Sunday, 16 February 2014

Classic Book Review: Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)
English translation by Eleanor Marx Aveling (1886)

It came to mind for me just recently to reread one of the great French classics, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. That is – although I had only vague memories of the story (if any at all), I would have sworn that this was one of the classic novels I read way back in my teens. I even have an image in my mind of a rather thin green volume with gold print on the back, and almost exactly where in the town library it stood… (Or…?)

As this is a book from 1857, with the first English translation published in 1886, it is of course availabe as free for Kindle; so nothing to lose by downloading it.

Nothing to lose but faith in my own memory, that is!

Because after finishing my “re”read of it, I think I must rewrite my personal reading history, and say that I probably never did read it before. I now suspect I may somehow have been confusing it in my mind with The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas (fils) (1848) – even if I was convinced that I had read both. (Now if I could just find out what kind of covers those two books had in my home town library 40 years ago…)

To begin with, I found it a little difficult to get into the story. Hard to say whether this was because it was a different story from what I expected, or to do with a case or two of strange word order early on in the book which set me wondering whether perhaps it would turn out to be a bad translation throughout. It got better, however. (I did not look up the translator until after I had finished the book, but then learned that it was Eleanor Marx Aveling; daughter of Karl Marx.) Perhaps there are later translations easier for a modern reader to get into, though. What soon becomes evident is that Flaubert has a very detailed writing style, that may take a while to get used to. He uses words to paint images in the reader’s mind; it just gets a little blurry when you don’t actually know the words! – for example different kinds of horse-drawn carriages, or all the little details of fashion worn in those days.

Basically it’s the story of a marriage, and how their life together in a small village appears totally different to husband vs wife. Charles is a doctor, not terribly successful, but striving on and doing his best; and also feeling more or less content in his marriage and family life. Emma (Madame Bovary), on the other hand, is constantly wishing for “more” to her life than what she has, in every respect – something which repeatedly tempts her to walk down dangerous paths, both with relationships and with money matters.

In town, with the noise of the streets, the buzz of the theatres and the lights of the ballroom, they were living lives where the heart expands, the senses bourgeon out. But she – her life was cold as a garret whose dormer window looks on the north, and ennui, the silent spider, was weaving its web in the darkness in every corner of her heart.
(Chapter 7)

Interestingly, in spite of all the changes in social life that have taken place between the mid 1850’s and today, I found this novel to deal with some very fundamental aspects of human nature which probably have not changed as much as we might like to think in 150+ years.

In Sweden we have a TV show called Lyxfällan, ‘The Luxury Trap’. (I’d be surprised if there aren’t similar shows in the US and Britain.) In this show, financial experts help individuals and families to sort out the mess that an astonishing amount of people today tend to get tangled up in just by using too many credit cards and expensive loans to buy stuff they don’t actually need, without ever sitting down to add up the real costs and compare them to their real income. And with couples it seems there is also usually an added element of not being able to communicate with each other.

To sum up: Emma Bovary would have been a perfect candidate for a combined Luxury Trap and ‘Dr Phil’ show!

If you want to know what life was like in the ‘good old days’, long before there were stern TV talk show hosts to stare you in the eye and ask “What were you thinking?” and “How is that working for you?” – then you should read Madame Bovary.


  1. Oddly and coincidentally a few days ago Wendy told me that she had just re-read Madame Bovary. How very odd. It's not a book likely to make my To Read list though.

    1. Graham, it seems to me that that statistically the odds should not be very high, no. But then of course I don't really know anything about Wendy's reading habits. Is she a Kindle-reader too? and/or classics in general?

  2. My sister was very much into the great French writers for a while, but although I enjoyed an Emile Zola she gave me some years ago for a birthday or Christmas, I never quite got into them as a whole.
    The description of ennui as a silent spider is very good. This man knew what he was talking about!
    How husband and wife perceive their lives together so differently reminds me very much of my first marriage. My first husband never saw it coming when I finally told him that our marriage was over. To him, everything had been alright; he had ignored or brushed aside all my worries when I tried to talk to him about what was going wrong in our marriage, he just never took me seriously and kept telling me that everything was fine when it very clearly wasn't. But I did not resort to going dangerous paths like Madame Bovary!

    1. Meike, you confirm my thoughts of the basics of this story not having gone out-of-date even if the details may have. (I guess that's one of the qualities of a classic!) - For me (if my memory is to be trusted!) I think it was mostly way back in my teens that I read quite a few of the French and Russian classics. I took French as second foreign language at school, five years I think, but not really enough to get through a whole novel. German was my third foreign language but that's the one (besides English) that I also went on to study at university. Have to confess I never read a lot of novels in German either though, besides the ones read as part of my education. With English books on the other hand, I have long preferred reading the original compared to Swedish translations... (I know you do too!)


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