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Madame Bovary (Wordsworth Classics)Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Book Challenges: 1001 books (no. 887), 50 Books A Year (no. 48), Rory Gilmore Challenge.

“Il ne faut pas toucher aux idoles: la dorure en reste aux mains. [We must not touch our idols, the gilt sticks to our fingers.]”

The most famous line from the book sums up the very heart of the matter; as it illustrates in good old-fashioned terms how romantic legends should be admired from the pages of a book but never acted upon. Unfortunately our ill-fated Emma Bovary doesn’t heed this lesson, and reaches again and again to touch the moth-winged fabric of love, only to have it fall around her like dust.

A controversial novel in its time, ‘Madame Bovary’ still continues to draw a significant amount of praise for its handling of a subject like forbidden love. It took me AGES to finished this, but it was well worth it. First of all ‘Madame Bovary’, for all it’s old-fashioned language could teach modern storytellers a thing or two about proper ‘character development’. There are many elegant phrases that stand out, but what I admired most was the beautiful descriptions of the countryside:

“The walls of the gardens with pieces of bottle on their coping were hot as the glass windows of a conservatory. Wallflowers had sprung up between the bricks, and with the tip of her open sunshade Madame Bovary, as she passed, made some of their faded flowers crumble into a yellow dust, or a spray of overhanging honeysuckle and clematis caught in its fringe and dangled for a moment over the silk.”

Emma Bovary has to be without a doubt the most complex heroine I have ever read. Not even the enigmatic Rebecca de Winter, or the wild mistress-of-the-moors Catherine Earnshaw can come close to the depth and flexibility of this creation. Flaubert has rendered as complete an image of woman that can possibly be done in literary terms. She differs greatly from other heroines of her time, because Flaubert strived to depict a woman who was equally bad as she was good. You won’t find any of that ‘angel fallen from heaven’ malarkey here, oh no. Emma Bovary was greedy, needy and a thoroughly lustful lass to boot. She cuckolded her husband more than once, spent his money to the last centime and did not care an iota for her poor child Berthe.

Emma is a sensual creature despite her innocent looks; but it’s within the nuance of language and her character deconstruction that Flaubert saves his heroine from being taken as a total whore. Unlike his contemporaries he takes time to empathise with his characters. I was more fascinated by Flaubert’s sensitive wording of emotions than of the plot itself. Unhappy in her marriage, Emma seeks consolation in religion. But her convent days are over and she (despite having spent a great deal of time there) has never truly outgrown her romantic fantasies. Instead they fuel her bored mind until the unfortunate opportunity presents itself and the clandestine meetings with the suave Rodolphe begin. In fact I’ve clocked Flaubert accusing piety as the culprit for Bovary’s tragic end many times. It’s an interesting undertone that runs throughout the novel.

Emma’s unfaithfulness is just the beginning of a downward spiral designed to no doubt serve as a moral tale for young ladies. The ending results in the most tragic consequences, as Emma’s selfish actions have a knock-on effect to her husband and daughter. In short, the whole family is irreversibly ruined.

I say this is one of the more enjoyable reads out of the classics. Read it when you can.

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