Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (spoilers)

Recently, I read and thoroughly enjoyed M.E. Braddon’s book, The Doctor’s Wife. It was her take, if you like, on Madame Bovary, a novel of, in Braddon’s opinion, “hideous immorality.” Personally, I don’t believe that she really thought the book was immoral (people in glass houses, etc), but since Madame Bovary wasn’t in wide circulation in England at that particular time, her ‘moral outrage’ was a great excuse to fly on Flaubert’s coat-tails. Reading Braddon’s book led to a discussion here regarding the source material, and as a result,  Emma  and I decided to re-read Madame Bovary. This is either my fourth or fifth rereading, but it’s been at least a decade since the last sweep, and every time I re-read, I always wonder, will I enjoy the book as much this time?

I’m a believer in re-reading favourite books. Every 5 years or so, I re-read Jane Eyre, and it seems to be different every time I read it. Of course, the book hasn’t changed, and so my responses to the book tell me about myself more than anything else.  After this latest re-reading, I could write a series of posts on Madame Bovary; Baudelaire was right when described the novel as “essentially suggestive, and capable of inspiring a whole volume of commentary.” Originally serialized in 1856, Madame Bovary was published in book form in 1857 and sold 15,000 copies in two months.

Madame BovaryI’m not going to spend a great time of time on the plot–most of us know it because even if we haven’t read Madame Bovary, it’s one of those books with a plot that’s widely referenced, but for the benefit of this post, briefly, this is the story of Emma Bovary, a farmer’s daughter, convent-educated and with an unfortunate love for finery, who lands a widower, mediocre doctor Charles Bovary for a husband. It’s a wild mis-match with Emma, beautiful & passionate, flitting through her short life like a doomed firefly. Her dullard of a husband isn’t a bad man, but he never understands Emma, and allows her so much freedom that she destroys them both with her financial decisions.

After reading Madame Bovary hard on the heels of The Doctor’s Wife, there are inevitable comparisons, but I was struck by the dissimilarities more than anything else. Braddon’s characters are much better people–much less selfish and self-indulgent.

Charles Bovary is a weak man. His life has always been directed by someone else–first his mother who manages his education (and a good thing too) and who then marries him off to a shriveled, supposedly wealthy widow. We only get brief glimpses of the first Mrs. Bovary (someone I paid more attention to for some reason this time), and none of them are good.

She had to have her chocolate brought to her every morning, and expected to be waited on hand and foot. She was for ever complaining of her nerves, of the state of her lungs, of her many and various ailments. The noise of people moving about made her feel ill, but no sooner was she left alone than she found her solitude unbearable. If anyone came to see her, it was, she felt sure, because they wanted to make certain that she was dying. When Charles came home of an evening, she would bring her long skinny arms from beneath the bedclothes, clasp them about his neck, make him sit on the edge of the bed, and then tell him of her woes. She accused him of neglect, of loving someone else, and always ended up by asking for something to take for her health, and a little more love-making.

Poor Charles Bovary. No wonder, then, that he plunges off the deep end and decides to marry for love the second time around. Too bad that Emma doesn’t feel the same way, but as her father considers “that she had too good a mind for farming,” Bovary looks like a good match, and since the Rouault farm isn’t exactly overrun with suitors, a match is made. Emma has successfully established a foot up in society. Emma’s marriage to Charles is followed by extensive feasting, and two days later, Charles returns to his practice.

The couple in Braddon’s novel, The Doctor’s Wife, Emma and Charles Bovary’s literary counterparts, are Isabel Sleaford and George Gilbert. While Charles Bovary is a bit dense and weak, Braddon’s George Gilbert is a genuinely good man, from good stock, and much loved by his patients. Charles Bovary’s parents on the other hand are problematic–his father is essentially a wastrel, saved from the gutter by his steely-spined wife, and he opts out of involvement for most of the book. Isabel and George Gilbert at least have a honeymoon, but it’s a fairly miserable one with George counting pennies and pledging no more than a 10 pound note on the event. And then there’s the matter of poor Isabel’s wedding dress, picked out by her future husband: brown. It’s dull and a horrible disappointment. It’s impossible to imagine Emma Bovary wearing a brown wedding dress or allowing Charles to make the choice.

The two novels also differ on the issue of out-of-control consumerism. After the honeymoon is over, Braddon’s Isabel Gilbert wistfully attempts to beautify her drab home and add some decorative touches. All her ideas are immediately nixed by her husband and Isabel retreats once more into her beloved books. Emma, as we know, goes wild with credit.

