* CONTAINS SPOILERS
During the read-along, the participants read different translations of Madame Bovary. We discussed whether this would affect how we interpreted the story as a group and we mostly agreed it shouldn’t matter. I enjoyed the translation I read by Eleanor Marx-Aveling (Karl Marx’s daughter), but I would have loved to read Madame Bovary in French to fully absorb Flaubert as a writer and all the tones and textures of the story he wanted the reader to experience.
Emma Bovary is a farm girl with limited prospects in life until recently widowed, Charles Bovary, a small town doctor, asks for her hand in marriage. Emma is a diehard romantic and is surprised her new husband pales in comparison to the men in the novels she reads, as Charles is rather dull and unsophisticated. A chance invitation to an elegant ball awakens in Emma a desire for excitement and adventure, as she gets a small taste of the luxurious lifestyle of the nobility. Emma can’t understand why she can’t have a life full of passion and romance. She becomes severely depressed, her moods a constant fluctuation between sunny optimism and dismal hopelessness. Neither a new town nor a new baby help Emma find contentment with her life. She is frustrated and bored with her existence, her marriage, and everyone around her. She distracts herself with shopping in an effort to make her home and the way she looks resemble the noblilty she wishes to belong. After a mutual attraction to a young law clerk goes nowhere, Emma starts an affair with a wealthy landowner and so begins her fatal downward spiral.
Despite the tragic nature of the story and any complaints I made about Emma Bovary breaking bad, I thought Madame Bovary was an impressive book. I adored Gustave Flaubert’s writing (as translated) because I found it easy to understand and full of gorgeous descriptions. In addition, Emma is a striking character because she could easily be a woman from today. Many of us in the read-along were astonished by how Flaubert completely understood her rage and alienation, her passionate nature and desire to break free. Things we could all relate to ourselves. How could this French man from the nineteenth century understand a woman’s heart so well, we wondered?
The importance placed on the chemist and loud-mouth, Homais, in the story baffled me a little. I learned that his character was meant to represent bourgeois arrogance in relation to Emma’s situation; however, I was bored and skimmed the pages when the story focused on his character. I would have preferred if Flaubert had used his character to explore whatever middle class issues he had in mind in a different book.
Gustave Flaubert masterfully captures the passion and pain of a woman who is her own worst enemy in Madame Bovary. Although the book was published in 1856, the themes of Emma Bovary’s tragic life could be considered universal, as they are feelings and struggles still dealt with by modern women. I believe most women will recognize a part of themselves or other women they know in Emma. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a character I felt so ambivalent about because I both disliked and sympathized, criticized and pitied her. Perhaps this is why Emma Bovary is considered an iconic character.