When I picked up Gustave Flaubert’s, Madame Bovary, I was merely looking for a book to fulfill the needs of the lazy, summertime reader, and hopefully, bask in the elegant refinement of Old World Literature, so very much lacking in the majority of fiction written for today’s generation. The book holds a thoroughly sound reputation, so I felt quite confident in my decision to read it, but what I didn’t realize was that what I held in my hands was a reflection of humanity.
‘Madame Bovary is a brilliant book, the greatest portrait ever written of a woman’s soul in a revolt against convention society.’ That is what the back of the book reads, and with such promises hanging in the air, there was a lot at stake. Skeptical though I was about a man’s ability to paint the portrait of a woman’s soul- he was, after all, no Jane Austen- upon reading the first few chapters, I knew there was something remarkable about this book, and the man writing it. How clearly he could define the psyche of a hysterical female; how well he could explain the woes of humanity. The main character, Emma, is not meant to be liked (or disliked, for that matter), none of the characters are, and it is incredibly hard to pity any of them. The characters are not of amiable qualities; no one plays the hero and in the end, everyone gets what they deserve…. and life goes on. But we can relate to certain aspects in all of these characters, or at least, we can relate someone we know to them, which can be quite an upsetting concept. I found myself questioning the good in humanity; if, by nature, human beings are selfish, terribly complacent, or merely unobservant due to contentment and lack of will?
The true success of this book comes from Flaubert’s ability to combine realism and emotional subjectivity. The writing is strictly detail oriented; Flaubert paints the most realistic settings. If Emma is sitting in her bedroom, then everything in that room is described, down to the granulates of dust on the lampshade. Detailed though the writing is, it still retains a subjective tone. I always felt Emma’s emotions, perhaps a little too strongly at times, but is that not the mark of a good writer? The main theme of the book is that of greed. Emma acquires the finest material objects, despite being penniless, and goes into severe debt; she has affairs with the most beautiful of men, all to satisfy an emptiness within herself. Yet, she finds herself, time and time again, wishing to turn back the clock so that she may return to her days in the Convent- back to purity, back to hope. Throughout the book, Flaubert denies Emma longevity of her petty objects and never fully allows her to escape from the physical world of reality, to live in the fantasy world of her own creation. In the end, he takes everything from her. When the veils disintegrate, she realizes that her [perceived] love had been nothing more than a fallacious reality. Emma is trapped in a life, and with a love, that disgusts her, and because Flaubert does not allow his readers any relief from the ghastly musings of Emma’s mind, I could not avoid seeing how Emma perceived the world; I truly did feel her vexation and restlessness, and could understand how these severe emotions led to neurosis.
This is a novel that helps the readers understand the human condition by bringing to light the horrendously ugly, unromantic life, of everyday people, and how completely stirring it can be when written about with such loving detail. Every word in Madame Bovary is chosen carefully, and there is an undeniably profound artistry poured into the content. Emma Bovary reflects the chaos of a woman’s mind. She represents the inner suffering of 19th-century women- rebelling against composure and contentment, daring not to be defined by the simple mindset of her husband, reckless enough to bare her heart for “true love.” In her efforts, she goes mad, becomes wicked, and terribly selfish; torn apart by rejection and unable to accept the cards dealt her in life. Though all of us would like to think ourselves stronger than this female protagonist, have none of us ever felt defeated by life? Stoned to death by lost love? Killed by the repetitive nature of endless days? “After the pain of this disappointment her heart once more stood empty, and the succession of identical days began again.”