‘Madame Bovary’ by Gustave Flaubert

‘Madame Bovary’ by Gustave Flaubert (1856) –  370 pages

Translated by Lydia Davis


When I first read ‘Madame Bovary’ in college, I may have been too young to appreciate this story of extramarital infidelity and it did not have much impact on me.  I found out there was a recent translation of the novel by 2013 Man Booker International prize winner Lydia Davis, and it was time for a re-read  of ‘Madame Bovary’.  This time I listened to the Lydia Davis version of the novel on audio, and this version was exquisite and awesome.

One would think that Charles Bovary would be a ‘good catch’ as a husband for Emma Rouault who was a mere farmer’s daughter.  Charles was a doctor, albeit a country or small-town doctor, and I suppose general practitioners like Charles did not make a lot of money, but at least they should have been comfortably well-off. Charles was dedicated to his medical profession.  He was quite a lot older than Emma, and Emma regarded him as a bit of a stick-in-the-mud.  Her unreasonable contempt of him grows as time passes.

 “Even as they were brought closer together by the details of daily life, she was separated from him by a growing sense of inward detachment. Charles’ conversation was flat as a sidewalk, a place of passage for the ideas of everyman; they wore drab everyday clothes, and they inspired neither laughter nor dreams.”

 “Her life was as cold as an attic facing north; and boredom, like a silent spider, was weaving its web in the shadows, in every corner of her heart.”

 The doctor Charles and Emma are given an opportunity to go to Paris, and while there they attend a high society ball.  There Emma sees these aristocratic men dancing with pretty young women, and she is awestruck by the glamour of it all.

After they return from Paris, Emma in order to escape the dull life of a doctor’s wife, takes up with the decadent college student Leon.  They spend much time together, but after a time Leon leaves in frustration of never having Emma.

Then Emma takes up with Rodolphe.  France at that time had many counts and dukes and barons with much inherited land and money, who had little to do besides to engage in hunting and other sports and pastimes.  These aristocrats treated seducing young women as a sport.  Rodolphe was that kind of guy.  Not that Emma needed that much seducing.  She glamorized the romantic society life of affairs and conquests.  Emma and Rodolphe have an affair somewhat disguised by their horseback rides together which lasts four years with Charles never suspecting.

“She repeated to herself, ‘I have a lover! I have a lover!” and the thought gave her a delicious thrill, as though she were beginning a second puberty. At last she was going to possess the joys of love, that fever of happiness she had despaired of ever knowing. She was entering a marvelous realm in which everything would be passion, ecstasy and rapture.”

 Then when Emma tries to get Rodolphe to run away with her, Rodolphe breaks off the affair.

Then it is back to Leon, and Emma and Leon begin an affair disguised as out-of-town piano lessons.

I suspect that if an English or American writer had written a version of Bovary, it would have been much more moralistic and disapproving of Emma. Flaubert has much of the novel told from Emma’s point of view.  Emma is for the most part a sympathetic figure despite her numerous infidelities, and when her gruesome end comes we are all sad.

9781101195888_p0_v1_s260x420 Strictly speaking, sexual infidelity was not responsible for the fall of Emma Bovary; financial extravagance was the culprit.  Her stalwart husband Charles did not suspect a thing about her extramarital affairs until he discovers some love letters in the attic sometime after Emma was gone.

Besides the intriguing story of Emma Bovary, “Madame Bovary” offers wonderful colorful detailed set pieces, first about life in rural northern France, then about small town life including a separate piece on the small town fair, then about the glamorous high society life.  These vignettes fit in with the story, but are interesting enough to stand on their own.

8 responses to this post.

  1. Great blog about Madame Bovary! I also loved Davis’ translation, and had the experience of not caring for the book in another translation (perhaps because I was younger, or perhaps it was the translation). Interesting observation about money leading to her downfall.


  2. Hi Kat,
    Before the Lydia Davis translation, there doesn’t appear to be any one translation of Bovary that was the ‘standard’, so maybe there were some that weren’t so good floating around. With Russian literature, the translator was always critically important, but we don’t hear the same discussions of French translators.
    It isn’t until the people who lent Emma money come to collect that she can no longer hide her expenditures from Charles.


  3. Posted by Erica on October 21, 2013 at 12:41 AM

    Although the translation I read was beautiful (Eleanor Marx Aveline and Paul de Man) – the language was gorgeous – I did not think Emma was a sympathetic character. Her cruelty to her husband and her emotional abandonment of her child was horrible. To the extent she is intended to be a prototypical female I found the book insulting. I believe it is still debated whether the novel is pro or anti-feminist. For me the book was redeemed by the exquisite language and also by Flaubert’s own explanation – Madame Bovary c’est mois – which, an afterward said, meant that the point was that life inside a book (sort of like Don Quixote) was much more interesting than reality, and that that, in fact, was Emma’s fatal flaw. The afterword cited numerous references to Emma’s reading, which I hadn’t noticed–especially, if I am recalling correctly, near the end, where she says something to the effect that she would rather live in a fantasy world of a romantic book than in the real world.

    As an unrelated aside, the fact that Emma never got pregnant or even worried about it reflects that the author is a man.


    • Hi Erica,
      Yes, Emma’s behavior and her treatment of her husband and child are in many ways despicable. Maybe I should not have said that Emma is a sympathetic figure; it is more of a case of much of the novel being written from her point of view. Emma ultimately pays for her sins at the end of the novel, and even Flaubert lays it on a little thick.
      Today one might say that Charles and Emma were incompatible, they could get a no-fault divorce, and go their separate ways.
      The passages where she reads romantic novels did not seem all that important to me. The trip to Paris where they attend the high society ball seemed to be the event that caused the change in Emma when she starts looking at things differently.
      I think that ‘Madame Bovary’ is feminist in the sense of a woman acting independently of her husband. Also to see so much of the novel through Emma’s eyes was brave for Flaubert. Flaubert probably couldn’t get away with Emma not paying for her sins.

      Thanks for stopping by!


  4. Posted by Erica on October 21, 2013 at 4:34 AM

    Thank you. I read your blog regularly — I like the selection of what you review and I like your reviews. So – Madame Bovary – I think she is the subject of endless debate. If I can recall the afterward I read – it convinced me that she was punished not for her sins but rather for her choice to live in a fantasy world, for her refusal to abandon her quest to be the star of her delusional dramas. But I do remember that even while being convinced, at the same time it seemed an abstraction – the obvious lessons of the book were more as you say. And yes indeed the path to liberation is so dated – like other 19th century “feminist” novels like The Awakening and Anna Karenina which said that women can only be free if the reject the traditional roles of wife and mother. So no longer true! Thanks again for your blog.


    • Hi Erica,
      Emma’s fantasy world, that’s an interesting idea. She escapes the real world to live in her dream world until reality rudely intrudes. I like that idea.


  5. Agree that financial recklessness was a part of Emma’s downfall but to me the real cause was her predisposition to romantic fantasy. Emma imagines herself in a life different to the one she actually has. Her fantasy is to be the heroine of the novels she reads or the stories in newspapers about society. She keeps playacting the part – one reason Randolph gets tired of her. But nothing turns out how she imagines. The ultimate irony is that on her death bed she is not the tragic heroine figure but a grotesque one who dribbles .


    • Hi BookerTalkertalk,
      I can’t disagree with much in your comment, except that Rodolphe was already plotting his exit even before he got involved with Emma Bovary. I don’t think Rodolphe ‘tired’ of her; he only got annoyed when she was going to impinge on his freedom.
      As far as Emma’s romantic fantasies, they were an escape from her boring reality, but it may have been her fantasies that caused her to view her married life as boring.


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