And what of books? Emma Bovary is influenced by the novels of Walter Scott:

she grew enamoured of historic scenes, and dreamed of old oak chests, guard-rooms and medieval minstrels. She would have loved to spend her days in some ancient manor-house like the damsels in long-waisted gowns who dawdled away their time beneath Gothic traceries, chin in hand, their elbows resting on stone sills, watching white-plumed horsemen come galloping from afar on sable chargers. At that period of her life she cultivated a passion for Mary Stuart, and indulged in an enthusiastic veneration of all illustrious and ill-starred ladies. Jeanne d’Arc and Heloise, Agnes Sorel, La Ferronnière the beautiful, and Clémence Isaure, shone for her like comets from the dark immensities of history

Emma certainly loves finery, and we know she studies “descriptions of furniture” in the novels of Eugène Sue. Emma turns to books “seeking in their pages satisfaction by proxy for all her longings.” Charles’s mother sees Emma’s reading as the root of the problem, and tells her son that reading isn’t helping Emma at all:  “reading novels–a lot of wicked books full of quotations from Voltaire which hold priests up to ridicule.”  Braddon’s Isabel Gilbert reads constantly too–it’s her one escape from a dull life, but in Isabel’s case we learn about specific characters she admires: Ernest Maltravers, Steerforth, Henry Esmond, and Florence Dombey. Isabel Gilbert’s husband doesn’t mind if his wife reads all day long–even if he doesn’t understand the attraction. It’s fairly easy to conclude that while Isabel and Emma are both bored and trapped in loveless marriages, Isabel’s temperament allows her to accept her life and find solace in books. Emma, however, beats against the bars of her marital prison, and as her life spirals out of control, she seems far too restless to read. Then again, there’s the sneaking idea… could Emma ever be happy? What would have happened if she did run off with Rodolphe? Something tells me Emma is born to be restless and discontent.  She’s one of those kamikaze women.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Emma Bovary and Isabel Sleaford is passion–Emma is a woman who desires sex while Isabel does not seek sexual gratification outside of marriage. There are several passages that reference Emma’s sexual appetite. After her wedding night, for example, guests note that Charles acts as though he’s the virgin while Emma “gave no indication that anything had happened to her.” Emma is a passionate, sensual woman and through her affairs and her secret life, she is unleashed from her bourgeois upbringingIsabel’s love, on the other hand, is very cerebral–much more the embodiment of courtly love. Emma, however, gets down and dirty. While she’s seduced by Rodolphe, her first lover, by the time she gets to Léon, she’s the seducer. Flaubert isn’t shy about letting us know that Emma craves sex.

All the time she was playing the part of the virtuous wife her mind was on fire with memories of the familiar head with its black hair falling in curls over a sun-tanned brow, of the figure at once so strong and so elegant, of the man who combined intellectual experience with such fervent desire.


He became her mistress far more completely than she was ever his. Her kisses and her tender words stole away his heart. Where had she learned the arts of a power to corrupt which was so profound so well disguised, that it appeared to be almost disembodied?


when next she saw him, she was more on fire, more exigent, than ever. She flung off her clothes with a sort of brutal violence, tearing at her thin stay-lace so that it hissed about her hips like a slithering snake.

Another element of the novel that struck me this time is how expertly Flaubert shows that Emma’s affairs do not occur in a vacuum. Rodolphe is compared (favourably of course) by Emma to Bovary, and then when the affair dips, her hopes rise in her husband through the surgery he intends to perform on the unfortunate human guinea pig, Hippolyte. When the surgery fails, and all of her ambitions for her husband are crushed, Emma returns to the affair with even more abandon.

Flaubert, IMO, is a better stylist than Braddon. There are many stunningly beautiful passages in the novel:

The round crimson moon was coming up on the horizon beyond the meadows. It rose rapidly between the poplar branches, which obscured it here and there like a ragged black curtain. Then it emerged, brilliantly white, lighting up the empty sky; moving more slowly now, it let fall on the river a great splash of brightness which broke into an infinity of stars. The silver gleam appeared to turn and twist upon itself as though it had been a headless snake covered with shining scales. At other moments it resembled some monstrous candelabra scattering from each long arm a rain of melted diamonds.

For this read, I decided to pick a favourite scene, and the award goes to the segment in which Emma and Léon arrange to meet at the cathedral. Emma writes a letter cancelling the  “arrangement for the meeting,” and then she decides to personally deliver the letter which really, almost comically and certainly preposterously, undermines the sham of her fragile moral stance. This little diversion shows us that Emma isn’t being entirely honest with herself, and that she loves to add drama to the intrigue. Plus this maneuver has the benefit of making Léon work a little harder to ‘seduce’ Emma. I loved this scene for the way in which the verger insists on giving the tour while the lovers can’t wait to get away from him. Plus the presence of the verger and his lecture serves as the backdrop of morality for our soon-to-be lovers, so it’s appropriate that Diane de Poitiers is referenced. No doubt she’d be someone Emma admired. I loved the way Léon hustles Emma out of the cathedral into the hired carriage practically panting the whole way, and it’s here of course, that their first sexual encounter takes place. Not too surprising that the sex-in-the-carriage scene should end up being one of the most scandalous scenes in the book, and one that even his publisher suggested Flaubert should cut.

