Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) was one of the first great works of nineteenth-century realism. Although the novel’s story may seem cliched today, its realistic depiction of an unfulfilled woman pursuing adultery was revolutionary at the time. In fact, the plotline caused public outrage, leading to an obscenity trial for Flaubert and his publisher.
Born in 1821, Flaubert lived during a time of great social change in France. After the French Revolution in 1789, the fading aristocracy gave way to a rising middle class of businessmen and merchants. Flaubert, who had been groomed for the intellectual elite, detested the crass, materialistic values of the nouveau-riche. This venom is evident throughout his works, particularly Madame Bovary.
Young Emma Bovary grows up in the countryside, educated by nuns. After she weds a bourgeois doctor of only average wealth and minimal competence, the dull realities of marriage simply do not meet her idealized expectations. Even motherhood fails to life her spirits; she longs for something like romantic love, but her aspirations remain aimless and fickle. Emma embarks on two adulterous affairs, one of which ends in heartbreak, the other in boredom. Although her husband remains entirely oblivious, Emma becomes indiscreet and careless with money, accumulating massive debts and ultimately resorting to attempted prostitution. In a fit of despondency, she kills herself with poison.
Madame Bovary‘s status as a literary classic stems from both its subject matter and its groundbreaking stylistic approach. Whereas novelists and poets of the romantic movement had maintained their optimism about the human spirit, the much more pessimistic Flaubert was analytic and detached in his approach to Emma’s situation. He also manipulated prose in innovative ways, subtly altering his language in different parts of the narrative to correspond with changes in the mood of the story. After Flaubert’s death, other masters of realism, from Leo Tolstoy to Thomas Hardy, created masterpieces that are greatly in his debt.
Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale
Second Note: While I read and loved Madame Bovary years ago (which I read all by myself, if I might add), one of my favorite facts about it is the Woody Allen short story, “The Kugelmass Episode.” In the story, Woody’s protagonist, Kugelmass, escapes his mundane life by using a magic machine that transports him into works of literature. He finds refuge in a blissful affair with Emma Bovary, confounding literature students the world over when they suddenly find a balding Jewish guy in their text. Like most of what Woody writes, it’s amazing.