Gustave Flaubert (1821 – 1880) came of age during a time of transition between the revolution of 1830 and that of 1848. It was an era of tremendous political and intellectual upheaval, a time when poets and writers like Wordsworth, Coleridge and Walter Scott denounced the rationalism of the Enlightenment, seeing themselves as champions of the marginalized and the oppressed. However, by the time Flaubert wrote his seminal debut novel, the Romantic movement was as obsolete as the bourgeois mediocrity that had preceded it. The world was ready for a new, modern approach to literature – or so it thought. When it came down to it, though, it wasn’t altogether ready for Madame Bovary.
Flaubert’s unsentimental, and relatively sympathetic, portrayal of a married woman’s adulterous affairs shocked even the most broad-minded readers of the day. The scandal that greeted the serialization of the book in the fall of 1856 lead to an obscenity trial the following January. Acquitted of the charge, Flaubert found himself with a best-seller on his hands. As you would expect.
The story begins with young Charles Bovary, a stolid, even-tempered only child, dominated by his mother and neglected by his father, who is sent to school at the age of 12 where, by dint of steady work and the lack of distractions, he does well enough to pass his exams. At his mother’s urging, he studies medicine and, through her, finds a position as a doctor in a small town in Normandy, not far from Rouen. Madame Bovary Senior also finds him a wife – a middle-aged widow named Héloïse who is some 20 years older than Charles but has an annual income of 1200 francs.
One night Charles is called out to set the broken leg of a local farmer. While there, he meets the farmer’s daughter, Emma – beautiful, dainty, and well-spoken. Charles falls in love with her, and makes excuses to visit his patient as often as possible, in order to catch a glimpse of the daughter. When Héloïse dies unexpectedly (not to mention conveniently), Charles lets a decent interval pass and then begins to court Emma in earnest. For her part, she sees Charles as sufficiently handsome and well-bred to make a good husband; more than that, though, she longs to escape from the tedium of the farm, and so agrees to marry him.
For a short while, they’re happy together. Charles is thrilled beyond measure to have captured such a prize – a beautiful young woman, convent educated, with a taste for luxury and refinement. But those tastes have been formed by her appetite for romantic novels; they are superficial, a little silly, and ultimately unattainable. Quite quickly Emma finds herself bored by the life of a small-town doctor and increasingly irritated by her husband, whom she sees as dull, uncouth, and uninteresting. After they attend a ball given by a wealthy nobleman, she becomes even more dissatisfied:
“At the bottom of her heart. . . she was waiting for something to happen. Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon. . . each morning, as she awoke, she hoped it would come; that day she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, wondered that it did not come; then at sunset, always more saddened, she longed for the morrow”.
Thinking she needs a change of scenery, Charles gives up his practice and moves them to a larger town, where Emma gives birth to a daughter. But his wife finds no more satisfaction in motherhood than in marriage. She forms a friendship with a young law student, Léon Dupuis, who shares her appreciation for the finer things in life. Léon quickly falls in love with Emma but she, wishing to preserve the image of a dutiful wife, conceals her feelings for him. In despair, Léon leaves for Paris to continue his studies. A wealthy landowner, Rodolphe Boulanger, turns up at Charles’ office and notices the doctor’s pretty wife. Boulanger is a rake; he has always had mistresses, generally of the professional kind, but Emma’s sweet, naive ways attract him. He launches a quest to seduce her and invites her to go riding with him for the sake of her health. Charles, of course, agrees, and Boulanger and Emma begin an affair. Now, like the heroines of her novels, she has a lover:
“So at last she was to know those joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired! She was entering upon marvels where all would be passion, ecstasy, delirium.”
Emma becomes obsessed with Boulanger; she takes great risks to visit him, sending him letters every day and rushing out before daybreak to be with him. She plagues him with unexpected visits and passionate demands to the point that he finally decides she’s not worth the trouble, and drops her. Emma is devastated:
“How was it that she – she, who was so intelligent – could have allowed herself to be deceived again? and through what deplorable madness had she thus ruined her life by continual sacrifices? She recalled all her instincts of luxury, all the privations of her soul, the sordidness of marriage, of the household, her dream sinking into the mire like wounded swallows; all that she had longed for, all that she had denied herself, all that she might have had! And for what? for what?”
In an agony of grief, Emma falls ill and for a while seems close to death. Charles, distraught, gives up his work, all his responsibilities, to sit by her bed and nurse her back to health. When she seems close to recovery, he takes her into Rouen to attend the opera. There they run into Léon who has completed his education and is now working in the city. The encounter revives their earlier passion for each other – they begin meeting once a week in Rouen, on the pretext that Emma is taking piano lessons there from a Mademoiselle Lempereur.
Emma believes she’s in love with Léon but she’s actually infatuated with the idea of love. She wants to live the life of her romantic heroines, a life of passion, beauty, wealth, and high society. Abetted by the unscrupulous Lheureux, a local merchant, she indulges her desire for luxury goods she can’t afford. He allows her to buy on credit, each time renewing the account and adding to it. He also encourages her to obtain power of attorney over Charles’ estate, which allows her to go even further into debt.
Léon, for his part, has his own romantic notions: “She was the mistress of all the novels, the heroine of all the dramas, the vague ‘she’ of all the volumes of verse. … She had the long waist of feudal châtelaines, and she resembled the ‘pale woman of Barcelona.’ But above all she was the Angel!”
In describing these hapless lovers, Flaubert neither attempts to justify their adulterous relationship nor appease the reader with pious moralizing. His writing, which is astounding for a first novel in its clear, confident, and explicit prose, manages to avoid the clichés and coy intimations we find in works by Richardson and Fielding. His narrator is detached, a little cynical, and frequently amused. While Emma and Charles are strong and believable protagonists, in many ways it’s the secondary characters who carry the tale. The despicable Lherueux who encourages Emma to mire herself in debt, then calls in the account and destroys her. The tedious chemist, Homais, who practices medicine without a licence and pretends to be Charles’ friend, while undermining him at every opportunity. And poor Hippolyte, the stableman, who agrees to let Charles operate on his club foot and ends up having his leg amputated at the hip.
All of these are drawn with an attention to detail that feels very real and very modern. As for Emma, wrapped in her fantasies of perfect happiness with the man of her dreams, she’s as believable today as she was 150 years ago. You’ll find her on every episode of “Say Yes to the Dress”, explaining why she deserves to walk down the aisle in a dress that costs more than some of us make in a year.