Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert – Book Review




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.


6 comments on “Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert – Book Review

  1. My Book Strings
    April 30, 2014

    Like you, I felt very ambivalent about Emma. I started out feeling sorry for her, and at the end, I completely disliked her and wondered why I made excuses for her in the beginning. Even though I felt that the book fizzled out at the end, I enjoyed Flaubert’s style throughout.


    • ebookclassics
      May 1, 2014

      It seems we all had very conflicted feelings about Emma! But I decided that ultimately Emma made all of those choices with full knowledge it was wrong and people would get hurt. I felt the story was a little repetitive and drawn out, but overall I liked it and Flaubert’s style.


  2. Naomi
    April 30, 2014

    I really liked this book, too, and had fun reading it. I agree with everything you said in your review, except that I actually enjoyed some of the scenes with Homais (not all of them). I thought his were some of the more comical. I think you summed up this book very nicely! And, again, thanks for hosting! 🙂


    • ebookclassics
      May 1, 2014

      Yes, you are right that some of his scenes were comical. I just remember always thinking when he dominated the scene “Why are you talking again?” I felt really bad for Charles with the whole operation disaster and the poor blind man.


      • Naomi
        May 1, 2014

        Oh, me too! I wonder how many times I have thought, “Poor Charles!”.


  3. Cecilia
    May 2, 2014

    I love your post and especially the conclusion, and this: “…woman who is her own worst enemy.” How many women can relate to that? I can’t get over how relevant Madame Bovary is to us today, even if we aren’t exactly struggling in the same way that she did.

    Anyway, had a difficult month in terms of making time for reading…still reading Madame Bovary but I’ve enjoyed the read-along (count me as those people who cross the finish line hours after the race is over! ;-))


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