9 Things that Surprised Me about Madame Bovary

My classic for September was one of those books that are so ingrained in the canon you most likely know the basic story line even if you’ve never read a word Gustave Flaubert wrote. I’d happened to read a fair bit about Madame Bovary (1857), mostly via Julian Barnes, and had also encountered some modern novels that might be said to be updates (Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum and perhaps even George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl), but never picked up the book itself until earlier this month. While the essential turns of the plot were indeed familiar to me, there was also plenty that surprised me in terms of the details and the mechanics. I’ve set this out in nine points below; if you’re determined to avoid anything that seems like spoilers, I’d suggest skipping over #6–8.

 

#1. We open with Charles Bovary.

And in the first-person plural: “We were studying when the headmaster came in, followed by a new boy”. I suppose I assumed the book would open immediately on Emma Bovary, already married to Charles. Instead, we get a quick tour through Charles’s adolescent schooling and independent medical studies.

 

#2. There are two “Madame Bovarys” before the one we’re interested in.

The original Madame Bovary, and the only one to survive the book, is Charles’s mother. Charles also has a brief first marriage to Heloise, an older widow. Conveniently, she dies by the end of the second chapter, in which Charles met Emma when he went to set her farmer father’s broken leg.

 

#3. There’s a lovely Hardyesque flavor to the novel.

Flaubert’s original subtitle was “Provincial Morals,” and the scenes set among country folk – especially Emma and Charles’s wedding procession and reception and the later agricultural fair – reminded me of Far from the Madding Crowd.

 

#4. Emma has a child.

Despite all I’d absorbed about the book, I never knew Emma had a baby girl, Berthe. They lodge the infant with a wet nurse and servants do most of the hard work of raising her, so Berthe has only a tiny role. The scene in which Emma violently pushes the little girl away from her is meant, I think, to reflect her fundamental unfitness for motherhood.

 

#5. In the world of the novel, literature is a danger and religion is no balm.

On the advice of Charles’s mother, he cancels Emma’s lending library subscription lest novels exacerbate her discontent. Manual labor is what Emma needs, Old Madame Bovary proclaims. When Emma goes to the parish priest for advice about her angst, he tells her she must be ill if she benefits from all the physical comforts she could need yet cannot be happy. (An excellent and wrenching scene.)

 

Gustave Flaubert. (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.)

#6. There’s a strong medical theme.

Charles is a doctor, of course, but I didn’t know his profession would enter into the plot. There’s a crucial sequence in which he performs a groundbreaking operation on a stable boy with a clubfoot, but gangrene sets in and the leg has to be amputated. (Emma guiltily buys the boy a false leg.) Emma’s somewhat prolonged death by poisoning, and the appearance of her corpse, are also described in recognizable medical detail.

 

#7. Emma’s death isn’t the end.

There’s still two more chapters to go, and things only get worse. It’s as if Emma is still a negative influence after her death: pushing Charles on to extravagances he can’t afford, and sending him deeper into despair when he finds undeniable evidence of her two affairs.

 

#8. Homais, the arrogant pharmacist, is triumphant.

Monsieur Homais is one of the key secondary characters in Yonville, this small town near Rouen. He’s a middling community member who’s gotten above himself, yet he succeeds whereas Emma is crushed. The very last line of the novel goes to him: “He has just received the Legion of Honor.” In the introduction to my Signet Classic edition, Mary McCarthy suggests that Homais is “not just Emma’s foil; he is her alter ego.”

 

#9. Madame Bovary went on trial.

Appended to my copy is a 78-page transcript of the novel’s trial. As I skimmed it, I was reminded of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity case, which took place just over 100 years later (1959–60). Flaubert and his publisher were accused of “offenses against public morality and religion,” specifically of portraying Emma as lascivious and making adultery appealing compared to the banality of marriage. The defense countered that Charles receives all the reader’s sympathy and Emma all the reader’s revulsion. Flaubert was acquitted (as was Lady Chatterley), but the judge’s ruling was essentially “Naughty boy, don’t you know literature has a mission to exalt the spirit, not to hold up vice as an object of horror?”

