It’s amazing how Gustave Flaubert can write such a tragic ending for a story about a provincial town and one rather silly woman. One is hard pressed to find many sympathetic characters, yet by the end I felt devastated by their stories. Those with some virtues come to sad ends, while the venal, greedy and grasping live on.
Madame Bovary was published in 1856 by Flaubert. It’s subtitle is “Provincial Ways” and is a story of the unspectacular and ordinary. What surprised me was how little sympathy Flaubert seems to have for the unspectacular and ordinary. It is the story of Emma Bovary, who is married to the dull and inferior doctor Charles Bovary and constantly finds life a disappointment. She expects grand passion, romance, and occurrences that demand an extraordinary response from her, but life and people remain resolutely common.
(Plot spoilers contained in this review) – Flaubert employs a unique tone throughout much of the book. Somewhat detached, like he is looking at characters through a microscope while they expose themselves as mediocre, self-deluded, shallow, ineffectual, venal, selfish, grasping, and cowardly.
Emma marries Charles and expects an exciting life, only to realize that, though he adores her, he is mediocre (he manages to maim a patient for life) and lacks imagination. The pharmacist, Homais, is self-important and imagines himself a philosopher (he also prompts Charles to perform the risky surgery that leads to the maiming). Leon is a clerk with aspirations to romanticism and is somewhat of a kindred spirit with Emma, but fundamentally weak-willed. Rodolphe is the cad who loves and leaves Emma. Then there is Lhereaux, the financially predatory draper who ensnares Emma in debt.
While one can sympathize with Emma’s desire for something more, Emma herself is rather silly. She is always acting out according to some kind of romantic model. She rarely seems to experience her own emotions because she is so busy trying to experience the heightened emotions she’s read about. She’s playing a part in a world that has no room for such roles; she wants to be Louise de la Valliere (mistress to Louis XIV before becoming a saintly nun), a martyr or sacrificial wife or saint or mistress. She is waiting for a man to arrive who can inspire these passions. The irony is that she is desired and loved by a surprising number of men, but it rarely inspires the glorious feelings she anticipates.
At bottom, Emma seems a deeply unhappy and discontented woman – so much so that she is frequently unwell (always to Charles’ great concern and helplessness). It’s her hollow despair and grasping at some kind of meaning that leaves the reader feeling an equal sense of hollowness and gloom by the end of the book. Flaubert seems to offer no hope of any deep meaning. Religion, love, duty, philosophy? It is all reduced to empty cant by the characters (like when the cleric and Homais debate religion and philosophy over Emma’s dead body at the end of the book).
One of the problems is that Emma is so selfish. No matter what role she is playing – devoted mother, repentant sinner – she always has more than half an eye on her emotional responses to these roles, which inevitably is less than inspired.
But most characters are selfish in Madame Bovary. An exception is Charles, but I alternate between admiring his genuine love and frustration with his complete and supine cluelessness. The only person who seems to experience genuine and admirable emotion is Emma’s father, a farmer named Rouault. He fondly remembers bringing his wife home on the night of their wedding and is crushed at the death of Emma – all without a hint of irony and possessing genuine dignity.
Ultimately, although the story is often described as though Emma’s world as what lets her down, one can’t help but wonder if she would have always been dissatisfied, no matter what kind of life she lived. That the emptiness is in her, not the world. The book has also been described as expressing Flaubert’s contempt for the pretensions of the bourgeoisie, but he hints that even the aristocrats’ lives are less romantic than one would think, describing one figure who romantically knew Marie Antoinette as sitting vacantly with soup dribbling down his chin. The entirely book is resolutely anti-romantic.
Flaubert also goes into meticulous, though compact, descriptions of nearly everything. His style is celebrated for that, but I must confess that details were never as interesting to me (I’m not as visual as some readers). However, his metaphors are unique (the carriage in which Emma and Leon consummate their affair is described as being shut up like a tomb and tossing in the sea). On the whole, however, I found his tone detached…up until the devastating ending where Emma commits suicide.
She expects even suicide to be a brave and romantic gesture, like those figures who achieve immortality through beautiful death. Instead, death is an agonizing, drawn-out process that ultimately brings grief to her husband, father and child. The emptiness of it all, her extraordinary desire for something to fill her soul with meaning ultimately seemed very human and and very sad and I was surprised at the power of my response to her at the end, as well as to the inherent progress of life that seems to reward venality and punish sentiment.