Madame Bovary, part 1

Madame Bovary, part 1Madame Bovary (Book 1) by Gustave Flaubert
on 1856
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 335
Source: Purchased: ebook

Emma Bovary is beautiful and bored, trapped in her marriage to a mediocre doctor and stifled by the banality of provincial life. An ardent devourer of sentimental novels, she longs for passion and seeks escape in fantasies of high romance, in voracious spending and, eventually, in adultery. But even her affairs bring her disappointment, and when real life continues to fail to live up to her romantic expectations, the consequences are devastating. Flaubert's erotically charged and psychologically acute portrayal of Emma Bovary caused a moral outcry on its publication in 1857. It was deemed so lifelike that many women claimed they were the model for his heroine; but Flaubert insisted: 'Madame Bovary, c'est moi.'

I have completed book I of Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s debut novel published in 1856. My thoughts so far:

Flaubert is taking his time with the unfolding of the story. The initial chapters focus on Charles Bovary. We are introduced to him as he enters a new schoolroom, and learn that he is a stolid, uninspired student. He becomes a provincial doctor, and marries an older, wealthy widow in a marriage that is arranged by his mother.

When Emma Bovary enters into the story, Charles is smitten. She is the pretty, engaging and well-dressed daughter of a patient. Once M. Bovary’s wife dies, he begins to court Emma, and eventually marries her.

Flaubert is considered a “realistic” writer, and his descriptions of French provincial life are carefully constructed and include details that contribute to their realism. Some of my favorite quotes from this section relate to the customs of the French peasantry:

At night when they left, the horses, stuffed up to the nostrils with oats, could hardly be got into the shafts; they kicked, reared, the harness broke, their masters laughed or swore; and all night in the light of the moon along country roads there were runaway carts at full gallop plunging into the ditches, jumping over yard after yard of stones, clambering up the hills, with women leaning out from the tilt to catch hold of the reins.

It is clear from the beginning that the marriage between Charles and Emma is not likely to be wildly successful. Emma is a romantic, and she wants a life of luxury and beauty. Her life is one of – not hardship, certainly, but of frugality and economy. Because Charles is unable to satisfy her material wants, not to mention her emotional wants, she becomes more and more detached from him.

She wanted to get some personal profit out of things, and she rejected as useless all that did not contribute to the immediate desires of her heart, being of a temperament more sentimental than artistic, looking for emotions, not landscapes.

Once the Bovary’s are invited to a ball, Emma’s disillusionment is complete. She has tasted the life that she wants, and it is beyond her reach. Her husband cannot provide it to her:

Iced champagne was served. Emma shivered all over as she felt it cold in her mouth. She had never seen pomegranates nor tasted pineapples. The powdered sugar even seemed to her whiter and finer than elsewhere.

She becomes ill, dull and listless in her dissatisfaction. Book I ends with Charles and Emma departing Tostes, their home, so that Charles can take up a new position somewhere else. Emma is pregnant.

It is easy to feel sympathy for Charles. He is not a deep thinker, and he is infatuated with his wife. He thinks he is doing the right thing by Emma because his imagination simply cannot stretch to desires beyond what he provides: security, steady income, moderate affluence, an escape from a farm, and consistent meals. He is in over his head, and he can’t even begin to realize all that is going on in the interior life of his wife.

Emma, on the other hand, is not a sympathetic character. Shallow, frivolous, and silly, there is a meanness to her. But, at the same time, it is so easy to see how limited her options were. She is a pretty woman in a world that calculates her worth based on her prettiness and breeding. She is good enough to marry Charles Bovary, but her sights are set much higher. And she simply doesn’t have the breeding or the beauty to attract the suitor that she wants. How frustrating would that be? No ability for her to achieve anything in her own right, she must just wait around for the right man to take notice of her. She has control over almost nothing. So, although she is not sympathetic, I find myself understanding, and even empathizing with her.

I suspect that my sympathy will not last.



  1. At this point, I feel sorry for Emma. She has unrealistic notions about what her life should be like, but it must have been hard to be stuck in a situation with no way out. I wonder how much longer my sympathy for her will last…

    • Christine

      April 11, 2014 at 11:47 am

      I’ve made it to about the 50% mark. I still empathize with her, but I think a good part of this is related to my sense of her powerlessness.

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