Friday 11 April 2014

Madame Bovary Read-Along Part I

Madame Bovary Read-Along Hosted by ebookclassics &         Cedar Station

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Part I


Charles Bovary:  in Charles we see a character who is conventional, steadfast, responsible, yet with an uninteresting, mundane aspect to his nature, that is readily apparent.  After a short rebellion, while studying for his medical examinations, he passes with a fairly good grade and begins his life as a doctor.  After an arranged marriage (by his controlling mother) with a much older widow, he finds himself attracted to Emma Rouault, the daughter of one of his patients.  When his wife dies, he marries Emma quickly and, while treating her with a dog-like devotion, he does not see deeply enough within her character to truly understand her.  His life is lived in blacks and white and shades of grey; no colour is perceived and this is to his detriment.

Emma Bovary:  how do I describe Emma?  Is she spoiled?  Is she temperamental?  Is she sentimental?  Perhaps she is all these, but her character traits play out through a soul that seems wounded or perhaps, damaged.  Sent to a convent as a young girl to be educated, Emma complies with the rules to a point, but it is evident that she has a natural rebellious streak and the nuns are relieved when she finally returns to the home of her father.  Within the convent she has managed to acquire and adopt a steady diet of romantic, sentimental novels, from which, given her isolated circumstances, she develops a warped understanding of the manner in which life should be lived.  A poetic, dramatic, imaginative fantasy life permeates most of her waking moments and when Charles appears, she fits him into her illusions, hoping he will fill the emptiness inside her.  As a reader, while you can understand the difficulty of her isolation, her complete self-absorption is startling and, as a character, she is not at all sympathetic.

The Bovary's Wedding Day
After learning about Charles' childhood, I felt that his character was made up both by circumstances and an inherent ……. well, I'm not sure if I can say "goodness".  There is a lack of action about him, his inertness perhaps being mistaken for a deeper integrity than he deserves.  I was somewhat disappointed that, because of his first wife's shrewish character, he allowed himself to become unreasonably infatuated with Emma.  One can only wonder if he will have gotten what he deserves.

Emma's time in the nunnery appears to have had little affect on her character.  She did not learn patience or temperance or sacrifice.  The explanation as to how she acquired all her romance books seemed a little weak to me, but the affect of their sentimentality is apparent.  I'm not sure that we can blame all of Emma's character on the romances though; Emma does not appear to want to face reality if it does not correspond with her inner fantasy life.  I anticipate tragic results.

Madame Bovary
Illustration by Charles Léandre (1931)
source Wikimedia Commons
So far, the picture on the right speaks volumes about Emma:  no matter what is happening, no matter if there is upset or happiness or entertainment or silence, Emma Bovary is bored, bored, bored!


  1. The lady won't be so bored once she notices that monkey. Monkeys are always fun.

    Mario Vargas Llosa wrote about how he fell madly in love with Emma Bovary when he read this book and wanted to marry her, etc. This reaction is rare, but do hope someone in the readalong experiences it.

    1. When you mention monkeys, Candide immediately spring to mind and the vision I get ……. well, I won't go there. I'm trying to forget. ;-)

      Did Llosa say what particularly made him fall in love with her? Even Flaubert doesn't sound like he has an admiration or perhaps even a sympathy for Emma yet. On paper she seems to inspire passion from the men she encounters, but nothing deeper than her beauty appears to touch them. Is this the fault of the men, or does the blame lie with Emma? I have my suspicions.

    2. Vargas Llosa definitely says why, at the length of 50 pages, but I do not really remember. He specifies the end of the opera scene as the exact moment of love.

      It is possible that that chapter of The Perpetual Orgy is an elaborate fiction, but I do not think so.

      Flaubert despises Emma Bovary, and in fact almost all of his characters, although cases the other way have certainly been made. There is some truth there. Maybe he despises her and loves her. Maybe he loathes the class and kind of person she is, but loves his own lovingly detailed artistic creation.

    3. Perhaps he is attracted to Emma's beauty and also self-destructiveness. I'll have to look up The Perpetual Orgy.

      Your last comment is particularly insightful for me. I think you are right on the money. In conjunction with your observation, I noticed that the setting he fashioned was particularly bleak in terms of the characters inhabiting it. Each character seems either mired in their vices, manipulating for their benefit, or simply obtuse. I wonder if Flaubert disliked (and perhaps also loved) provincial villages as well ….???

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Tom. They've given me deeper insight into the novel.

  2. I haven't read anything about how Flaubert felt about Emma and the character he created, but I wonder if he despised her because she was selfish and vain, but also sympathized with her for the limited opportunities she had in life. I feel like he must have personally known women like Emma and observed their frustration, lack of ability to wholly become themselves.

    1. Yes, I think that you're right. I need to read a little bit more about Flaubert to get a feel for what he is attempting with this novel.

      I don't know what to think of this book. Emma's character doesn't really seem to grow or change ….. it is permanently fixed in one sadly deluded mindset. I anticipate Flaubert will do something interesting with this novel ….. I hope ……