Flaubert’s realism is sad enough to make you laugh
French author Gustave Flaubert’s debut novel, Madame Bovary, was first published in 1856. The story centers on Emma Bovary, an adulterer whose numerous affairs are an attempt to escape her suffocating, banal existence.
I first read Madame Bovary during a grim time. In that uncertain climate of 2008, the heady days of graduate school felt less like steppingstones to a progressively better life and more like the last intellectual refuge before the indignities of underemployment.
Back then, my impressions of ever-dissatisfied Emma Bovary were tilted at a sympathetic angle. This was in counterpoint to the scorn I’d encountered from other readers, those who were unable to suffer hapless, passionate Emma — the aesthete who desired more from life than what was given.
Gustave Flaubert is on record saying his character Emma — adulterer, aloof mother, and shopping addict — was alien to him. In fact, he claimed he couldn’t relate to any of the story’s characters, though it’s rumored he betrayed himself with this famous line: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!”*
Perhaps the ambivalence wrought by Madame Bovary is part of its tenure as an enduring classic: Readers despise Emma’s selfishness, but undoubtedly sense selfishness at work in their own lives, which is then released through scandalized projections.
To be truly opposite Emma’s superficiality is not to rebuke, but to feel sorrow. As for the wisdom-readers — whose temperate interpretations ought to be, if not beyond good and evil, then at least between good and evil — there is a more direct recognition in Emma, whatever unpleasant feelings are issued.
One of my astute fellow readers recently asked a poignant question: What did Flaubert feel for the heroine he created? In the beginning sections of the book, it appears the reader is set up to empathize with Emma via a coached dislike for her husband, Charles Bovary. He is a puzzled mama’s boy who works hard at mediocrity, scarcely managing to become a country doctor.
Charles’ disgust for his first wife, Heloise (an older widow with icy feet), attracts disdain when he marries her strategically, acquiescing to pressure from his mother. He hardly reacts when Heloise suddenly dies: “Coffee was brought in; he thought no more about her.”
Even before she dies, Charles attends the broken leg of old Rouault, a farmer whose lovely and well-cultivated daughter (Emma) catches his eye. Once his wife is conveniently out of the way, Charles resolves to ask for Emma’s hand in marriage but stumbles over the words, obliging Emma’s father to pronounce them for him.
Emma is on offer to Charles through the subtle machinations of her father, who isn’t as wealthy as he seems. In fact, he wants to be rid of her, noting she isn’t much help around the farm. Rouault’s tender recollections of his deceased wife and son betray an impression that he’d rather it had been Emma who died.
At this point, we aren’t sure what Emma is thinking, though her agreeing to marry Charles is a sign she assumes life with a doctor will be closer to her dreams than life on her father’s turkey farm.
Alas, Charles contains no multitudes. His lack of philosophical and emotional depth is disappointing to Emma, whose point of view we’re grounded in by chapter five. All of her romantic hopes collide with coarse realities: the sight of Charles’ first wife’s wedding bouquet in their bedroom; the loss of her beloved dog when she and Charles move from Tostes to Yonville; the endless moments in a provincial town; baby spit-up on her delicate lace collar.
Like all drugs, Emma’s luxury items — doomed love affairs and fine linens — can’t keep The Void at bay for long. It’s here, perhaps, where the readership’s sympathy grows thin. Emma ignores her little girl, Berthe, to go slipping over muddy fields and tiptoeing through back alleys to meet lovers. Though it’s not love Emma chases as much as the reveries she first conjured during convent school.
While readers feel Emma’s disappointment and boredom so vividly, the same cannot be said of her stolen moments of “happiness.” Flaubert never misses an opportunity for ridicule. Emma’s first lover, Rodolphe, seduces her in a scene dovetailed with dialogue from an agricultural fair:
“And I shall carry away with me the remembrance of you.”
“For a merino ram!”
“But you will forget me; I shall pass away like a shadow.”
The whole book is funny and filled with sardonic observations, as in the scene where Charles cries under the phrenological head, and Emma “wished at the same time to die and to live in Paris.” But as critics have pointed out, these are Flaubert’s thoughts, not Emma’s. And as the book carries on, the humor feels increasingly weaponized.
Had this cutting wit been her own, Emma might have used it to better forge a resolve against the confines of her unhappy marriage. Instead, she takes herself all too seriously amid the grunting weasels and plopping sounds of overripe fruit. Emma Bovary lacks the comic instinct to cope with life’s follies, so it’s only natural she’ll eat arsenic.
Reading the novel again as a more seasoned adult, a wife, and mother, my own judgments stirred against her — the same judgments I’d resented in other readers nearly a decade ago. Isn’t this Flaubert’s point, then? To stick it to the comfortable class (I’ve made my way there, after all), whose reactions against this disquieting work of “realism” (ahem — satire?) tend to coalesce around the condemnation of Emma instead of her creator.
The nothingness at the center of most hearts can be spontaneously filled with delight and the occasional act of kindness. But there is none of this in Flaubert’s masterpiece. What we find instead is a world not so much real as hypo-real, a dimension sapped of joy where misery is never instructive, where authentic human connection — of which even the unhappiest among us can experience — is missing. Madame Bovary is at once a painful correction to the romantic movement and an ever-relevant stripping down of middle-class hypocrisy.
*“Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” is Flaubert’s most celebrated phrase, but there’s no evidence that he said it.
Dorothy Reno is a senior review editor and classics columnist for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Her short fiction has been published in literary journals in Canada and the United States. She lives in Tbilisi, (former republic of) Georgia. If you would like to share your thoughts on Madame Bovary, please respond in the comments section of this article. Dorothy hopes you’ll join her in reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, which will be the subject of her next column.