Friday, August 15, 2014

Classic Fiction: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary is one of those books that I bought forever ago, and like the good literature major that I am I've had every intention of reading it as it is considered a classic, although it took me six years to finally do so. I think I put it off for so long because I have already read other books like it with similar story lines, and I knew there was a great chance that I would grow tired of it really quickly and drag my feet in finishing it, and there was an almost non-existent chance I would actually find it compelling and want to recommend it to people. One thing that was a guarantee (after reading the first page) was that I would most certainly find it to be extremely tedious.

The Situation: Emma has married the widow Charles Bovary and has left her life on her father's farm. While she is pleased to finally be a wife and have her own home to run, she finds herself increasingly bored by her simple and repetitive everyday existence. Her life with Charles does not give her the joy and passion and excitement that she dreamed it would. It's the kind of life she read about in books and is disappointed to find that her actual existence looks nothing like what she found on the page. So like many people who feel bored and unfulfilled, Emma begins buying things she does not need and cannot afford. And when she begins to display the symptoms of a serious illness, Charles goes so far as to have them moved to another town where he can still be a doctor and earn a living. Eventually the change in scenery and the material things leave Emma feeling unsatisfied again, so she begins having affairs.

The Problem: Quite naturally, there are many risks that come with having an affair and trying to keep it not only from your husband, but also your entire household of servants, your neighbors, friends, family, and anyone else who might know you socially. And since this is early 19th century France, Emma can't simply leave her house whenever she wants without offering some sort of explanation as to where she is going. She does not have a job, and has very little she needs to do outside of the house to merit her leaving. But she finds a way, and is able to get some satisfaction with a new lover. But soon (spoiler alert!), her lover grows tired of her, just as he has all of the other women he has been with, and abandons her, once again leaving her bored and unfulfilled. And while Charles suspects nothing, he continues to love her and dote on her, but she just cannot bring herself to see in him what he sees in her. Meanwhile, debts are piling up as a businessman Charles lent money from manipulates Emma into boring more and more money until it looks as if, while Emma's second affair may not ruin her, her spending and borrowing habits certainly might.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a classic fiction novel set in 19th century France. At it's absolute simplest it is a story about a common housewife who is repulsed by her doting husband as she sees in him everything that is dull, boring, and painfully everyday. So in order to get some excitement in her life, the same excitement she reads about in her novels and feels when she goes out to balls and parties, she goes shopping and has affairs. But beyond this, Flaubert also has brief moments where medical procedures and advancements of the time are explored as Charles is a doctor, and another prominent character, Monsieur Homais, is the local pharmacist who practices medicine without a license. Monsieur Homais is also anti-religion and enjoys arguing with the local clergy, even at less than opportune times (like a funeral). Even with these brief forays into science and religion, the main focus remains to be Madame Bovary. As for the "obscenity" that this book is known for, and the reason Flaubert was put on trial for it, it really isn't much compared to today's standards. The problem was really with the fact that the narrator doesn't seem to condemn Emma's affairs, leading some to believe Flaubert condoned adultery. Personally, I would think that Emma's behavior throughout the book, as well as the ending, would satisfy people on that score, but maybe that is just me.

My Verdict: Sure, it is a classic, but it is still incredibly tedious. And there are other classics similar to it that are much better and more enjoyable to read. The only reason I gave it more than one star on Goodreads is because I don't necessarily regret reading it, and it did eventually start to get good. Granted, it was close to the end (like 30 pages out), but still, that does count for something. It is also one of the books that suffers from what I like to refer to as the Frankenstein effect. Much like Mary Shelley's classic, it isn't really that long of a book, but it takes forever to read. Something about the language makes you feel like you're trying to run through wet sand. In other words, I would get tired of the book extremely quickly after having made little progress. It was beyond frustrating. Maybe other readers will be more like many of my lit professors and recognize this novel as the great classic it is often held up to be. But for me, I am mostly just glad it's over.

Favorite Moment: Pretty much any moment that I pick out as one that I enjoyed is a moment when Emma is shown to be either slightly ridiculous or slightly mad. I also enjoyed when her plans came back to bite her. Suffice it to say she will not be named below as my favorite character.

Favorite Character: While he may be dull and somewhat vanilla in his personality, I choose Charles as my favorite character. He is blind, naive, and a little slow as far as seeing people for who they really are, but ultimately he is a decent human being. He wants to make his wife happy and does what he can. And if he weren't so easily swayed by other's opinions, especially those who wish to ruin him, then he could have been a pretty good doctor.

Recommended Reading: As I said, there are other classics with elements that are contained within Madame Bovary that, in my opinion, are much more enjoyable to read. If you want to read more about married women who decide to have an affair, then I recommend Leo Tolstoy's Ana Karenina. If you want to read more about a married woman who wants more out of life with her doctor husband and begins spending outside of her means, I recommend  George Eliot's Middlemarch, which will also come with bonus discussions on science, religion, and politics. And finally, if you want to read about an unmarried woman spending beyond her means in order to get ahead in life and ultimately coming to ruin, I recommend Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.      

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