It’s hard to grow up without having heard of Madame Bovary; it’s long been on my periphery as one of those books that I should read at some point. When I was at a ballet retreat last year, one of my friends was talking about her love of Madame Bovary and she very much encouraged me to read it at some point. A few weeks later I was walking to work and a house had put a large selection of books and DVDs outside for people to take. Amongst these was Madame Bovary. Clearly the world was telling me to read this book and who am I to argue with the universe?
Madame Bovary is a book that has been mis-sold to me my entire life. I had often read and been told that it was about a woman who got married and then, being unhappy in her marriage, has a multitude of affairs. That is not the book that I read. The book I read had a far more compelling story. Emma is a young woman when she marries Charles Bovary, believing herself to be in love. It is not long before she realises that she does not care for her husband or her new life. She is constrained by society and frustrated by the limitations that were put imposed upon women. She grows restless, depressed, and unsatisfied. In order to combat these feelings she begins to spend money they do not have, to wish for a grander life, to flirt with men to gain attention and, eventually, she ends up having two affairs. We follow Emma through her struggles, bouts of depression, and reckless choices that bring misery on all sides. I was enthralled.
Like so many people who read this book, I was drawn to the character of Emma Bovary and found her fascinating. I found it of particular interest that she attempts to refuse the two men with whom she ends up having affairs. Perhaps she does not always try that earnestly, perhaps she just does this out of duty, but she does try. She is by no means a virtuous character and many of her actions come from a place of entitlement and selfishness. She treats those around her with disdain and ofttimes cruelty. I cannot help wondering though, whether a happier marriage and a life with more freedom could have enabled her to resist the lure of high society. She is a compelling character and I could have read far more about her.
I adored the depiction of depression throughout this book and some of the descriptions were particularly affecting. Because Emma numbed her pain through her affairs, some of the most poignant lines occurred when she was left alone:
But the most wretched thing, is it not—is to drag out, as I do, a useless existence. If our pains were only of some use to someone, we should find consolation in the thought of the sacrifice.*
The lines are written with immense sincerity and depth of feeling. I did not expect a book from the 19th century to so accurately represent depression, but I was pleasantly surprised. The descriptive writing was also vivid and intense. It is testament to both Flaubert and the translators** that I was so absorbed into the characters’ world. I was particularly struck by this in a scene at the theatre. I could feel the luxurious materials, hear the babble of the crowd, and see the actors on stage.
I loved the vast majority of this book, but at times it felt like it had gone off on a tangent for which I did not care. This was mostly when the writing veered away from Emma’s story and focused on the other characters, none of whom were that compelling. Charles Bovary in particular was a drip of a character and I could not blame Emma for disliking him. Most of the side characters were not interesting or people whom I wanted to read about. So if the book had not taken these excursions it would have been an improvement for me.
If you haven’t read Madame Bovary, then I urge you to do so. It is a book about the destructive choices of a woman who feels trapped and anxious and depressed. It is a book about how the actions we make in life affect those around us. It is a book about the constricted choices of women in society. It is a book about cruelty and desire. It was wonderful.
*Part III, Chapter 1.
**I read this book by switching between my physical copy and an ebook. The Penguin Classics edition was translated by Geoffrey Wall and the ebook translated by Eleanor Marx-Aveling.