People are awful, which is what Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert leads you to believe. Which is why I’m planning to lambaste this book on my blog today. Which is why, if you are a fan of French literature or—more specifically—Madame Bovary, you should avoid this post like the plague. I’m too riled up to be nice.
Emma Bovary is the young, beautiful wife of Charles Bovary, a doctor in rural France. While he’s perfectly happy with his provincial practice and smattering of “friends,” Emma is far less satisfied. She feels some unhappiness, a general disquiet that sharpens into full-blown yearning when she and her husband are invited to a ball held by an aristocrat. She glimpses another world far above her middle class upbringing and those glittering creatures that inhabit it. She wants some of both and starts to resent her husband who’s holding her back.
Sadly, he—and her newborn daughter—don’t hold her back for long. Apparently her marriage vows mean nothing, and she begins to have an affair here and an affair there. She’s hardly whoring herself out, though. She has a total of two affairs and the first guy very intentionally seduced her. In fact, part of her problem is the expensive gifts that she gives to her paramours.
So here Emma is, trying to be part of a world and live a life that she doesn’t have. It doesn’t end well.
I’m just going to start out by saying that there’s not excuse for adultery. None. If you’re in an unbearable marriage, get out of it legally and morally, don’t cheat on your spouse. So I have no tolerance for what Emma did (and the men who intentionally seduced her were just as bad—the cads!). But what’s infinitely worse is the portrayal of Bovary’s neighbors and friends. There is not one redeeming character in this novel. Let me expound:
The Characters. Not one of these characters was very relatable. Instead of seeing the good and bad, Flaubert just showed the bad. Charles’ ignorance, Emma’s immorality, the shopkeeper’s dishonesty, the apothecary’s manipulation… In the end, no one showed an ounce of pity or human kindness. And I refuse to believe that all people are like that.
The Storyline. There’s not much to say about this really except that the very end of the book was super depressing. No redemption. If this book is a moral lesson about adultery, the author made a huge error in judgment. Even if Emma didn’t throw her virtue to the wind, the shopkeeper would still have taken advantage of her, the apothecary still would have manipulated Charles, the servant still would have stolen. What kind of moral lesson is that? That life and people suck, the end?
The Writing. The writing was nice, carrying that unmistakable cadence of a time long past. However, I would have sacrificed some of the writing for a storyline and characters that had a speck of goodness.
This book has one good aspect, and that is that it makes you ponder the nature of happiness. Emma chased after it and never found it, possibly because she was looking in all the wrong places. However, the baseness of the characters, the way they took from each other and never gave has put me off. I couldn’t in good conscience recommend this book when there are more moving tales of redemption and change in other French classics, such as Les Miserables. Plus, any book that depresses instead of illuminates your mind isn’t worth the effort.
Pretty much only for the glimpse of class structure and life in 19th century France, the contemplation of the nature of happiness, and the vivid illumination of choices and consequences.