Madame Bovary is the story of a woman, Emma Bovary, who wishes she were the protagonist of a perky British Jane Austen novel, but in reality finds herself the subject of a harsh French Zola-esque plot.
The concept of literary “Realism,” popularized in the 19th and 20th centuries by authors such as Honoré de Balzac, Leo Tolstoy, and George Eliot, was based on the apparent assumption that readers have a HUGE APPETITE for depictions of the banal activities of daily life. Why anyone needed to be reminded that life SUCKS, and would choose to escape into a literary world that is pretty much just as SUCKY, is difficult to fathom. Emma is 230 pages of miserable, from the day her bumbling idiot of a husband walks into her life—a marriage that prompts numerous adulterous affairs—until she kills herself with arsenic. The climax of her self-made misfortune, I felt, is not when she bankrupts her comically trusting husband’s estate by purchasing unnecessary, extravagant goods on credit, but when she names her daughter Berthe.
The absence of a likeable protagonist was at first refreshing, right up until I realized there aren’t ANY likeable characters in this novel from start to finish. Emma seems incapable of real affection but seeks romantic drama as a cure for boredom; Charles is as monotonous as he is incompetent, and so implausibly clueless that you WANT him to be devastated by the truth about his wife. (Note to all men: if your wife goes to “piano lessons” all the time but never sits down to play you some freaking Jingle Bells, she MAY be covering up an affair. Or a Comic-Con addiction.) The only character you ever really feel sympathetic towards is Hippolyte, the club-footed man who allows Wonder Doctor Charles Bovary to operate on him and winds up with gangrene instead of a cure. But hey, what doesn’t kill you makes you… an amputee.
When Madame Bovary was published, Flaubert was put on trial for obscenity, which as everyone knows is the highest honor the French public can bestow. His crimes lay in his neutral depiction of Emma’s marital infidelity—a clear ENDORSEMENT! Flaubert essentially took the stand and said, “While I may love prostitutes and sodomy, I would never HINT at applauding adultery!” He was acquitted, and of course the book became an instant sensation.
Is it one of the 100 Greatest Books of All Time? For the plot, no, but for the style, yes.
Elle ne pouvait s’imaginer à present que ce calme où elle vivait fût le bonheur qu’elle avait rêvé.L’avenir était un corridor tout noir, et qui avait au fond sa porte bien fermée.
Charles n’était pas de ceux qui descendent au fond des choses.