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'Madame Bovary' by Gustave Flaubert
'Her will, like the veil strung to her bonnet, flutters in every breeze; always there is the desire urging, always the convention restraining.'—Review #200
We’re back! Donna and I hope you had a restful and stress-free holiday season, and we wish you joy and peace for 2023. Thank you for supporting our newsletter and for selecting Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel ‘Madame Bovary’ for our 200th review. It’s a novel that appeals to my love of gossip and drama, and is a cautionary tale about retail therapy and adultery as self-care.
Here’s the cover:
Emma Bovary is trapped. Her husband, Charles, a doctor in rural France, is dull and dim. Their neighbors are coarse and shabby. Their town is small and unsophisticated. Paris’s light seems as distant as another solar system. One day, something incredible happens. Charles and Emma are invited to a party given by a local viscount, one of Charles’s patients. Emma is mesmerized by the opulent clothing and shiny medals worn by the other guests, the abundant food everyone’s eating, the waltzes that go on and on, and the seemingly unlimited number of rooms in the viscount’s estate. Seeing how rich people live, with the freedom and happiness that money provides, she realizes her life has been steadily crafting for her an invisible cage. The convent where she was sent for school, the family farm where she helped her father after her mother died, the marriage to Charles arranged by her father—all are societal conventions meant to restrain her in a life without joy, love or freedom as a housewife and mother. After twirling on the viscount’s dance floor, she has a moment of clarity:
There’s only so much a woman of the 19th century can do to make her life interesting. But Emma tries. She gets a library subscription and plunges into novels (👍), and she studies Italian. When those don’t improve her spirits, she forces Charles to relocate them to a bigger town, thinking the change of scenery will help. Then she gets pregnant. She’s like:
Nothing works; she’s irritable, dark and unsatisfied. And no one understands. Not Charles, who’s density and obliviousness is crushing. Not Berthe, her infant daughter who requires too much care and attention. Not her mother-in-law, who commands Charles to discontinue Emma’s library subscription (👎) because the books, obviously, are causing her moods. Not the pharmacist who lives next door, who’s focused on social climbing and also is an idiot. And not the local priest, who’s distracted and doesn’t take her seriously. Eventually, in an effort to feel seen and loved, Emma takes lovers. She also links up with the local loanshark who helps her get control of Charles’s finances to:
She buys fancy curtains, dresses, gifts for her paramours, and rooms at hot-sheets hotels to fill the void in her soul left by a loveless marriage, the absence of friends and an unwanted child. She really believes that these men she’s carrying on with love her and no way are they just using her for sex. It’s sad. As the affairs get strained and the debts pile up, you know:
I won’t give away the ending, but the final sequence is wild. I couldn’t take my eyes off the page, and this song lyric got stuck in my head:
‘Madame Bovary’ is a beautifully written novel, and there were several times when I paused reading to note an interesting turn of phrase. One that sticks is when Flaubert describes the small town where the Bovarys lived as having a street as long as a gunshot. My understanding of 19th-century firearms is limited, but I took this to mean the street was not very long. I also enjoyed how the story unfolded as if being told by a gossipy friend who’s got a lot of tea to spill. Each time I picked up the book, I was like:
The most interesting thing, though, is how Flaubert’s characters feel like real people. Emma and Charles aren’t one-dimensional. Despite her self-absorption and his mediocrity, they still have interior lives and understandable motivations. They have flaws, make mistakes, and try to make up for them or avoid their consequences, just like you or me. They are relatable and frustrating, and also unpredictable and engaging. (There were moments when I was genuinely surprised by them, like when Charles earnestly tries to cure a neighbor’s ailment through a medical technique he finds in a magazine.) I kept thinking despite this story being written more than 150 years ago, its themes about gender roles, casual racism, antisemitism and sexism among the middle class, the dangers of solitude, and miscommunications in a marriage are not confined to the 19th century. They’re relevant today, and I think ‘Madame Bovary’ should get a modern film adaptation. (Can someone forward this newsletter to Greta Gerwig or Sarah Polley, please? Thanks.) And if you haven’t already, I hope you read this book.
How it begins:
We were at prep, when the Head came in, followed by a new boy not in uniform and a school-servant carrying a big desk. Those who had been asleep woke up, and every boy rose to his feet as though surprised in his labours.
The Head motioned us to sit down again; then, turning to the form master:
— Monsieur Roger, he said in a low voice, here is a pupil that I am entrusting to you, he can start off in the Fifth. If his work and his conduct are creditable, he will go up into the top class, appropriate to his age.
Standing in the corner, behind the door, so that we could hardly see him, the new boy was a country lad, about fifteen years old, and much taller than any of us. He had his hair cut square across his forehead, like a village choirboy, looking sensible and extremely embarrassed. Though he was not broad in the shoulders, his short green jacket with the black buttons must have been tight under the arms and revealed, at the cuffs, two red wrists more used to being bare. His legs, in their blue stockings, emerged from yellow-coloured trousers, hitched up very tight by his braces. He was wearing sturdy boots, ineptly polished, with hobnails.
We began reciting the lessons. He was all ears, like someone at a sermon, not even daring to cross his legs, or to lean on his elbows, and, at two o’clock, when the bell rang, the form master had to tell him to get in line with the rest of us.
‘Madame Bovary’ by Gustave Flaubert was originally published in 1857. This Penguin Classics edition was translated from the French by Geoffrey Wall and published in 2003. 335 pages including notes. $12.09 at Bookshop.org.
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Before you go:
ICYMI: Review #199
Read this: ‘My boyfriend, a writer, broke up with me because I’m a writer’ by Isabel Kaplan in The Guardian is a nuclear strike.
Do this: One of my New Year’s resolutions is to attend more book-related events. So, you might catch me at McNally Jackson on Jan. 18 as Ann Goldstein discusses her translation of ‘The Forbidden Notebook’ by Alba de Céspedes with Merve Emre. Goldstein has translated Elena Ferrante’s books from the Italian, and Emre is one of the most interesting book reviewers in the game right now. Tickets are $5. Click here for more info.
Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!
Until next time,