From Goodreads: When Emma Rouault marries Charles Bovary she imagines she will pass into the life of luxury and passion that she reads about in sentimental novels and women’s magazines. But Charles is a dull country doctor, and provincial life is very different from the romantic excitement for which she yearns. In her quest to realize her dreams she takes a lover, and begins a devastating spiral into deceit and despair.
“A good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable.” —Gustave Flaubert
With this quote in mind, I have to admit that I had some difficulty to get into this book. I wasn’t that impressed with the language and started to wonder if I had picked a bad translation. (I am reading a free Kindle edition.) I was further confused because Chapter 1 is first narrated by an unknown character who observes Charles Bovary’s first day at school as a fellow student. Then, without an obvious switch in narrator or any other break, we get a quick overview of Charles’s first thirteen years, before he arrives at school, and his life until he becomes a country doctor. But after this little hiccup, the reading was smooth sailing, especially once Charles meets Emma and his first wife conveniently dies.
Emma Rouault is the daughter of a farmer and was brought up in a convent where she read too many sentimental novels. When she marries Charles, she expects to lead a life full of passion and grandeur—a notion that is based on what she reads in novels and magazines. She fails to realize that these expectations are completely unrealistic. So while Charles obviously cares for Emma, he can’t provide what Emma is looking for—but then, hardly anyone could.
“Emma looked at him and shrugged her shoulders. Why, at least, was not her husband one of those men of taciturn passions who work at their books all night, and at last, when about sixty, the age of rheumatism sets in, wear a string of orders on their ill-fitting black coat? She could have wished his name of Bovary, which was hers, had been illustrious, to see it displayed at the booksellers’, repeated in the newspapers, known to all France. But Charles had no ambition.”
Poor Charles! Emma is right, he has no ambition, but he tries to accommodate his wife as much as possible. But Emma is so disappointed by her ordinary life that she fails to see the positive in her life. Soon, her disillusionment starts to affect her well-being, with no easy cure in sight.
Flaubert is one of the earliest French writers of realism and a pioneering stylist. My knowledge of French classics of any time period is very limited, and I haven’t read many other realist novels, so I probably should not make comparisons. But so far, I find Flaubert’s style much more accessible than that of other realist writers. Looking over the first nine chapters to write this review, I was laughing at how many passages I had highlighted. It seems that the worse Emma feels, the more exquisite I find the writing describing her, her emotions, and her surroundings.
According to the brief biography I read of Flaubert, he wrote tirelessly but threw out most of his writing because he didn’t like it. What made it into Madame Bovary is beautifully written. I can only imagine how much work was put into creating perfect prose, making it seem effortless, and ending up with an image as vivid as the one described here:
“On fine days she went down into the garden. The dew had left on the cabbages a silver lace with long transparent threads spreading from one to the other. No birds were to be heard; everything seemed asleep, the espalier covered with straw, and the vine, like a great sick serpent under the coping of the wall, along which, on drawing near, one saw the many-footed woodlice crawling.”
At this point, the end of Chapter 9, I feel sorry for Emma. She has nothing to occupy her and is bored out of her mind. I can’t blame her for having a head full of romantic, yet completely unrealistic ideas. She has had no one in her life to guide her, since the nuns at the convent originally mistook her emotions for an especially fervent belief in their religion. I am curious to see if and how my feelings towards “literature’s most famous adulteress” will change as I read along.