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Archived Group Reads 2011 > Madame Bovary Background - spoilers possible

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Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) Alternately Ironic and Descriptive is the writing style of this novel

Flaubert’s style in this book is an interesting mish-mash of different elements. He’s somehow able to combine straightforward, un-decorative irony with gorgeous, evocative description, and emerge with a text that’s cohesive and totally unique – mad props to him.

We see killer one-liners that are devastating in their simplicity, in which the true ridiculousness of humanity is made glaringly obvious. (The most notable example is the last line: "He has just been awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor.")

On the other hand, we also indulge in evocative moments of intimate detail, particularly relating to Emma’s various states of being. For example, after her first physical experience with Rodolphe, we can almost feel "her heart beating again, and the blood flowing through her flesh like a river of milk" . Taken all together, the style of this book is both a reminder that we’re human, and that, as humans, we’re incredibly flawed.

Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) The setting of this novel is as follows.

Unlike many of the other famous French novels of the nineteenth century that you might encounter (such as Victor Hugo’s Les Misérablesor Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot), which more often than not take place in the booming, magical, romantic metropolis of Paris, Madame Bovary is planted firmly in the French provinces. This is actually a significant part of the novel; Emma, our heroine, spends much of her time lamenting the fact that she’s stuck in the sleepy little towns of Tostes and Yonville. The biggest city she ever gets to is Rouen, a smallish city famous primarily for its beautiful cathedral.

Emma’s provincial surroundings make her feel even more trapped and unhappy in her marriage; she feels as though there’s nothing to do but care for her home and child (which, for a woman, was pretty much true at that time). Emma has a feeling that she’s meant for the big city, as though her beauty and charm are wasted in small towns. Rodolphe actually notes a similar thing, saying that she’s as elegant as a fashionable Paris lady.

In the novel, Paris itself represents the culmination of all of Emma’s dreams – she imagines that life there is everything she longs for it to be, with beautiful things, beautiful people, and beautiful feelings. What she has instead is dull small town life, and her bitterness about its limitations contributes largely to her discontent.

message 3: by Lily (last edited Jun 30, 2011 03:58PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 1289 comments I highly recommend Mario Vargas Llosa's The Perpetual Orgy to accompany reading MB. Llosa is a long time fan/student of Flaubert. He has even written his own version of MB, called The Bad Girl . (I had first encountered TPO just shortly before Llosa's Nobel prize announcement and had been unacquainted with his work previously.) I have started BG, but keep getting interrupted. I may read it instead of MB again and just follow the discussion here.

message 4: by Andreea (new)

Andreea (andyyy) | 58 comments Madame Bovary, Victorian novel?

19th century French literary life was almost as tumultuous as the political life. While England enjoyed a long period of peaceful and prosperity, for France the 19th century was the century of two revolutions (1830 and 1848), three kings (Louis XVIII, Charles X, Louis Philippe), three republican regimes (1792–1804, 1848–1852, from 1871 onwards) and two empires (Napoleon I and III). In fact, 19th French century literature is often talked about in terms of wars and fights between different currents, groups and schools.

In general terms, there are five main groups of literary philosophies active during 19th century France - classicisme (mainly through the French Academy and still relying on Racine and Corneille), romantisme writing against classicisme (deeply rooted in the 1879 revolutionary ideas and in liberalism, with strong emphasis on the self/subjectivity as well as on nature), realisme and naturalisme writing against both classicisme and romantisme (which wanted to replace the idealization of the classicisme and the subjectivity of romantisme with scientific accuracy because literature should be a mirror society holds up to itsef, a lot of works with a socialist flavour), the Parnasse group writing against romantisme as well as the socialist ideals of realisme (wanting to produce art only for art's sake and reach technical perfection while refusing to engage in political or ideological discourses, art is also only meant for the intellectual elite) and finally symbolisme which is against all of the above although it borrows elements from all (the Idea itself is the only thing worth expressing in literature, but reality is more uncertain and unpredictable than realisme was making it out to be and can only be deciphered through subjective impressions and multivalent symbols). Then there was so much more beside that. The beginning of science fiction, for example, and the immense popularity of historical novels.

