A Brief Yet Bloated Review of/Reflection on Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

Madame BovaryMadame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Madame Bovary captured my heart and mind as I followed the titular Emma Bovary navigate the pitfalls of her bourgeois aspirations, wrestling with psychosexual forces as well as that of the marketplace. Displaying signs of emotional instability from youth (BPD, I thought? Indeed, Jules de Gaultier coined the “Madame Bovary syndrome” to describe how Emma’s psychology manifests in real life individuals in his 1892 essay “Le Bovarysme, la psychologie dans l’œuvre de Flaubert” (which I confess I have not yet read)) as well as a normal desire to live beyond her provincial means, Emma was an easy character for me to sympathize with, personally. I would not condone or even excuse her cheating or lies, but I understand the forces that brought her to such behavior.

It is not a crime to have an addictive personality, difficult emotions, romantic ideations, or to be a lover of fine merchandise and the arts– the issue lies in Emma’s status as a woman in the provinces of the early-mid 1800s France (the book is estimated to take place between 1827 and and 1846, an era marked by the rule of Louis Philippe I and a newly bourgeoning middle class) which compromises her access to, and in turn glorifies, certain tools of self-actualization. She possesses what is, in my opinion, a healthy instinct towards a stimulating and well-examined life, a desire that is enhanced by her milieu‘s literary and commercial preoccupations (see the aforementioned economic shifts on the cusp of an industrializing France) but thwarted by the fact that she is a woman. Unable to pursue (or even conceive of?) intellectual productivity for herself, Emma’s ambitions are displaced onto the men with whom she forms attachments. When these intense relationships, notably with her ineffectual husband Charles among others, unavoidably disappoint, her distress manifests as material obsession and she is thus doubly ruined, financially and emotionally. Emma’s impulses are sublimated into addictive patterns of attachment and consumption, leading to her ruin.

I had a major soft spot for the character of Homais, a local pharmacist who, in my mind, acted simultaneously as Emma’s counterpart and her foil. To me, Homais represented what Emma could have been were she born a man– he is similarly ambitious, pursuing respect and notoriety exactly as Emma wished her husband (and I’d say herself) would, enjoys and advocates for the arts, and runs a tight household. He has some of my favorite speeches in the book:

I worship God, I assure you! I believe in a Supreme Being, a Creator. Whoever he is– and what difference does it make?–he put us here on earth to fulfill our duties as citizens and parents. But I don’t have to go into church and kiss silver platters and hand over my money to fatten up a lot of rascals that eat better than you and I! To him, one can do a full honor in a forest, a field– or merely by gazing up at the ethereal vault, like the ancients. My God is the God of Socrates, of Franklin, of Voltaire, of Béranger! My credo is the credo of Rousseau! I adhere to the immortal principles of ’89! I have no use for the kind of God who goes walking in his garden with a stick, sends his friends to live in the bellies of whales, gives up the ghost with a groan and then comes back to life three days later! Those things aren’t only absurd in themselves, Madame– they’re completely opposed to all physical laws.

Homais also makes for very fruitful comedic relief– many characters go out of their way to avoid his hilariously pompous speeches or simply tell him to shut it, and as you might imagine from this passage he has some pithy and entertaining tête-à-têtes with the local priest.

One of the great tragedies of the novel is that Emma never appreciated poor Charles, her husband. I understand his failures– he is portrayed as utterly unromantic, second-rate, and incredibly dull– but Charles did have pure intentions to love her, defend her, and provide for her. He is clearly marked for failure from the start, but I found him to be a totally sympathetic character and was touched by his dedication and encouragement towards Emma.

I would advise any reader to pay special attention and sympathy to those beloved characters of mine (Homais and Charles), as well as look out for other interesting themes such as the meta-narrative of realism vs romanticism, the hegemony and fracturing of nuclear families, and tensions between the urban/suburban/pastoral/domestic sublimes.

Madame Bovary is a bit of a cautionary tale. After reading it, I feel much more aware of how certain materialistic media and ideologies can affect my life for the worse– taking aspirational Instagram feeds and Pinterest boards with a grain of salt. I am thankful that I have the privileges of being able to write, to travel, to make and consume art… and as for the privileges I lack, I try to process that distress in a healthy and proactive way rather than fall into Gaultier’s Bovarysme. I feel very close to Emma now, and wish that she could be alive today to enjoy the readily accessible archives of art and literature afforded by the Information Age, and might have found solace in its interconnectivity. I think she would have liked Goodreads, don’t you?

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