Madame Bovary is the story of Emma Bovary, a woman who struggles to cope with the monotony of provincial life. Emma dreams of a better, more sophisticated and cosmopolitan existence, but is powerless to change things.
Married to a man who irritates and bores her, Emma seeks romance through a series of affairs. She lives her life through literature, developing an idealised view of romance. It’s an ideal that can never be realised, and Emma sinks into depression as she realises that she cannot fulfil her desires.
First published in 1857, Madame Bovary is an attack on the middle class and their ideas of morality. Emma Bovary is trapped by society. Her passion for life, enthusiasm and extravagance turn to disillusionment and disappointment when she is faced with the reality of bourgeois life.
I first read Madame Bovary about sixteen years ago when I was studying at university in London. I’m now rereading it for my literature degree exam revision. As always with books, you always notice and appreciate the writing much more on subsequent readings.
There is a lot I like about Madame Bovary. I like Flaubert’s style, the way his third person narration mocks the middle classes, inviting readers to laugh at Emma, but also sympathise with her. I like how Madame Bovary is essentially a novel about nothing, a novel about ordinary people in an ordinary life. I also like the idea that Flaubert and the character of Emma are connected. We don’t know if Flaubert actually made the famous remark, ‘Emma Bovary, c’est moi’, but I appreciate the parallels.
What I find so powerful on reading Madame Bovary is the sense of being trapped. Emma is powerless. Yes, she is flawed in many ways, but ultimately she is trapped by social circumstance. Her escape is through literature, constructing her identity from the books she reads. We never really get a sense of who the real Emma Bovary is.
I’ve decided to select Madame Bovary as one of my exam books because I like the way Flaubert blends romanticism with realism, two of the main traditions of nineteenth-century literature. It may be a novel about nothing, but it’s a novel of style, which makes it one of the most popular novels of the nineteenth century.