MB has deep connections with many of these groups. First of all, it shocked the academic/classicist establishment so much that Flaubert was put on trial for indecency against public and religious morals ('outrage à la morale publique et religieuse et aux bonnes mœurs') - so in subject matter it'ss not classicist at all, but the language owes much to classicisme (incidentally both Flaubert and Corneille were born in Rouen). Then, MB is partially based on a novel by Balzac (La Femme de trente ans/A Woman of Thirty) and the subtitle 'mœurs de province' (provincial manners) reminds of the subtitle of La Commedie Humaine which is 'etudes de mœurs' (studies of manners). However, Flaubert rejected the label 'realisme' all his life and MB's inexactitudes and overly poetical language make it hard to regard it as pure realisme. Moreover, the novel's attitude towards romantisme is ambivalent too - on the one hand, Flaubert mocks romantist texts which are the ones whose unrealistic world view lead Emma astray, at the same time he knows he himself has been charmed by them. If you throw in the fact that Flaubert was a very good friend of Victor Hugo and on friendly terms with George Sand or that when MB was published, he had been writing a terrible extravagant allegoric prose poem called The Temptation of Saint Anthony for almost ten years - he won't be able to find a publisher for it until much later on in 1874, but he still considered to be technically/aesthetically superior to our novel, MB becomes dizzily complex.

I could talk about genre and literary currents in MB for days and I feel like I've already said too many irrelevant and inaccurate things. There are some really good resources on the subject online, but most are in French. I will persevere and try to find good resources in English tomorrow as it's already pretty late.

message 5: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 2507 comments A nice set of opening comments. I wasn't sure whether I would be reading MB, since I don't know much about French novel writing beyond the obvious Les Miserables, but these thoughts from Marialyce, Lily, and Andreea are enticing and suggest that this could be an active an interesting discussion.

message 6: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca I say give it a go Everyman.

message 7: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 2507 comments Rebecca wrote: "I say give it a go Everyman."

I managed to download an audio copy from my library and a text from Gutenberg, and listened to the first half hour of the audio book this evening. So far so good!

message 8: by Stephen (last edited Jul 04, 2011 01:36PM) (new)

Stephen (stevethebookworm) | 23 comments Andreea wrote: "Madame Bovary, Victorian novel?

19th century French literary life was almost as tumultuous as the political life. While England enjoyed a long period of peaceful and prosperity, for ..."

Now that was a really helpful and very interesting response - thanks, it opened some windows for me.

Maybe English mainstream Victorial literature doesn't approach these themes will the same force as Flaubert;though reading of, for example, Collins outside the two famous books shows an engagement with morality stemming presumably from his own highly unconventional lifestyle. Mind you, Dickens was no angel......just that he didn't write about 'this sort of thing'.

message 9: by Shay (new)

Shay | 20 comments Everyman wrote: "Rebecca wrote: "I say give it a go Everyman."

I managed to download an audio copy from my library and a text from Gutenberg, and listened to the first half hour of the audio book this evening. S..."

Does your library participate in this program? LEAP - the Library eBook Accessibility Program? If your doctor certifies that you have a visual impairment, you can get audiobooks from here for free (in addition to the library's ebooks):

message 10: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 2507 comments Shay wrote: Does your library participate in this program? LEAP - the Library eBook Accessibility Program? If your doctor certifies that you have a visual impairment, you can get audiobooks from here for free (in addition to the library's ebooks):"

thanks. I wasn't aware of that program -- thanks for the link. I'll look into it.

message 11: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 1289 comments Alex Addley here compares Madame Bovary with "Desperate Housewives":

(view spoiler)

message 12: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 1289 comments Here is an interview with Linda Urbach, author of Madame Bovary's Daughter, and, I believe, one of the contributors to these discussions:

(Hope you don't mind, Linda. I'll delete or modify if you ask.)

message 13: by Bea (new)

Bea | 233 comments There is a very good discussion of Madame Bovary available on the Double X Slate Audio Book Club podcast of 12/29/10. Three professional reviewers (one from the New Yorker) discuss the new Lydia Davis translation of the novel. Although the reason for the review is this translation, the discussion really focuses on the novel. It assumes you have read the book.

It is a free download from iTunes. I just typed Madame Bovary into the search engine and it was the first podcast in the podcast list. You can also download it from the Slate website: The website also contains links to a couple of interesting articles.

message 14: by Susan Margaret (last edited Jul 16, 2011 08:23PM) (new)

Susan Margaret (susanmargaretg) Project Gutenberg has the correspondence between Gustave Flaubert and George Sand online. Below is a link to that correspondence if anyone is interested:

message 15: by Andreea (new)

Andreea (andyyy) | 58 comments The university of Rouen Flaubert Center website has a ton of very useful resources - including amazing stuff like Flaubert's school reports or the whole manuscript of Madame Bovary. Most of it is in French but the a l'etranger section has a few really good links to English websites about Flaubert. Plus the iconography page has many interesting photographs, drawings and paintings of Flaubert, his friends and places where he lived.

message 16: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 1289 comments Bea wrote: "You can also download it from the Slate website: The website also contains links to a couple of interesting articles..."

