Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary, for years the symbol of wifely infidelity, is a tragic figure in Classic French literature. Married to a widower at a young age, her grandiose notions and desperate search for intoxicating happiness drains every crumb of decency and grace from the lives of her and her family. A true tragedy, Madame Bovary is both a shocking revelation to the people of the time and a cruel morality tale, reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet except without the everlasting fidelity and true love.

Madame Bovary begins as a sweet young girl, loved by her father and schooled in a convent as such proper, beloved young ladies ought. While at the convent, she is exposed to romantic novels and stories, the kind that nowadays would have Fabiola or his sort on the cover. The women in the stories are consumed by love for their heroic renaissance men. The men in the stories know everything and do everything perfectly romantically, perfectly heroically, and perfectly everythingly. Of course we all know those stories set unreasonable expectations but no one told little miss who would later become the wife of a boring but doting widower that expecting her husband to live up to those heroes was destined to make her unhappy.

Sure enough, after the first glow of married life wears off, Madame Bovary begins seeking emotional excitement elsewhere. Like a drug addict she needs new things and more things all the time to excite her. First it is motherhood. She vacillates between being a doting mother and not bothering to care about her daughter. After the joys of motherhood fade, she falls in love. It is a respectable, virginal love and the young man is too proper to pursue it but they both feel it. She smooths over his imperfections with feelings of loathing towards her husband. Flaubert is extremely talented at describing the emotions Madame Bovary goes through in all her cycles of joy and depression. After her young love moves away, she is seized upon by an unscrupulous bachelor and their year long affair seems incredibly indiscreet to me, but there is no indication that the village is aware of their affair. After a dramatic end to her illicit romance, she sinks into a deep depression, much like Bella Swan in modern day Twilight. She rouses from this depression when she and her husband visit the city and she is once again presented with her young love. This time both are determined to consummate this love. Another year is spent in debauchery and frivolity and by this point Madame Bovary’s spending has driven her and her husband deep into debt, with him totally unawares. Her need for novelty and intense feelings has driven her to spending the capital of her youth, energy, and money until there is not only nothing, but less than nothing left. She has ruined not only herself but her loving husband and the future of her innocent daughter. She ends her life and the last few pages describe the extent to which I she has ruined nearly every life she ever touched.

When Madame Bovary was first published, so many women identified with our protagonist that dozens came forward as the inspiration for the main character. Flaubert’s eloquent descriptions of her passion and depression are frequent enough that anyone who feels mildly dissatisfied in their relationships or feels like they need emotional highs to tolerate life can find company in Madame Bovary. As a cautionary tale, it does well for several reasons. The first and most obvious is how dangerous stifling youthful experimentation can be. This young woman has romance novels as her only source of relationship advice, poisonous as they are written to be risqué and unrealistic flights of fantasy. I remember reading my first romance novel as a teenager. My mother didn’t forbid me, nor did she encourage me, she only told me that real relationships aren’t like that and not to be fooled. I feel as though I should thank her for what many young women are not to getting these days. Madame Bovary is an excellent example of why not to let your daughters read twilight or its ilk. Real relationships are not like fairy tales and reading fairy tales as an impressionable young woman, or young men, is extremely hard to get over, specially when parents feel too uncomfortable to talk to their children about relationships and sex.

It is also a cautionary tale against allowing others to take advantage of one’s naïveté. The local merchant uses judicious extensions of credit to trap our Madame in a cycle of debt. The local apothecary discredits Madame Bovary’s husband through mild trickery and judicious rumormongering. Madam’s first lover feeds her lies of love and fidelity to seduce her. The common thread in their downfall is a lack of skepticism. She wants so badly to believe that she deserves a life full of romance and passion that she seizes anything that leads that direction. He believes that he has a perfect life and shrugs off anything that might indicate otherwise. The two make a foolish pair who end their lives miserably and leave their daughter to a life of bitterness and manual labor, bereft of what her parents inherited from theirs.

All in all, I would prefer to have read one of Aesop’s fables. They are far more entertaining and fanciful. I do realize that perhaps the biggest reason for my distaste is my removal from the culture. When published, it so resounded with the women of the time that I have to think that, much like heart of Darkness, it was a conversation that needed to happen at the time and perhaps needs to happen with more conservative families, but Seattle hardly needs the morality tale of the cheating wife full of ennui that mid century France needed. All in all not a bad read. I would recommend it for young women or someone who likes sad endings.

Speaking of, I will say that I do appreciate the manner of her death. Not ironic exactly, but Madame had high ideas of some noble, beautiful, and quiet death but didn’t realize just how ugly her method would be. Flaubert specifically details what she looks and sounds like in death and as someone who finds her ideas foolish I appreciate that he took the wind out of her sails as it were, showing her finally that no matter what she wished, some things are just ugly.