Madame Bovary Is a Cautionary Tale

The first line on the back cover of this iconic novel by Gustave Flaubert reads, “The 1857 publication of Madame Bovary, with its vivid depictions of sex and adultery, incited a backlash of immorality charges.” Always interested in banned books, I immediately knew I had to read it.

When I found a copy of Madame Bovary in a used-book store in Madison (they do exist!), I’d remembered hearing it was the scandalous tale of a cheating wife. For 1857 that seemed pretty progressive to me. And with the backlash of immorality charges, I assumed it was a glorification of adultery and immoral behavior.

Boy, was I wrong.

In fact, Emma Bovary is an entirely unlikable woman whose lying, cheating, and greed send her life spiraling into the ground. Quite simply, she marries a man she thinks is going to be a great doctor, an up-and-comer with aspirations and drive, and when it turns out Charles is an average doctor with few aspirations and limited drive — in a word, a bore — Emma decides to find excitement elsewhere. When one affair ends, she picks up another, seeming to think it is her right of birth to live as she wishes without a care for others. And all the while she is driving up her husband’s debt by spending huge sums on hotel rooms, clothes, and gifts for her lovers.

It matters not that Charles’s only real devotion is to Emma’s happiness. She uses his simplicity against him whenever possible, tricking him into assigning her power of attorney so she can continue to fund her extravagant lifestyle, further bankrupting him. The daughter she has with Charles also registers only as an inconvenience. When Emma and one lover conspire to run away together, it is as an afterthought that she plans to leave the daughter behind. The ultimate tragedy that befalls Emma is well earned, and I say good riddance.

It took me nine months to read this 320-page book (in between the other nine or ten books I read in that time), and the first 70 pages or so are what you would expect from a novel written in the 1850s: a bit slow in setting the scene and developing the characters. But the story line is captivating. As despicable as Emma is, I wanted to know what she would do next — and how she was going to pay for it.

Flaubert’s writing style is highly textured, with rich details of the affairs and questionable financial dealings that Emma takes part in. He also captures the thoughts and emotions of each character, deftly exposing differences in both personality and priority, employing a third-person omniscient narrative that is rare today. My favorite example of this comes shortly after Charles’s father has died, as Charles, his mother, and his wife sit together on a bench in the garden:

Charles was thinking of his father, and was surprised to feel so much affection for this man, whom till then he had thought he cared little about. Madame Bovary senior was thinking of her husband. The worst days of the past seemed enviable to her. . . . Emma was thinking that it was scarcely forty-eight hours since they [she and her lover] had been together, far from the world, all in a frenzy of joy, and not having eyes enough to gaze upon each other. She tried to recall the slightest details of that past day. But the presence of her husband and mother-in-law worried her. (p. 234)

Emma’s self-absorption and callous attitude shine through in this scene. When she should be grieving, she thinks only of her lover. Her husband and mother-in-law are nothing but a nuisance. Later, even as her charade begins to crumble around her, she will not give it up, desperately searching for the solution to her dire money problems. In the end the book fulfills the definition of a tragedy: the main character is brought to ruin through her own  moral weakness.

So yes, this book is full of scandal and immorality and salacious detail. But it does not glorify it. Madame Bovary is instead a cautionary tale of what evil befalls a person who throws off the confines of society and human decency and lives only for herself.

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