Back to the Classics #4 – Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary

A Classic in Translation

I’m not really sure how to talk about this book, because I’m not sure how I feel about it.

I don’t know if it was the translation I read, or if it was a deliberate choice of the author, but I felt like the prose in the book was just flat.  And I think I also felt, throughout the book, that I just didn’t “get” it.  I understood literally what was going on, but I’m just not sure what the author was getting at, or what the point of what was going on.

I’ve seen it suggested that Flaubert was not so keen on the people in the lower social strata trying to emulate their “betters” and I can certainly see that throughout the text.  Emma is partially punished because she aspires to belong to class to which she never can belong because she was not born rich.  She has no way of making money as she has married well enough that it would be below her station to work, but she will never inherit much money and is stuck.  However, if that was his intended theme, it is not brilliantly realised and often lapses into just punishing Emma for  being silly and vain and covetous and cruel.  All of which she is, but I guess I just don’t get it.  I don’t see the point.

Emma is just horrible.  I understand part of why she became like that – she was naive when she married and thought that she was getting something that she really wasn’t. It’s hard to condemn her for that.  Life for women in the 1800s was hard.  But after marriage she becomes simply horrible.  It’s extremely hard to have sympathy for her, and I think that’s the point, but, taking what I said about Flaubert above, it all seems like she is literally just supposed to be a A Cautionary Tale against Getting Above Your Station.  That’s all I could make of it.  If she was supposed to be a rebellious, trapped woman, he failed, because it’s impossible to sympathise with someone who is absolutely awful to a husband who is kind to her.  I feel sorry for Emma Bovary in that she is not a fully realised character and her actions are almost wholly dictated by the theme of the book.  There isn’t enough else in this novel to justify that (unlike the similar things I pointed out about East of Eden).

I just wasn’t crazy about it.  Technically, there wasn’t much wrong.  It was reasonably well written, and the plot did move along nicely – it was less than 300 pages long, so I never felt like I stalled while reading it.  But I wasn’t invested and I didn’t really care.  A couple of the side characters – Homais in particular – are reasonably entertaining, but it doesn’t save this from being simply okay. I give Madame Bovary five out of ten.

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