Bea -- thanks for this link! I just listened to the discussion and found it very interesting -- worth all 36 minutes! (But, I didn't think it gave much insight on what is new or unusual about Lydia Davis's translation. I haven't read the articles yet, however, although I have printed them out.)

message 17: by Lily (last edited Jul 12, 2012 07:42PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 1289 comments Lily wrote: "Bea wrote: "You can also download it from the Slate website: The website also contains links to a couple of interesting articles..."

Bea -- thanks for this link! ..."

I read the articles this morning. Although the one in New Republic was better on commenting on Lydia Davis's translation, I was still disappointed. I hoped to learn more about what drove her work. (I had picked up a copy of her translation as a remaindered copy at a nearby university bookstore, but I haven't been doing enough comparison with other translations to which I have had access to have an opinion. I do know that she did not pick up the discrepancy one of you pointed out to us elsewhere, so it looks to me as if she may have relied heavily on updating an earlier translation (as apparently did Paul Mans) rather than working entirely from the French text. But, I would still like to know more and whether my guess is correct or incorrect.)

The translator's note on the Norton edition has a number of interesting comments on the translation process for Flaubert, including, if I understand the notes correctly, Flaubert's use of italics to call attention to certain provincial phrases or words in order to increase the irony and to alert the reader that he is using this language consciously for such effects. Apparently, such is virtually impossible to render into another language.

message 18: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 1289 comments "Madame Bovary demonstrates that Flaubert discovered 'the death of love' well before Amis's pyrotechnics; it is also an early critique of society's empty consumption."

For more, see:

"Flaubert seems to be summarizing Madame Bovary’s thoughts, in her own language, but he does not explicitly state that these are her thoughts, rather than his own opinions as author or narrator."

For further discussion of "free indirect discourse", in Jane Austen, in Flaubert, in modernism, see:

message 19: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 1289 comments "As Tanner puts it, 'the tension between law and sympathy . . holds the great bourgeois novel together.' While marriage brings harmony in Shakespeare's mythologized society, in nineteenth-century society marriage is the mythology which the novel of adultery demythologizes...."

Excerpted from an article I found fascinating and well written on Tolstoy and MB:

From the article above on the role of Monsieur Homais:

(view spoiler)

message 20: by Andreea (last edited Jul 23, 2011 03:50AM) (new)

Andreea (andyyy) | 58 comments I've found some really interesting quotes about MB while browsing through an edition of Flaubert's correspondence. I've especially picked up a couple about the style of the book which I've found very relevant (I don't have the exact date when they were send, because I copied them in my notebook only with a page number reference and don't have the book will me, but I'll add those afterwards):

Toute la valeur de mon livre, s'il en a une, sera d'avoir su marcher droit sur un cheveu, suspendu entre le double abime du lyrisme et du vulgaire (que je veux fondre dans une analyse narrative). Quand je pense a ce que ca peut etre, j'en des eblouissements.

The whole value of my book, if there is one, will be that of having walked straight on a hair, suspended over the doubble abyss of lyricism and vulgarity (which I want to merge in a narrative analysis). When I think about this possibility, I get dazzled.

Vouloir donner a la prose le rythme du vers (en la laissant prose et tres prose) et ecrire la vie ordinaire comme on ecrit l'histoire et l'epopee (sans denaturer le sujet) est peut-etre une absurdite. Voila ce que je me demande parfois. Mais c'est peut-etre aussi une grande tentative et tres originale!

To want to give to prose the rhythm of poetry (leaving it prose and very prose-like) and write the ordinary life as one writes history and epics (without denaturing the subject) is perhaps an absurdity. Look at what I'm asking sometimes. But maybe it's also a great endeavor and very original.

The Flaubert Center website has a whole list of letters in which Flaubert mentions MB and although there's no complete edition of Flaubert's letters in French, good libraries should have a selected letters volume.

message 21: by Luke (new)

Luke (gronka) | 1 comments There have been many different readings of this novel, and not a few of a religious nature. This is another one that someone might find intriguing.

message 22: by Lily (last edited Jul 12, 2012 07:49PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 1289 comments See also: Nabokov's Lectures on Literature . In addition, his Lectures on Russian Literature has several comparisons of Anna Karenina with Madame Bovary.

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