Adventures in Reading


Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
December 13, 2007, 6:21 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized
“We were in class when the head-master came in, followed by a ‘new fellow,’ not wearing the school uniform, and a school servant carrying a large desk.” – Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Between the novel The Heroine and my interest in 19th Century literature, Madame Bovary seemed an excellent book to bite into. In The Heroine there is a brief stop by Emma Bovary and that really spurred me to pick up Flaubert’s novel. Madame Bovary is moving, brilliant, and I could not put it down. The story represents the darker side of female struggle in the period and calls into question the stifling atmosphere that women lived/live in. What happens to an ambitious women when her ambitions are limited by her husband’s? Granted, as I read it I also realized that the novel could easily be read as a condemnation of the novel and its influence on women. However, Flaubert discusses the darker aspects of this life and the novel concludes with a painfully graphic description of Emma’s suicide.

There are unmistakable similarities between Madame Bovary and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and I spent a lot of time post-reading wondering how respected both Flaubert and Tolstoy are for slaughtering their female leads. Please do not get me wrong, these are both novels I adore and I cannot wait to read more by Flaubert. However, Austen so often seems written off as romantic pink puffs of fancy (though certainly not by her fans). Even today a supervisor, with an English degree, described Jane Austen as “Snow White” for adults. I never fully realized how such different impressions are developed based on a happy or sad ending. Would Austen be accused of “chick lit” if she had killed off the middle Miss Dashwood or had Jane Bennett kill herself?

Despite this, Madame Bovary has nestled its way into my ever expanding list of favorite novels of all time. The story is beautiful and sincere, and Flaubert does not shy away from dealing with the more serious issues of the period. We watch Emma marry without giving much thought to her future life, and when she quickly becomes bored with it she becomes ill. The quick fix to her unhappiness and boredom is found through affairs, but the mad and passionate love that is produced is no solution. Even when in a love affair, Emma does not seem happy. As with Anna Karenina, Emma’s happiness seems to fluctuate based on the men in her life.

Tied in with this overarching idea, we also see Emma utilizing consumerist greed to replace more tangible happiness and growth in her life. Emma quickly accumulates a great deal of debt and her suicide is intimately attached not only to her own self-destructive behavior but to the lust yet another man has for her.

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2 Comments

You’ve made an interesting point: Happy endings do not necessarily mean triviality or shallowness. Shakespeare had written more than a dozen comedies with Austenian type ending, do we value him less? Thanks for the review.

Comment by Arti

In one of the theory books I read, Austen’s “invitation” into the Canon was presented as the “gentlemanly” thing to do rather than her entering the Canon simply because she is wonderful. In 19th Century literature it seems women were presented with so few options and one must seriously ask: how many times could a woman be told that all she had to look forward to was “delinquent behavior” and eventual suicide?

Comment by bookchronicle




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