Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary shocked and offended many audiences with its portrayal of a bored wife who turns to adulterous affairs to satisfy her fantasies of a more exciting life like those of the heroines in her novels. But Flaubert’s novel, famously put on trial for what some considered preaching immorality, examines more than just one woman’s adultery. It examines life in the nineteenth century as lines were being drawn between science and religion, as agrarian societies shifted to industrial societies and populations moved from the countryside to the cities. Madame Bovary is more a novel about the changes of the nineteenth century and what happens when people cannot adapt than it is about one woman’s lack of faithfulness.
Charles Bovary became a mediocre doctor, who married a slightly wealthier widow, who soon died and left him a little wealthier mediocre doctor. After setting the broken leg of a local landowner, Charles Bovary found himself drawn to the man’s attractive daughter. Making more house-calls than necessary for a broken leg, Charles Bovary earned the approval of Emma and her father and the two soon married. For the first few months, Emma rearranges the house and entertains and believes that she is happy with her marriage. But she gradually succumbs to fantasies inspired by the novels she reads and memories from her education in a convent in the city.
Most of the novel’s plot is set in the country village of Yonville, just outside of the city of Rouen. The village’s townspeople are wonderful caricatures of the different sentimentalities competing for prominence and renown during the nineteenth century, from the priest pushing for everyone’s redemption to the pharmacist with his belief that modern sciences will help him to heal others and prosper financially to the local merchant lending money and providing goods to those with the desire but not the means (primarily Madame Bovary).
I found the pacing of the novel inconsistent. The way some scenes were written read like watching a movie. One scene in particular (the scene where Emma and Rodolphe are flirting at a country fair during a few political speeches and awards) moved back and forth to the point where, as a reader, I could see exactly how it would be cut together frame by frame. Most of the time though, the novel is repetitive and drawn out. I know that there are people who waver back and forth indecisively the way that Emma does and maybe they will find it engaging, but I found it annoying, and Emma annoying as a result. But, there was enough to most of the other characters and their relationships with one another and with their changing society for me to work through those sections where the pacing dragged a little and the commentary on the interactions that carry through the novel made working through the difficult passages worthwhile.
Madame Bovary is one a classic novel whose controversial past is remembered but can only truly be appreciated with the proper context (by today’s standards, it is incredibly tame; books marketed to teens are racier these days). What it had to say was largely lost in that controversy but can be read today as an aide to understanding the forces at work at that time.