While of course I remembered how Emma died, I’d oddly enough forgotten how she gobbled the arsenic. She rushed to her death as she rushed to her lovers. It’s a desperate scene and one that made me pity Emma–a woman who never understood herself.

Flaubert’s masterpiece, incidentally, was inspired by the all-too real story of Eugène Delamare, a medical man who, like Bovary, was blind to his second wife’s extravagances and flagrant infidelities.

See here for Emma’s post

Translated by Gerard Hopkins


Filed under Fiction, Flaubert Gustave

34 responses to “Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (spoilers)

  1. I’ll be back to read your review – just wanted to let you know that I signed you up on the GLM page. It worked fine. You just add the details to the widget.

  2. Fascinating. ME Braddon really cooled things down not to be too shoking.

    I agree with your analysis of Emma loving sex. She’s full of ideas about great love but it’s not just a cerebral thing. She could fancy herself in love and have everything happening in her imagination. Perhaps it’s because she’s a farmer’s daughter. She can’t ignore facts of life and that’s maybe a difference between her and a sheltered girl from the aristocracy.

    I love the scene in the cathedral as well and again we have a sex scene in a carriage. In this one, it’s so modern. You could imagine them in New York or LA driving around in a limo; that’s real chick lit material.
    Their affair is quite modern with its clandestine rendezvous in hotels. Usually, in books of that time, they have platonic meetings in parks and boldly exchange a kiss or hold hands. (in appearance, that’s it. I’m sure in real life they all found a way to have sex somewhere)

    The description of Charles and Emma’s wedding reminded me of Thomas Hardy. It could have been in Sussex, don’t you think? I suppose Flaubert influenced Hardy.

    • I hope that you read The Doctor’s Wife at some point. It’s an excellent read in its own right even thought Braddon can’t resist slipping in a little sensationalism right at the end.

      I actually laughed at the way Léon kept shouting at the carriage driver to keep moving. I suppose if they were stationary, the game would have been evident.

      Flaubert was deeply criticized for the realism in MB, and there is a realism link between Hardy and Flaubert, but Hardy’s early novels were published at the end of Flaubert’s life. Flaubert may have read Hardy, I don’t know, but Hardy wouldn’t have been in Flaubert’s head when he wrote MB. But in spite of that, the wedding scene is ripe with the wealth and colour of farming life. Reminded me a bit of Jude the Obscure for some reason.

  3. I love Madame Bovary, and Flaubert in general. If you search at my blog, you will find many posts about them both.

    I would say that Emma’s sensuality is evident from the get-go, when she uses her tongue to get the last bit of liquor in her glass at one of her first meetings with Bovary, as her marriage is being arranged.

    Despite Flaubert’s deeply-rooted misogyny, which he shared with Baudelaire and most men of that age, he is deeply empathetic – not sympathetic – with Emma. (“Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” he remarked). She is surrounded by men who use and abuse her, not to mention insufferable hypocrites and blockheads. A priest who cannot see that a woman with enough to eat can still have spiritual problems, a lover who trifles with her, a creditor who milks her, and so on.

    BTW, I still think that the sex scene in the parked car in Titanic (which I have, thank heaven, seen only part of) is inspired by the cinematic carriage ride of Emma and Leon…

    I think that Frederic Moreau of The Sentimental Education is in many ways a male version of Emma Bovary. Because he is a male, he has the freedom to indulge his stupidity and illusions harmlessly, to himself, while for Emma, the end is a horrific self-destruction. Emma comments on this double-standard at several points in the book.

    I re-read it regularly too!

    • Oh yes, don’t you wonder if, after all, Charles Bovary isn’t the “hero” of the book? I mean, think about Bouvard & Pecuchet and the A Simple Heart…Isn’t he the only one who actually loves another?

      • Good point about Bovary. All of the people are so self-serving (well there’s poor Hippolyte hobbling around in the background). Bovary’s main fault, as a human being, is that he doesn’t understand his limitations, and those limitations extend to his relationship with Emma. The “real” Bovary (and the story parallels fiction to a T) killed himself.

        I haven’t seen Titantic so I “missed” that scene inspired by Flaubert’s carriage scene. Hollywood always has to steal the best bits.

