Depending on your perspective, this book is hopelessly dated and has little relevance to today, is an important step forward in the French novel, or is a classic depiction of tragedy in the Greek tradition. You should decide which perspective is most meaningful to you in determining whether you should read the book or not.
The story of the younger Madame Bovary (her mother-in-law is the other) is presented in the context of people whose illusions exceed their reality. Eventually, reality catches up with them. In the case of Emma Bovary, these illusions are mostly tied up in the notion that romantic relationships will make life wonderful and that love conquers all. She meets a young doctor of limited potential and marries with little thought. Soon, she finds him unbearable. The only time she is happy is when the two attend a ball at a chateaux put on by some of the nobility (the beautiful people of that time). She has a crisis of spirit and becomes depressed. To help, he moves to another town where life may be better for her. She has a daughter, but takes no interest in her. Other men attract her, and she falls for each one who pays attention to her in a romantic style. Clearly, she is in love with romance. Adultery is not rewarded, and she has a breakdown when one lover leaves her. Recovering, she takes on a younger lover she can dominate. This, too, works badly and she becomes reckless in her pursuit of pleasure. In the process, she takes to being reckless in other ways and brings financial ruin to herself and her family. The book ends in tragedy.
Here is the case for this being dated and irrelevant for today. A modern woman would usually not be trapped in such a way. She would separate from or divorce the husband she grew to detest, and make a new life. She would be able to earn a decent living, and would not be discouraged from raising a child alone. So the story would probably not happen now. In addition, the psychological aspects of her dilemma would be portrayed in terms of an inner struggle reflecting our knowledge today of psychology, rather than as a visual struggle followed mostly by a camera lens in this novel. The third difference is that the shallow stultifying people exalted by the society would be of little interest today. You find few novels about boring people in small towns in rural areas.
The case for the book as important in French literature is varied. The writing is very fine, and will continue to attract those who love the French language forever. This is a rare novel for its day in that it focused on a heroine who was neither noble by class nor noble in spirit. The book clearly makes more of an exploration into psychology than all but a few earlier French novels. The story itself was a shocking one in its day, for its focus on immoral behavior and the author's failure to overtly condemn that behavior. Emma pays the price, as Hollywood would require, but there is no sermonizing against her. So this book is a breakthrough in the modern novel in its shift in focus and tone to a personal pedestrian level.
From a third perspective, this book is a modern update of the classic Green tragedy in which all-too human characters struggle against a remorseless fate and are destroyed in the process. But we see their humanity and are moved by it. Emma's character is a hopeless romantic is established early. To be a hopeless romantic in a world where no one else she meets is condemns her to disappointment. She also seems to have some form of mental illness that makes it hard for her to deal with setbacks. But her optimism that somehow things will work out makes her appealing to us, and makes us wish for her success. When she does not succeed, we grieve with her family. Flaubert makes many references to fate in the novel, so it seems likely that this reading was intended.
My own view is that the modern reader who is not a scholar of French literature can only enjoy this book from the third perspective. If you do, there are many subtle ironies relative to the times and places in the novel that you will appreciate, as well. The ultimate ascendence of the careful, unimaginative pharmacist provides many of these. The ultimate fate of Madame Bovary's daughter, Berthe, is another. Be sure to look for these ironies among the details of these prosaic lives. The book positively teems with them.
If you are interested in perspectives two or three, I suggest you read and savor this fine classic. If you want something that keeps pace with modern times, manners, mores and knowledge, avoid this book!
If you do decide to read Madame Bovary, after you are done be sure to consider in what elements of your life you are filled with illusions that do not correspond to reality. We all have vague hopes that "when" we have "it" (whatever "it" is), life will be perfect. These illusions are often doomed to be shattered. Let your joy come from the seeking of worthy goals, instead! What worthy goals speak deeply into your heart and mind? In this way, you can overcome the misconceptions that stall your personal progress.
on 24 March 2010
This novel deserves it's classic status - Emma stems from a modest provincial background, but her deluded sense of self worth coupled with the attention of admirers, who turn out to be only selfish and self interested, lead inexorably to her downfall. Girls - learn from this cautionary tale! I agree with another reviewer that the Wordsworth translation is not the best and it probably is worth spending a little more for a better one.
so Nabokov's father said. And I suppose he was right. This is a work with a simple plot - a beautiful farmer's daughter yearning to bust out of a boring marriage - that can be read on innumerable levels, which is one of the marks of genius.
Emma Bovary appears differently to everyone who reads about her: as a brutal narcissist, an artist without a medium, an early feminist, a clueless provincial, a great romantic, a unique lover. Perhaps the only thing that she could not be is a good wife and mother. I have read this novel many times, both in ENglish and French, and its layers and themes continue to peel away, always revealing something richer. The langugae is simply exquisite, perfectly articulated and as descriptive as Nabokov, yet spare and full of despair. It is a snapshot of one of the most realistic and complex characters in early modern lit.
A must read.