Thoughts on Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

April 21, 2010 in Book Reviews, Study by pacejmiller

I’m not going to pretend I know enough about literature to give proper commentary on Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, THE seminal text on “Realism” and widely regarded as one of the greatest novels of all time.  I just finished reading it for my writing theory class (a few weeks late, I might add), and thought I would share some thoughts on the book.

Reading “masterpieces” is always a difficult task.  I won’t lie.  I didn’t find Madame Bovary to be the easiest read.  It’s a simple story, really, of a young married woman who dreams of great romance and an exciting existence, but instead has to deal with the banalities of everyday small town life in France during the early-mid 1800s.  In search of love, Madame Bovary begins affairs with other men, but the consequences are not what she had envisioned.

It’s not hard to see why Madame Bovary is considered such a classic.  It was a revolutionary novel at the time, and a very controversial one.  Back in the day, novels were highly romanticised with flowery language and all things fantastic.  Gustave Flaubert broke away from that mould by writing Madame Bovary with meticulous details of everyday life in plain, honest language, and in doing so became a pioneer in the “Realist” movement.  Many women connected with the titular character, a reflection of just how accurately Flaubert had described the daily lives and emotions of women at the time.

If someone was reading Madame Bovary today without any knowledge of the context, it’s likely they would wonder what the fuss is all about.  The story really is quite plain, and not particularly exciting, especially if you are more used to the action-thrillers of today.  The sentences and paragraphs are long, the descriptions are incredibly detailed, and the tone and dialogue feel somewhat overly dramatic.  For a casual read, it can get a little tedious for the new generation of readers with short attention spans.

However, if you break the novel down a bit more (like I had to because I am studying it), you do see its merit.  The story structure is really quite impeccable, and everything from the character development to choice of words seem to be carefully considered (and that’s taking into account any difficulties in the translation).  Not a surprise considering Flaubert’s infamous reputation as a crazy perfectionist.  Take this from his Wikipedia entry:

Flaubert was fastidious in his devotion to finding the right word (“le mot juste“), and his mode of composition reflected that.  He worked in sullen solitude – sometimes occupying a week in the completion of one page – never satisfied with what he had composed, violently tormenting his brain for the best turn of phrase, the final adjective.  His private letters indeed show that he was not one of those to whom correct, flowing language came naturally. His style was achieved through the unceasing sweat of his brow.

Flaubert took five years to write Madame Bovary, and my lecturer told me that apparently he would sometimes take whole days to write a single sentence or paragraph, and then break down in despair before scrapping it completely.  Almost makes me wish I could care that much about what I write.

I find it quite hilarious that Madame Bovary caused such a scandalous stir when it was first serialised in 1856, because it was regarded as obscene and undermined morals by encouraging adultery.  Even when it was all just innuendo (like “The Contest” episode in Seinfeld) and nothing was actually described in detail.  Of course, Flaubert was acquitted, and it turned out to be quite the publicity generator for him when the book was released in book form.  I can’t imagine what a book like say American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis would have done to society if it was released back then!

Anyway — from a technical standpoint, sure, I get Madame Bovary‘s brilliance.  I certainly learned a lot from it as a writer.  But as a modern reader, I simply couldn’t get very revved up by a story about a housewife committing adultery in a French country town.  Call me a fool, but sorry, I just couldn’t.

[Note: There have been quite a few translations of Madame Bovary (from the original French), and the one I read was the Penguin Classics version by Geoffrey Wall.]