Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary

I sat down with Aristotle’s Poetics last night and had a good laugh when I got to his section on the best kind of tragic plots. Aristotle points out that in order for the audience to experience pity and fear (his criteria for excellence) the hero or heroine must not be of outstanding moral character, nor depraved. Both these extremes would be too difficult for the audience to identify with. We’re left with the ordinary individual. The kind of person who experiences just enough undeserved suffering for us to pity them but who creates just enough of the same kind of mischief we might feel inclined to dabble in ourselves to make us nervous about our own life.

 

The reason I laughed is because I just finished Madame Bovary. And I think Aristotle would have taken Flaubert out and bought him champagne. Both Emma and Charles (and Rodolphe and Leon, for that matter) are so perfectly mediocre. Just earnest enough for us to sympathize with but just selfish, just cowardly enough for us to want to keep a weary distance.

 

I first read Madame Bovary in college. I remember enjoying it. I remember feeling sorry for Emma. I remember disliking lunky Charles and thinking it was so unfair she couldn’t just run off with the men she loved. To put it bluntly, I think I kind of missed the entire point.

 

Reading the novel again was fun. I still feel sorry for Emma, for her silly selfishness and desperate scheming, but I think Flaubert did something much more than write a scandalous account of adultery and feminine ruin. He characterized the maudlin yearnings of a mediocre bourgeoisie while criticizing the superficial sentimentality of mass culture. Two very scathing social assessments, both still relevant to a contemporary discussion.

 

It’s hard to decide who is the more pathetic of the two – Charles or Emma. Charles seems unbelievably clueless for a long time, which is far less interesting, until just after Emma kills herself when there is an affecting scene between Charles and Rodolphe (Emma’s first lover) and it becomes quite apparent that he knew all along. I looked at Charles differently after that and it made me reconsider why Flaubert begins and ends the book with Charles.

 

Madame Bovary isn’t really a tragedy (Aristotle would have figured this one out much more quickly than I did) – it’s a satire. Charles is an anti-hero, Emma a false heroine. It’s sad when she dies but not unexpected – and Charles mourns her, but it seems fairly dismal to mourn the woman who never really loved you. Like Revolutionary Road (a modern meditation on a similar theme) the real tragedy befalls Berthe – their daughter. Unloved, unwanted, and uncared for, she ends up an impoverished worker at a cotton mill.

 

I deliberately avoided reading the Nabokov essay until I’d written up my thoughts but I’m eager to get started and see what he has to say. There are also several film versions of Madame Bovary but two I am particularly interested in finding – a 1949 Minnelli with Jennifer Jones playing Emma and the most recent, from 1991 with the lovely Isabelle Huppert and an apparently outstanding performance by Jean-Francois Balmer as Charles. 

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

14 thoughts on “Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary”

  1. Interesting take on Madame Bovary. I haven’t read it since college, but I can remember disliking Emma greatly and not feeling all that heartbroken at her untimely demise. She was everything I thought a woman shouldn’t be.

    I’ll bet I’d look at her differently if I were to read the novel now, and perhaps see her as a victim of the system instead of looking at her as a simpering little fool.

  2. O dear. I disliked Emma so much I couldn’t even finish the book. And Charles seemed even more deplorable. Apparently I was really missing something!

  3. Chartroose – It just shows what a hopeless romantic I was in college that I felt sorry for Emma right away and completely dismissed Charles. I don’t think I would ever call her a victim (and she’s just a heartbeat from simpering little fool) but I did manage to feel sorry for her, enough to keep reading.

    Jeane – She’s such a silly woman really, I can understand your not liking her. I liked the book, I enjoy Flaubert’s writing – I think that made it worth reading.

  4. Verbivore, interesting review. I’d be interested to read it (eventually) and to look at Flaubert’s projections of women. And I’d also be interested to see how a female writer would write her a bit differently. But then again I haven’t read the book so I shouldn’t comment.

  5. I must go back and re-read “Madame Bovary’ in a decent translation because when I read it first the translation was so bad I simply thought it was a very bad book. Which one did you have? I love your take on Aristotle though. I think he’s great. He calls a spade a spade and cuts through all the pretentious nonsense.

  6. I love the idea of Aristotle toasting Flaubert with some champagne! Interesting to compare your earlier reading with the more recent one. Also interesting that Flaubert wouldn’t reveal Charles’s knowledge until the very end — it makes you rethink the whole thing.

  7. Pete – It’s such a good question, whether a female writer could have created a similar work. My gut reaction is to say no, because Flaubert seemed to be doing something so specific by choosing Emma as his heroine, but at the same time, he’s as pitiless with all the other characters so a female writer with the same “eye” could have done it.

    Ann – I’ve only read it in French so I can’t comment on the translation. But you are in good company, Nabokov hated the translation he worked with. And yes, Aristotle doesn’t hem and haw does he?

    Dorothy – What I wouldn’t give to put a few select literary figures in the same room, give them some champagne and watch the fireworks.

  8. I’ve only read the book once and I had a hard time feeling sorry for Emma. Charles frustrated me though because he was so entirely clueless.

    I have cousins, siblings, named Charles and Emma. They are pre-teens and their mother has not read Madame Bovary. I can’t help but laugh whenever I get news about Charles and Emma because it always makes me think of Flaubert.

  9. Stefanie – That’s pretty funny about your cousins, were the names chosen on purpose (even without reading MB)?

  10. “…Just earnest enough for us to sympathize with but just selfish, just cowardly enough for us to want to keep a weary distance…”
    and “…He characterized the maudlin yearnings of a mediocre bourgeoisie while criticizing the superficial sentimentality of mass culture…”

    That a great summing up. Thnak you.

    Pete says: How would a woman have written the characters of Charles and Emma? It would of course depend on the woman, but I rather suspect that an imaginary female Flaubert, might have written them pretty much the same as in the original for the identification of Berthe as the real victim is made very clear.

  11. Linda – Welcome and thank you for leaving a comment. I wonder if a woman writing the same novel would have focused more on Berthe – at least maybe a bit more than Flaubert did. It’s hard to say. Someone with as critical and harsh an eye as Flaubert (and yet a woman) might have been just as tough.

  12. I agree, however endeavouring to discuss such things is fraught with all sorts of speculative non sense – there is the same problem in the art world about whether a women artists’ work is ever gender free. (What began as being a positive affirmation, I.e. the expression “woman artist” has now become yet another mine field.)

  13. Ponor – yours is a useful comment, I suppose I don’t think anyone’s work is ever gender free. But I also don’t think gender should ever be our only analytical tool, but perhaps just one of many. And if I want to be completely honest, I’m not sure it matters to me whether a woman could have or should have written Madame Bovary, because the fact is that Flaubert did and its his techniques and style and aesthetic that I’m interested in understanding in this specific context. I hope I haven’t strayed too far from your comment.

  14. I first read Madame Bovary 40 years ago and I reread it last month. I had only the vaguest recall of my 1st reaction to the book. At that time I was under the influence of academic theories of reading and art which said the author’s intentions dont matter-what matters is seeing how the form of a work of literary art models the meaning of it. Now I realize that this is the perhaps the start of reading but hardly the end. Now I want to know about an author and his life and times. In Flaubert’s case we are lucky to have the recently published biography of him by Frederick Brown. Flaubert’s father was a doctor but a much more successful one than Charles. Some times “Madame Bovary” seems like an ice cold book.
    Like another French novel in its tradition, “The Elegance of Hedgehogs” is about class and how reading can shape our lives. Without the romance novels, Madame Bovary might have stayed faithful. Unlike Hedgehogs the ending of Madame Bovary seems exactly right.

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