Book Review: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

While we’re talking about books about doctors, here’s another good one for you:  Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

Madame Bovary is the story of Emma Bovary and her corruption and dissipation as she attempts to pursue an ideal of romantic love inspired by pop culture, and of her husband Charles who cannot be deterred in his love for her no matter what indignities and infidelities she may commit.  Set in the countryside of 19th century France, the story begins with Charles’s first day of school and continues through his growing-up years to his first marriage to a woman he didn’t love, and then to his marriage to Emma Bovary after his first wife dies.  Charles is totally devoted to Madame Bovary, but she is unable and unwilling to receive his love because it does not fit in with her ideas of what romantic love is supposed to be like–ideas which were not her own at all but which came strictly from society and pop culture.  She has affairs with other men, ruins Charles and herself financially through her extravagance, and finally gets sick and dies a grisly death.

Madame Bovary attained a huge measure of notoriety when it was placed on trial for obscenity by public prosecutors in 1857.  This notoriety propelled it to bestseller status and it went on to become one of the most influential novels ever written.

It is common advice for writers to write about what they know, but Flaubert carried this to an extreme in writing Madame Bovary.  If he could not write something from his own experience, he sought the experience out that would enable him to do so.  In writing the scene about the Vaubyessard ball, he lamented that he had not been to an actual ball in a long time.  In order to write the scene about the agricultural fair, he actually went to one.  In order to write about the clubfoot episode, he sought the advice of his brother Achille, and when his answers proved unsatisfactory he went and sought out the information he needed independently in medical texts.  When Flaubert was writing, he sought to actually become his characters by projecting himself into them.  Here is a quote in which he describes this process:

What a delicious thing writing is–not to be you any more but to move through the whole universe you’re talking about.  Take today, for instance:  I was man and woman, lover and mistress; I went riding in a forest on a fall afternoon beneath the yellow leaves, and I was the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words he and she spoke, and the red sun beating on their half-closed eyelids, which were already heavy with passion.

One of the chief thrusts of the story is about the adulteries of Madame Bovary and the eventual ruin that she comes to as a result.  If that was all there was to the story, it would not be a very good story.  A good story does not simply project negatives in order to induce people to avoid them; it must have something positive to offer as well.  And the positive in this story is Charles Bovary.  One may fault him for stupidity in remaining devoted to Madame Bovary even when she was dead set on ruining him through infidelity and extravagance, but at the end of the day Charles is the only character in the story who emerges with a measure of grace and humanness.  Charles loves Madame Bovary to the end, no matter what; the tragedy in the story is that she is unable to receive the love which he was so freely and generously willing to offer her.