 


Now for what doesn’t surprise me about Madame Bovary: the beautiful writing and the enduring power of what is ultimately a rather commonplace story line. The percentage of novels with an adultery subplot must be very high nowadays, but Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina were two of the first to consider the female experience.

Flaubert famously declared “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” (“Madame Bovary is me”), and I think every reader must see something of him-/herself in this character: the lure of a romantic and luxurious life, the boredom of the day to day, the longing to make something more out of existence, and an increasing desperation to cover up one’s mistakes. A book that has had meaning for generations, Madame Bovary is a true classic.

 

Some favorite lines:

“But her life was as cold as an attic with northern exposure, and boredom, that silent spider, was spinning its web in all the dark corners of her heart.”

“Mealtime was the worst of all in that tiny room on the ground floor, with the smoking oven, the creaking door, the damp walls, and the moist flagstones; all the bitterness of her existence seemed to be served up to her on her plate, and the steam from the boiled beef brought up waves of nausea from the depths of her soul.”

“No one can ever express the exact measure of his needs, or conceptions, or sorrows. The human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out a tune for a dancing bear, when we hope with our music to move the stars.”

(Isn’t that last sentence incredible?!)

My rating:


I read a Signet Classic edition of Mildred Marmur’s 1964 translation.

See also Susan’s review of Sophie Divry’s recent update, Madame Bovary of the Suburbs, at A life in books.

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17 thoughts on “9 Things that Surprised Me about Madame Bovary

  1. I really liked this book. And I liked how Emma’s death wasn’t what ended the story (or began it). I felt so sorry for Charles the whole time. And Berthe. But not so much for Emma after a while… it was almost a relief when she finally died. It’s so frustrating that there all these stories about women trapped in marriages who suffer the same fate – I keep trying to figure out what could have been done differently. It makes me very happy to be alive today.

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    1. I felt bad for Berthe too — she has a cruel fate awaiting her at the book’s end, besides not having gotten any real love from her mother. Charles is like George in George and Lizzie (which is why I wondered if Nancy Pearl was going for an homage): he’s *so* boring, but he’s also so *good* that you can’t hold it against him. If only Emma could just have been happy with him, and with what her life was (because it wasn’t so bad). I think given the morality of the day there was nothing else that could have happened apart from her death, a basic plot you see over and over in Victorian novels. Any woman who transgresses has to be punished. (And yet there was the trial!)

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  2. Madame Bovary taught me a salutary lesson. We read it in one of my reading groups and I just whipped into the library and took the first available copy off the shelves. All through the book I found myself thinking, ‘why is this so highly esteemed’ and when it came to the group discussion and others were praising the novel for its style, I simply couldn’t believe we were talking about the same book. I thought it was dreadful. Well, in a sense we weren’t talking about the same book because I had picked up what turned out to be a truly dreadful translation which should never have got through the editor’s scrutiny. These days, if I am going to read in translation and there is more than one version available I am very careful to take advice before choosing which to get hold of.

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    1. I’ve read an essay by Julian Barnes about the intricacies of translating Madame Bovary, in response to a new-ish Lydia Davis translation. I didn’t really give any thought to what edition I had, so I’m lucky that mine seemed to be a good translation that never read like one and rendered the lines beautifully, I think, whether they were about nature or about the state of Emma’s emotions.

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    1. That totally went over my head at first. The introduction was going on and on about the cab scene, and I was like “what?” and had to go back and read it. It was one of the scenes they were most upset about during the trial. I think it was originally cut but Flaubert insisted it be put back in.

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  3. I read it years enough ago that I felt guilty the whole way through that I wasn’t reading it in French! I don’t remember much of it except the bit about the dangers of reading!

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    1. Yes, I had to laugh when they talked about how novels were filling her head with unhelpful ideas.

      I might have been able to attempt this in French when I was 20 or 21, though even then it would have taken me ages. Now I’d be looking up so many vocabulary words in the dictionary that I wouldn’t be able to appreciate the plot.

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