Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Madame Bovary

Madam Bovary is a novel that tells the most well-trodden of stories. A bored housewife, Emma, cheats on her boring husband Charles, an average provincial doctor. And yet this book is something very special. 

Delving a bit further into the plot doesn’t show us why though. Emma marries Charles, but soon realises she can’t love him. She despairs and becomes increasingly difficult and capricious. Struggling to deal with the paucity of love in her marriage, and her burgeoning passion and emotion, she gets swept off her feet by a passing rake. Emma’s heart opens and the world rushes in, but her life soon begins to untangle.


The plot isn’t what makes this book. It’s all the other stuff. Flaubert’s writing is, at its best, wonderous. Tens of pages go by with nothing but description of Emma’s emotional state. It feels real, immediate and alive. Her hopes and dreams, and passions are written of in the same way, and with same artistry, as the provincial world they live in. I especially enjoyed the description of Emma living vicariously through mediocre books.

‘You head is empty, he continued, the hours slip away. From your chair you wander through the countries of your mind, and your thoughts, threading themselves into the fiction play about with the details or rush along the track of the plot. You melt into the characters, it seems as if your own heart is beating under their skin’

The writing seemed to me very like a film. There are defined sets-pieces - in the opera, at a funeral, in the pub. And these sets are described vividly, with the characters moving through these scenes much as they would in a film. There’s other cinematic elements too. Often scenes take place with contrasting visual motifs - a philosophical conversation next to a dead body for example. And much as it is cinematic to continually reference certain visual patterns, Flaubert returns again and again to certain key descriptions, like Emma’s boots.

Looking deeper

I like some of the critical interpretations too. Many see Madam Bovary as an exploration of 19th Century gender identify. I can understand that - Emma refuses to exist in the cage of ‘doting housewife’, and she seeks to free herself and explore her passions and pleasures. And by doing that she takes on some masculine traits, to the extent that, with her last lover, she acts as the man, and he the women. 

I can see how Madam Bovary explore class relationships as well. In a way Emma is the prototypical bourgeois, shopping, getting into debt, always wanting more, more, more. The writing is noticeably non-judgemental, but the facts of Emma’s personality engender the same revulsion that I understand Flaubert felt for that ‘Parisian’ way of living. Emma is unable to enjoy simple things, and notably only disdains the beauty of the countryside around her.

My thoughts

I found this book easy to read. The joy of the writing is such that your eyes feel like they are bouncing over the words, everything flows so. It’s an easy book to read fast. In fact, I think it’s a good book to read faster than you normally would, even to the extent that you’re not comprehending every single word. Doing this for me, built up these descriptive scenes into incredibly vivid mosaic worlds in my minds eye.

For me, the description of Emma’s inner world was my favourite part. I didn’t find though, despite a touching plot, that it tugged on my heart strings. Emma is quite dislikeable - she’s capricious, selfish, insatiable and doesn’t seem to care for her child. I found it difficult to really care what happened to her. So I read the book critically, not caught up in the rush of Emma’s passions, but observing it all like a beautiful flower. 

‘never touch your idols; the gilding will stick to your fingers’.


Reading Bovary made me feel optimistic about life. For Emma, passion covers her life like a lacquer. Without it, life is flat, dull and depressing. With it, life is open to almost infinite meaning and pleasure. I took that, perhaps wrongly, as endorsing a kind of ‘make your own meaning’ existentialism. 

Perhaps the emotional varnish isn’t just there in life. Maybe you have to make it and work at stoking your emotional fire. You don’t have, like Emma to find it in adulterous liaisons; it can be anywhere. The joy is, learning to be creative with your emotions - learning to get more out life by feeling great things - isn’t just play acting. If you feel it, it’s real.

Which translation?

I picked my translation quite carefully - and was influenced by Julian Barnes review in the London Review of Books. I went for the translation by Wall. Lydia Davis's translation has been whipping up quite a storm, but I purposefully didn’t go for it. I like to read translations that are most faithful to the original even if that makes the text sound a bit jerky or old-fashioned. I tend not to notice that, but actually Wall’s translation was neither, and I thought it superb. There were a fair French words left in, and words that I didn’t know, but I like that too.

It’s petty, but something else prejudiced me against the Davis's translation. In the bookshop I could only find it in Penguin ‘deluxe’ edition which I hate. For some reason they irregularly cut the pages (perhaps to seem old fashioned). I think it’s ridiculous. Firstly, I can see the pattern in the rough cut pages, so it looks cheap and imitative like the handwriting font on a computer. Secondly, I think it takes a lot of the beauty out of book. I love new books! Why would I want them to look old when I buy them. They’ll look tatty enough when I’ve finished reading.


  1. Wonderful review! I didn't know about Wall translation. I was very much pleased with the Davis one but from the passages you selected the Wall sounds equally as good if not better...I'll have to compare them!

    1. Thank you! Really nice to get good feedback.