want it now and we want lots of it. Not so with books, especially classical works. With classical works, we need to be patient. We also need to realize that classical authors were often concerned with illuminating society, explaining their world, their universe. This is what makes their work universal and, unfortunately, the modern reader has no respect for this approach.

So, to sum up, I'm afraid that most modern readers simply go into a classical work with a misunderstanding of what the author is trying to convey. We subject their works unfairly to modern expectations of what is good literature. Unfortunately, I see these kinds of subjective reviews on Goodreads too frequently. Modern readers bash the classics because they supposedly don't measure up to the pace and taste of impatient readers. Maybe it's best for modern readers to stay away from the classics.

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