Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary is a tragedy. It tells the story of Emma Bovary who lived a tumultuous life between real and imagined, and whose end arouses more pity than scorn. Emma is a complex character. She is vain for sure, silly in certain ways, and bold and impetuous in some of her conduct. Her idea of love is misguided. “Love, she believed, should come upon you suddenly, with thunderclaps and blinding flashes of lightning, bursting like a hurricane out of the skies and into your life, turning everything upside down, sweeping your will along like a leaf in the gale, and carrying with it into the void the whole of your heart.” She marries Dr. Charles Bovary under a misconception. “Before her marriage, she had believed that she was in love; but since the happiness she had expected this love to bring her had not come, she supposed she must have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out what exactly was meant, in real life, by the words ‘bliss’, ‘passion’, and ‘ecstasy’, words that she had found so beautiful in books.”. Emma has no proper idea of what is love and marriage is all about. Her convent education didn’t prepare her for human life and human relationships. She learned all that through fiction, a dangerous method of instruction if you don’t resort to the proper kind. Emma had no mother to impart any maternal wisdom on these important subjects of a woman’s life. So, one cannot blame Emma for being who she is, having raised herself on her own misguided beliefs.

This second reading made me properly understand the character of Emma Bovary. She is not the wicked villain as society would think of her for being an adulteress, and she is not the conceited spendthrift as the picture paints. Yes, she is guilty on the two counts on the face of it. But if one looks beyond the surface, a question arises whether she is the culprit or the victim. To me (and also to Flaubert, I believe) Emma was a victim, a victim of temptation. This poor misguided woman, who could be easily persuaded, who was craving for passionate love and luxury, was trapped in the hands of three men, two lovers, and one cunning tradesman. And they, without pity or remorse, led her down the hill to her destruction. I’m not justifying Emma’s conduct as a woman. But given her ill-formed and misguided personality, and in the absence of any strong person in her life to guide her otherwise, she couldn’t have done differently. And here is where her husband comes. Her husband should have seen this calamity beforehand. If he had been a smart, intelligent, and strong fellow, Emma wouldn’t have been able to perform such deception. If Charles Bovary had been that man, perhaps, Emma may have mended her waywardness. But Charles was not what Emma expected in a man. He was weak and was neither intelligent nor remarkable in any way. “Charles’s conversation was as flat as any pavement, and everybody’s ideas plodded along it, garbed in pedestrian style, inspiring no emotion, no laughter, no reverie.” Emma couldn’t look up to him because he “taught nothing, knew nothing, (and) desired nothing”. Emma and Charles were of two diverse temperaments. Their personalities were poles apart; she was lively, he passive. What Emma expected in a husband, Charles couldn’t be. And she resented him for it. “What enraged her was that Charles seemed quite unaware of her anguish. His conviction that he was making her happy seemed to her a mindless insult, and his complacent security, ingratitude. So for whose sake, then, did she remain chaste? Was not he himself, in fact, the obstacle to all felicity, the cause of all misery…”But how could have Charles Bovary been other than who he was, he also being a victim of a poor upbringing? I truly pitied them both.

Although it is easy to lay the blame elsewhere when one feels sorry for someone, I felt justified in laying the blame for the tragedy of both Emma and Charles on the heads of Rodolphe, Leon, and Lheureux. They destroyed not only Emma but a whole family. Little Berthe lost both her parents at quick intervals leaving her destitute and orphaned. The fact that she, still a child, had to earn her living by working at a cotton mill broke my heart. If Rodolphe and Leon hadn’t been so base as to seduce an unhappy woman, and if Lheureux hadn’t been so vile as to reap financial benefit from a poor, vain woman, the story of Emma would have written quite differently. But they are ever-present, even today. I have met in my profession odious men like them who take selfish advantages from women in distress. Flaubert describes how Rodolph and Leon took the news of Emma’s death. “Rodolphe, who, to take his mind off things, had spent the day in the woods with his gun, lay peacefully asleep in his chateau; down in Rouen Léon, too, slept.”

Flaubert had written the story of Emma so beautifully. It’s both sensitive and sympathetic to its main characters, Emma and Charles. Vladimir Nabokov wrote “Stylistically it is prose doing what poetry is supposed to do” and Henry James wrote, “It has a perfection that not only stamps it, but that makes it stand almost alone.” What more authority does one need to emphasize on Flaubert’s artistic cleverness.

Rating: 4/5

About the author

Piyangie Jay Ediriwickrema is an Attorney-at-Law by profession. Her devotion to literature has taken shape in reading and reviewing books of various genres set in different periods of time. She dabs at a little poetry and fiction of her own and hopes to share her work with the readers in the future.