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Monday, August 16, 2010

Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert


Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert

This was a fascinating book. Gustav Flaubert published this book in April, 1857. It was considered shocking for the times and he was accused of obscenity but he was acquitted. The trial made his novel notorious.


Gustav Flaubert in his younger years.

Flaubert was born December 12, 1821 in Rouen, Seine-Maritime, in the Haute-Normandie region of France to Achille-Cléophas Flaubert a Anne Justine Caroline Fleuriot. Flaubert's father was a surgeon and his mother was the daughter of a surgeon. In 1836, he fell in love with Elisa Schlésinger, a married woman eleven years his elder. In 1840, Gustav studied law in Paris but didn't like the city. He left Paris to travel. In 1846, after an attack of epilepsy or a nervous breakdown, he left Paris and abandoned the study of law.

From 1846 to 1854, Flaubert had a relationship with the poet Louise Colet although they met infrequently. After the death of his father and married sister in 1846, he moved home, living with his mother for the rest of his life except for the times he traveled. Their home was also home to his niece whom he was always close to. He did not hide the fact that he used male and female prostitutes and even young teens. And he suffered from Veneral Diseases most of his life. His mother died in 1872 and he had financial problems after her death. Probably due to his venereal diseases, his health began failing and he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1880 at the age of 58.

Memories of a Madman (1838)
November (1842)
Madame Bovary (1857)
Salammbô (1862)
The Sentimental Education (1869)
The Candidate (1873)
The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874)
Three Tales (1877):
"A Simple Heart"
"Herodias"
"The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitalier"
Bouvard and Pécuchet (1881)
Correspondence (1887-1893)

"The author, in his work, must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere." - Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert was important in the Realism movement that followed the age of Romanticism. He believed in presenting life without comment, judgement. He was a melancholic himself and this is reflected in Madame Bovary. He made Emma Bovary a romantic that dwelt in a fantasy world of illusion. She hated the real world and tried everything to escape into what she thought her world should be. She constantly ignored anything that disturbed her fantasies until the end when she was forced to come face to face with her reality, the reality created by her own choices.
Her marriage to Charles

She lived a life that most people of her day would have envied. She was adored by her husband; they had a home with furnishings; her husband was a "professional" as a surgeon (not a manual laborer or farmer like her father had been) so she had some social status; she had a servant; she had a good wardrobe; her daughter was healthy, beautiful and loving... Emma Bovary would have been considered comfortable, middle class. But rather than enjoy her life and having a grateful heart, she was miserable. And she made her life even more miserable by her own hands. She was lazy, she was selfish, spoiled and those are the good attributes. She made herself even more selfish, hard hearted and cold to those who loved her. She could not be content with her life and her dissatisfaction led to her making some really bad choices. And the more she got away with it, the more she demanded from life.

For instance, she would get a new dress but that didn't satisfy her, she had to have more and more new dresses and accessories. She'd get new curtains for the house but that wouldn't satisfy her, she wanted new furniture, new knick knacks. She had a maid but she wasn't satisfied, she wanted a manservant too.

Nothing pleased her. She criticized her husband, hated him, resented him. She found motherhood to be nothing like what she read in her cheap novels so she ignored little Berthe. She despised and resented her mother-in-law. She looked down on their friends in the village.

She has an affair with the local landowner, Rodolphe Boulanger. He is rich and worldly. He recognizes her weaknesses upon their first meeting and decides to seduce her. All he has to do is pull her strings and she's ripe for the picking and he knows it. He doesn't love her, he just wants sex but she imagines herself in love with him. In reality, she just wants a ticket out to, what she considers, the good life. After two years, she thinks she's convinced him to take her away and she makes all the plans. But he doesn't show and all she gets is kiss off letter. She goes into a nervous breakdown and worries poor Charles.

He has no idea she's been involved with another man.


After she gets herself back together, Charles takes her to the theatre in Rouen and they meet Leon Dupuis. Leon had been living in the village training for the law and he had been in love with Emma Bovary. He left to go to Paris to finish his studies in the law and had moved to Rouen after his studies. Now he meets Charles and Emma and she decides that Leon will be her consolation prize.

Rouen by Pisarro

Emma and Leon carry on a long distance affair. She tricks Charles into allowing her to take music lessons in Rouen and to pay for it. But it's not music lessons that call her to Rouen.

She and Leon have an affair. So poor Charles is not only cuckolded but he's been paying for the privilege. She is so demanding and clingy that Leon's sizzle turns to fizzle after 3 years. She gets Charles more and more into debt and she becomes bolder and bolder with her shenanigans. She lies, steals, cheats, carries on with these men and keeps going further and further into debauchery. She becomes more and more desperate.

A hirondelle, her mode of transportation from Yonville to Rouen

Her escapism started with romantic novels and dreams of luxury and ended with adultery, shopping and overspending, and suicide. When she finally came face-to-face with the facts of their financial ruin she tried again to take the easy way out. She runs to all those whom she thought were their friends begging money to stop Charles from knowing that his creditors are going to sell everything out from under him. She couldn't face him. But no one could or would help her. She had no real friends any more. They were as insubstantial as her dreams. No help was going to come from Leon or Rodolphe, her mother-in-law, their friends....

So she plays, what she thinks is, her last card. She gets arsenic and eats it. But her easy, romantic, languishing death is also an illusion. Flaubert describes the horror of her death agony. She vomits, vomits blood, convulses, screams in agony. There is nothing beautiful, melancholic, romantic or peaceful about it. Then Flaubert describes how un-romantic the handling of the body is. How ashamed she would be to know about how the vigil night went.

Flaubert made sure we knew how even the clods of earth sounded as she was buried. Then he followed up with how much worse things got for Charles and Berthe.

In this day and age when suicide is rampant, I think this book is again timely. We tend to think that we can easily kill ourselves and then everyone will regret how they've treated us. Sort of like riding off into the sunset. But the reality is that suicide is NOT easy, glamorous, romantic, an elegant way out. The reality is far from it. The pain, horror and general messiness left behind is anything but romantic. The problems for those left behind are increased tenfold.

We must remember that God alone knows when our days are over. Even when death is natural, it's a difficult situation. God never wanted death to begin with, it was Adam and Eve's choice to sin and bring death into the world. God has redeemed this by sending His Son to die on the cross so that when we physically die, our spirits will live in eternity with Him in Heaven. But we still have to deal with the deaths of our loved ones. When we take the decision of our death into our own hands, we have no way of knowing the consequences. God knows when the time is right, we don't. We may feel like all is over but we are limited in our vision. God knows what the future holds and the miracles that can happen if we trust in Him and not take it into our own hands.

I highly recommend this book to anyone. It's about more mature situations so wouldn't interest a child, but there is no foul language, no explicit sex or violence.

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