Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert
At first, I didn’t want to read Madame Bovary because from all I’d read and heard about the book, it sounded as though Gustave Flaubert had created a female protagonist who is vapid, frivolous, materialistic, irresponsible, unrealistic, and deceitful, who he then punishes (basically, for being a woman discontent with her husband, marriage, and family) with a horrible death which selfishly ruins the lives of everyone who’d known her. Which, ew. Why would I want to punish myself with such anti-feminist tripe? But after a friend told me about how much she loved the book, and Emma Bovary’s sense of romanticism and passion, I decided to give it a try. In some respects I was surprised by what I read, in both positive and negative ways.
First off, I was surprised to find that I did not find Emma Bovary to be as disgusting a caricature as many other readers seem to, even if I did not quite like her. For about the first half of the book, in fact, I was totally sympathetic to her. She was a young woman who craved adventure and had high expectations of love, who was morbidly depressed and bored by her early-settled domestic life in the country with a man who was uninteresting to her and for whom she had no attraction. Her desires and motivations did not seem frivolous, peripheral, or unreasonable to me at all. I get that at the time and place in which this book was written, it was still expected that hetero couples marry young for convenience, stability, and family-raising, and that real romance was a sort of secondary bonus when it happened, but it seems unfair to me, as a modern reader, to consider Madame Bovary’s desire for more than that as selfish, even as her adulterous actions began to lack direction and the results remained unfulfilling throughout the second half of the book. True, she was a bit materialistic and irresponsible with money. But it’s also true that all the more rich and glamorous people she encountered seemed to be living much more thrilling, alluring lives than she was, so it wasn’t hard to see why she’d be tempted. And true, she had a tendency to project idealizations onto men who were only human after all, but I don’t really think it’s so terrible that she’s an idealist unwilling to settle, either.
So while it didn’t seem to me that Flaubert had constructed an unfair, stereotypical woman as his protagonist–indeed, he seemed to identify with her–her death was undoubtedly a punishment for her deceit and her husband’s debt. It was long, painful, and gruesomely detailed. Anyone with something against Madame Bovary was generously rewarded. This does fit a particularly irritating, misogynistic theme in literature (woman is not happy with her home, husband, family/indulges in some kind of escapism or adultery, lies/commits suicide, dies, or is killed), but it does not preclude me from liking all books that employ it. I loved Anna Karenina, for example. In this case, I was left feeling totally ambivalent about it. Honestly, I was just ready for the story to end.
And that’s what turned out to be my biggest problem with the book. While I enjoyed Flaubert’s style and his ability to use lots of detail without slowing the pace of the narrative, there just wasn’t enough story there for me. I would have enjoyed a nice subplot or two. My interest in Emma’s love affairs waned as the passion of the affairs did too. Maybe if I’d known more (or anything, rather) about Gustave Flaubert and his intentions with Madame Bovary before I read it, I might have had a stronger reaction to the way the themes of the book played out. Clearly, I need to do a little research. As I haven’t yet, though, I mostly just feel…
What did other people think? Was Madame Bovary really not as terrible as she’d been made out to be (at least to me) who was killed because it was time to end the struggle, the unhappiness, the story…as obnoxious as that may be within the larger literary picture, or was she a straw-woman brought to life only to be punished and thus made an example of? If there’s misogyny here, is it coming from the author or the reader? Is this framing too simplistic?
Maybe some lit majors or something can help key me in here.