Madame Bovary (Part 1) by Gustave Flaubert

mbdressI am participating in my first read-along, hosted by Juliana @ Cedar Station and C.J. @ ebookclassics.  We are reading Madame Bovary in three parts, Part One to be discussed today.  Part Two will be discussed on April 20, and Part Three on April 30.  If you head over to the master post, you can check out what everyone else has to say about it, too!

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This is just a sampling of the covers for Madame Bovary.  There are so many!  The one I am reading is the first one.

I had no trouble at all getting into this book.  It started by telling the story of young Charles, who is destined to grow up and marry Madame Bovary.  He is not a striking boy; he’s quiet, follows the rules, and does what his mother tells him.  Even when it came to his first marriage.

It was not enough, however, to have brought up a son, given him a medical training and then discovered Tostes for his practice.  He must have a wife as well.  She found him one: a bailiff’s widow from Dieppe, forty-five years of age, fifty pounds of income.

Charles had seen in marriage the promise of a happier lot, fancying that he would be free, free to do what he liked with himself and his money.  But his wife was master.

The first Madame Bovary decided what they ate, what they wore, how they spoke in company, she opened his letters, listened in on his consultations, complained of her nerves, and required a lot of attention.  She may not have been what Charles had in mind, but, luckily for him, she dies quite suddenly one day, and he was free to try again.

It wasn’t long before he fell in love with the daughter of one of his patients, and she, believing herself to be in love, agreed to marry him.  I think, for her at the time, he represented a way out of her isolated farm life and into a bigger, more interesting one.  From the very beginning, Charles was very happy and believed his wife to be equally so.  But it wasn’t long before Emma (the new Madame Bovary) began to have her doubts.

Before the wedding, she had believed herself in love.  But not having obtained the happiness that should have resulted from that love, she now fancied that she must have been mistaken.  And Emma wondered exactly what was meant in life by the words ‘bliss’, ‘passion’, ‘ecstasy’, which had looked so beautiful in books.

I wonder how many of us are fooled by what we read in books?  How do we translate all the happily-ever-afters and Cinderella stories into our real lives?  Do they govern our choices, or are we aware that they are just stories that cannot be confused for the way life really works?

To make matters worse for Emma, Charles really was not a very interesting person.  He was kind, patient, a good man, but he was boring.  As well, her expectations of a man and his role in her life may have been a bit overblown, to say the least.  And, once she made up her mind about how she felt about him, his own belief of her happiness made her hate him even more.

Charles’ conversation was as flat as a street pavement, on which everybody’s ideas trudged past, in their workaday dress, provoking no emotion, no laughter, no dreams.

Whereas a man, surely, should know everything; excel in a multitude of activities, introduce you to a passion in all its force, to life in all its grace, initiate you into all mysteries!  But this one had nothing to teach; knew nothing, wanted nothing.  He thought she was happy; and she hated him for that placid immobility, that stolid serenity of his, for that very happiness which she herself brought him.

And so began married life for Madame Bovary.  Fallen out of love and bored with her life already.  She wonders what life might have been like had she waited longer for a different man.  She imagines the lovely lives her friends may be living.  A recipe for disaster.

Whereas for her, life was cold as an attic facing north, and the silent spider boredom wove its web in all the shadowed corners of her heart.

And all the time, deep within her, she was waiting for something to happen.

To be fair to her, it would have been hard to be a woman back then, relying on men to make our lives more interesting.  No wonder she is disappointed.

April 20:  Madame Bovary, Part 2


11 thoughts on “Madame Bovary (Part 1) by Gustave Flaubert

  1. My Book Strings says:

    I enjoy this book as well. It seems that the worse Emma feels, the better I like the writing. At this point, I feel sorry for Emma. Even with realistic notions about life, it must have been so boring to just sit around with nothing to do.

    • Naomi says:

      I feel sorry for her for making the mistake of marrying someone she doesn’t want to be with anymore, and now being trapped in her marriage. But, I think she could make things better for herself if she thought of productive things to do rather than sit around and feel sorry for herself. Easier said than done, of course. 🙂

  2. Cecilia says:

    Great review, Naomi!! (And I’m glad you’re doing the readalong too.) You know, I was just sitting here thinking that I don’t like Emma Bovary…that she is shallow and immature and self-centered. But your final paragraph really did give me pause. She could have been reacting to life in general, but her husband, who represents so much of it, became an easy target for her feelings of dissatisfaction and resentment. Certainly there was much less autonomy back then in terms of whom you could meet, date, and marry, and I can understand how that feeling of powerlessness in a young woman with high hopes can turn into resentment.

    • Naomi says:

      I, too, find Emma to be self-centered. Yes, she’s in an unfortunate position now that she’s trapped in a disagreeable marriage, but I’m sure that was pretty common back then. It probably still is, but easier to get out of now. But she doesn’t try very hard to find the good in things. Her husband is kind, she could find some friends, she could volunteer at something (or whatever women did back then before the children came along), but she is choosing to feel sorry for herself. So, yes, my general feeling about Emma is the same as yours, but after only a short time after the marriage, I was trying to give her the benefit of the doubt. Also, I bet she was too young to get married, and the young are still pretty self-centered. However, as time goes by, I would hope that she would snap out of it and make the best of things. But, instead, it only gets worse.

  3. writereads says:

    Nice review, as always! I always find it interesting that some French authors of around this time period chose to write from a female perspective, and how successful those attempts were in terms of their renown as authors (eg: Balzac’s first best seller was Eugenie Grandet). Men writing from a female perspective doesn’t seem to happen that much these days, and certainly not with as much success. I wonder why?
    So far, do you think Flaubert was successful at rendering a female protagonist in Madame Bovary? -Tania

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, I think he did a great job writing about a female. In fact, I was wondering how it was that he could imagine her so well- who was he basing her on? Cecilia (at Only You) and I were just talking about this on her blog yesterday, and she mentioned to me that when Flaubert was asked who she was based on, he answered, “C’est Moi”. I’ve been keeping this in mind now, as I read the book. How would all Emma’s reactions and emotions transfer into a man’s life? So far, I’m not very successful in coming up with a good answer to that. 🙂

  4. writereads says:

    Not that you only get her perspective in this one, just that I seem to recall Flaubert delving into her inner life more than many male authors would today (though it has been awhile since I read this) 🙂 -Tania

  5. ebookclassics says:

    I forgot how controlling the first Madame Bovary was in Charles’ life. I was actually surprised he didn’t run out and propose to Emma right away since he was harbouring feelings for her. Boring or not, he seems like the kind of guy who is respectful and does the right thing.

    To answer Tania’s question, I never thought about how many male authors wrote about female protagonists in all these classics. I think Flaubert was successful but now I wonder what inspired him to write about a bored housewife in the first place. Maybe from observing so many real-life women in this position?

    • Naomi says:

      I was wondering the same thing! See my reply to Tania’s comment.

      I agree- Charles may be boring, but he seems to be a good guy. I feel sorry for him. Luckily, he doesn’t see any reason to be feeling sorry for himself. Not yet, anyway.

  6. jerikavonalexandra says:

    Marriages seemed to happen in a flash back in the days. It’s like Charles filled a temporary void and when Emma realized hasn’t done enough or isn’t enough, she resorts to being discontent. And I agree with what you said: “I think she could make things better for herself if she thought of productive things to do rather than sit around and feel sorry for herself.”

    She focused too much on the negative, and let it consume her.

    • Naomi says:

      I agree. And, I’m sure she was not alone in her disappointing marriage, back then. I would like to think that not all women who found themselves in her position sat around feeling sorry for themselves. In fact, I’m sure many marriages were much worse!

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