Vanity of Vanities: Madame Bovary Review

Blurb for Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary is the debut novel of French writer Gustave Flaubert, published in 1856. The character lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of provincial life. When the novel was first serialized in La Revue de Paris between 1 October 1856 and 15 December 1856, public prosecutors attacked the novel for obscenity. The resulting trial in January 1857 made the story notorious. After Flaubert’s acquittal on 7 February 1857, Madame Bovary became a bestseller in April 1857 when it was published in two volumes. A seminal work of literary realism, the novel is now considered Flaubert’s masterpiece, and one of the most influential literary works in history.

My Review

What are book clubs for if not making you read books you never would have otherwise? Some you find you enjoy, and others… well, let’s say I know my own tastes pretty well. I looked forward to reading this book when it came up as a suggestion in a Lit Group I recently joined, a) because it is Flaubert, and b) because I knew I was not interested enough to choose to read it myself just for fun.

I don’t regret reading it, but it also wasn’t an enriching experience I will look back on with a burning desire to replicate. It starts off benign enough, like a slight limp that doesn’t significantly hamper the ambulatory abilities. However, events soon partake of the characteristics of an optional surgery for an imagined problem, with an at best experimental procedure, severing the story threads and leading to a gangrenous infection that consumes the rest of the plot, before its originator can be amputated.

And, no, that is not a random analogy, in case you were wondering.

But that’s getting ahead of myself. Where to begin? The story opens in a classroom with a semi-present narrator whose only claim to an individual identity is the use of the first-person plural “we.” Is it a self-insert of the author? We don’t know because three pages later the fact that the story is being told to us by a nameless boy who was a student in this class is completely forgotten and he does not arise again as a character. (Any self-respecting creative writing instructor would have had something to say to Flaubert about that if he’d turned this in as an assignment.) The story proper is about another boy in this class, a certain young man named Charles Bovary.

The Madames in Question

He is not ambitious, but his mother, the first Madame Bovary, is. So on her encouragement he goes to medical school, and because he is not bright either, struggles through by hard work and lack of motivation to do anything else. So begins Doctor Bovary, who through a similar process (his mother’s meddling and his lack of self-determination) soon gets married to a significantly older, materially wealthy widow.

This is the second Madame Bovary. She is shrewish and unpleasant over all, and is soon done away with in a very comical and convenient manner–she has a jealous fit and dies. Of whom was she jealous, you might ask?

Enter Emma, the woman who will become the third Madame Bovary, and the third time truly is the charm.

The book’s title, of course, is reserved as reference to this third Madame Bovary. Emma starts off a fairly neutral character, innocent in many ways, yet her propensity for novels and romantic stories ignite her desire for an exotic, thrilling life of passion and luxury. The comparison that immediately springs to mind is Jane Austen’s critique of Gothic novels in Northanger Abbey, but while Austen’s heroine’s follies mixing fiction and reality lead to more humourous and only mildly distressing consequences, Flaubert’s Emma is fully committed to her illusions and proceeds to destroy her own life and all those around her.

As might be expected, Emma is fast disillusioned after her marriage to the newly widowed country doctor who does not share her sensitivities or imagination. But instead of settling and appreciating the life she has, she keeps seeking to change it around her and shape the world into her conception of what it should be to fit the romantic ideal.

A Few Ameliorating Observations

At the beginning at least, I find it hard to blame her. The portrayal Flaubert paints of a middle-class bourgeoisie life is distinctly unattractive. He trivializes and mocks the country dwellers and their simplicity, allowing no dignity or grace in any of the aspects of life that Emma encounters. Everything is dinghy and unspiritual, no pastoral paradises here. So, even while Flaubert seems to be criticizing Emma for her obsession with beautifying and elevating her surroundings, he himself also sees nothing worthy or innately desirable in those same surroundings.

I found myself sympathizing with Emma’s feelings quite a bit, partially because I myself am often a bit disenchanted with mundane life and wish it could be more attractive in many senses. I’m also fond of romantic novels, particularly those of Sir Walter Scott, whose works are mentioned specifically as part of Emma’s reading library. But Emma of course takes it to an extreme, failing to differentiate between fiction and truth and letting it lead her into rampant materialism and social climbing.

It was also interesting in our book club discussions that different people were reading different English translations of the work, so we could compare certain sections and discuss how the chosen words coloured or affected our perception of Emma or the situation being described. It helped me get a fuller appreciation of the text than I would have gotten with just my utilitarian translation. There were definitely points at which it became clear that Flaubert wrote Emma as missing something–there is something in her that fails to connect with reality, including true emotion and love, and when she is faced with it, she just keeps throwing story tropes at it until it is more palatable to her. She is in a constant state of refusing to acknowledge real life, yet she is always subconsciously aware of it and made unhappy by her own failure to integrate with it.

A Hesitant Comparison

It pains me to make the comparison, but it nevertheless arises: the story’s overarching trajectory reminds me of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. The initial innocence and purity of a beautiful person, slowly corrupted by others’ admiration of that beauty, using it to feed a growing dissatisfaction with their own life, slowly becoming more and more rapacious and discontent, leading to more and more consumption and completely disregarding the ruin they are making of themselves and of the lives around them. It’s not far off.

The method and path to get there is of course different for Madame Bovary, but the result is much the same. What is not the same is the treatment of the subject. Where Wilde manages to offer the juxtaposition of purity and treats his material seriously, Flaubert offers no redeeming characters and completely lampoons the events as they happen, no matter how tragic. I came to the conclusion that, rather than being a sincerely dramatic story, Madame Bovary is a black comedy.

This opinion was reinforced by a fellow Lit Group member saying, despite (or perhaps because of) everybody in the story being so miserable, she got the impression Flaubert enjoyed writing it. I think “perverse pleasure” was a term that got thrown around. As that is the only kind of pleasure I could see anyone getting from this sordid tale, I tend to agree. There is an inherent disrespect with which all of the characters and events are treated, whether it is overt or somewhat receded in the background, and the way the story ends really cements the ridiculousness (and pointlessness) of the entire thing.

A Sense of the Ending

Rather than letting the events turn into a cautionary tale with the fate of the characters who were directly involved with the plot, Flaubert brings it firmly around back into ridiculousness and ends on the high note of a secondary character’s completely unaffected success in his unprincipled ambition. What of Madame Bovary? Well, her role in the community as doctor’s wife is relegated to a mere footnote in this other man’s life as he continues his career.

The whole thing is, as I said before, patently ridiculous, and the whole story of Madame Bovary’s downfall is not given enough breathing room between all the shocking absurdity for its conclusion to be considered tragic. Which is, in a sense, a tragedy in itself.

Though I found the story and its characters to be caricatured, sometimes they were surprisingly true caricatures. The whole thing is stretched and drawn to its extreme, but I still agreed with everyone in my Lit Group who said, “I know people who think like this,” or “I’ve seen people destroy their lives like this.” There is no doubt Flaubert knew people, and it is not to say that he portrays them all as never having a higher thought or true emotion. But those are fleeting and overwhelmingly lose out to more selfish desires that ultimately motivate the actions taken.

It is a depressing and dark story, unless one takes the view that it is all pointless and enjoys the ridiculousness of its presentation, which is perhaps what Flaubert meant for the audience to do. I seem to remember a couple of the Lit Group mentioning how it reminded them of a certain wise king’s catchy refrain on life, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”


This has been my third Classics Club book review! Check out the rest of my list here.

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