  4. Great commentary Guy.

    I agree with you about rereading. It is striking how much changes in ourselves are so instrumental in driving out experience. Madame Bovary sounds well worth rereading.

  5. Enjoyed your review. It’s been many years since I read the book, but I recall being very impressed with it. Interesting to have it so closely compared to Braddon’s book as well. I remember, when I read it, thinking that it was so far outside what anyone in England was doing that it didn’t really fit any notion of 19th century literature. I think there should be a separate history of the novel for the French, which of course there is. France and England seem separated by an ocean rather an a channel when you compare 19th century literature.

    • CB: It’s amusing, in a way, that Braddon’s characters behave so much better given the very basic plot outline. Of course, Braddon’s character never gets into debt, so the story doesn’t slip alone those lines, but the absence of sexuality (between Isabel and her love ideal) is striking after reading the two books so closely together.

  6. Jonathan

    While I was reading Zola I kept checking out Flaubert’s books and was amazed at the variety of them. Although Madame Bovary is his most famous novel, for me Salammbô and Bouvard et Pécuchet looked more interesting to me. But then I watched the Chabrol/Huppert film a couple of months ago and now I really want to read the book. Have you seen the film?

    • Yes. Isabelle Huppert is probably my favourite actress, so I watch anything she is in. She is especially excellent at playing roles of women who come off the rails. Case in point. She’s a phenomenal actress. She seems to know just how to play all that pent up emotion.

  7. At least the title was well chosen in this instance. I never thought Anna Karenina was all that apt, I thought it was more about Vronsky.
    I’ve read Emma Bovary at least three times as well but only liked it the third time when I read it purely for the style. The descriptions are so masterful.
    I also remember that the death scene only got to me when I read it for the third time. Btw – I’m planning on re-reading Jane Eyre.

  8. Alex in Leeds

    Great to see you compare Braddon and Flaubert, I know Madame Bovary from several readings of it but not The Doctors Wife (I have it on my shelf but haven’t got to it yet) and you’ve confirmed my suspicions on how Braddon would soften the original plot to fit an English audience’s tastes better. You’ve also confirmed that I’m long overdue a re-read of Emma’s adventures in a month or two.:)

  9. leroyhunter

    I want to re-readit in Lydia Davis’s new translation – just haven’t got around to picking it up yet. Great posts from you and Emma.

  10. Interesting comparison. What translation did you read Guy?

    I’ve only read Bovary once so far. It’s probably my favourite book if I have one. So beautifully written and observed. It’s a pleasure to read your thoughts on it.

  11. Forgot to say, nice point on the suicide and her approach to the arsenic.

  12. Mine was the Gerard Hopkins.

  13. I am reading this having just commented on the post on “Madame Bovary” on Emma’s blog.

    I know of Braddon principally as the author of “Lady Audley’s Secret” (which i haven’t read), and of some ghost stories (which i have read, and which are rather good!) I had no idea that she wrote a novel in response to “Madame Bovary”. I must confess it seems rather presumptuous: I enjoy her ghost stories, right enough, but she was certainly no Flaubert!

    I love that scene in Rouen Cathedal as well – especially that guide who kept regurgitating those facts and figures. When I visited Rouen Cathedral, i remember, all I could think of was “Madame Bovary”!

    Reading both your posts has made me want to read the novel again. Some day, I am going to learn French well enough to read it in the original. Some day…:)

    • You’e right, she was no Flaubert but she had a different audience, and after reading MB, I think that Braddon really did a lot with the bare bones of the story & made it her own. Plus everyone was pinching everyone else’s ideas back then.

    • I don’t read French well enough to read a novel cover to cover, but with a book like MB that I know so well, I find it enjoyable and very illuminating to read a few pages at a go. You get a very good sense of Flaubert’s style in the original.

      Since I have read it four or five times, I already know what is happening!

      Wish I could say the same for Balzac, but his style is so…well, he was no stylist.

  14. Having only gotten to read Madame Bovary a couple of years ago I think it may be a while before I reread it but I certainly will at some point.
    The “out of control consumerism” was certainly one of the things that struck me as incredibly modern. The suggestion that possessions can fulfil the needs experience fails to fulfil is the cornerstone of marketing.
    Flaubert seemed to me to suggest that the expectations raised by books could be the very things that hollow out lived experience. In such a worldview the books that suggest love will solve all life’s problems become the immoral books.

    • Sean: yes the consumerism struck me harder this time around for some reason–perhaps because we are hobbling around after the boom when everyone thought they were rolling in the green stuff–only to find it was plastic stuff. The apparently real-life model for MB was also a reader of books that supposedly led her astray with her unfulfilled expectations.

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