Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert (1857), is a haunting tale of a young woman who, obsessed with her own happiness, eventually causes her family’s ruin.
The story opens with a young man, Charles Bovary, beginning his career as a country doctor. He meets a young girl, Emma, and falls madly in love with her and they marry. The book is principally about his new wife, and her misguided views of life.
Emma has always fantasized about all things romantic, and soon becomes disillusioned with her bourgeois life as the wife of a country doctor. She dislikes the monotony and dreams about having the “finer” things of life: wondrous passion, giddy romance, inordinate wealth, fantastic possessions, and delicious idleness.
…She could not think that the calm in which she lived was the happiness she had dreamed.
Initially, she keeps these desires inside her heart, under a thin layer of virtue, and appears to do the normal things – sewing, looking after servants, sending letters of account to patients, and keeping her house – but all the while she is feeding her dissatisfaction with ladies journals, by buying unnecessary trinkets, dreaming over books, and reminiscing of the ball she attended.
She confused in her desire the sensualities of luxury with the delights of the heart…
Eventually, after suffering an irritation of her nerves (really a result of the thwarting of her unrealistic desires), her husband leaves his blossoming practice to begin again in a new country town, so that the change may alleviate her suffering. Whilst this seems to address the problem, it merely avoids it.
In her new home, Emma tries keeping her irritations buried beneath her occupation as a wife and mother, always seesawing between her desires for pleasure and her “virtuous” – but proud and resentful – sacrifice to her duties. She oscillates between merely being annoyed with her boorish husband, to overtly despising him, from wanting to be a devoted mother, to outbursts of anger towards her child.
As the story moves on, she stops attempting to hide her feelings of dissatisfaction, and becomes overtly selfish. Emma searches for a way to quench the thirst of her romantic desires, first embroiling herself in one affair, and then another, while spending money far beyond her means. She takes money without her husband’s knowledge, and gets into large amounts of debt for non-essential items, without any concern for the welfare of her family. Emma progressively sinks, eventually having no regard for her reputation, for the happiness of her child, or for the love of the man she married. She believes that her happiness can only come by spending more money and having more passion; yet, the more she seeks this, the emptier it becomes. Then, to complete the cycle, she pines for the past, falsely believing that she used to be happy.
She was not happy – she never had been. Whence came this insufficiency in life – this instantaneous turning to decay of everything on which she lent?
Her debts build to a dramatic point, where foreclosures are issued for her household items. In this miserable state, she begs several men for money, prostituting herself, but is refused. Not being able to raise any money, and being desperate to hide the truth from her husband, she takes arsenic and dies.
Charles, having loved her to the last, is left heartbroken, and eventually dies of heartache. The book closes with the fate of her daughter, Berthe, now an orphan. She first lives briefly with her grandmother – until she dies – and then resides with a distant aunt, who sends her to work in a cotton mill.
This sad story was, in the beginning, quite fascinating, but in the end, quite melancholy. Emma’s selfishness, while initially not having a huge effect on her life, ends up destroying her. She steadily loses her battle with self-control, beginning with her daily daydreams and fantasies, then progressing on to the way she treats others, and the desires she chooses to satisfy without thinking of the people around her.
The part that I find the most distressing is that she fails to see that the ingredients for her happiness are right before her: her husband who loves her immensely despite her faults, a lovely healthy daughter, and the relatively successful doctors practice they could have.
I must admit I do not enjoy tragedy. At least in Romeo and Juliet, their families learnt from their mistakes after the couple’s tragic death! In Madame Bovary, the tragedy is limitless, touching everyone, even their innocent daughter. There is no bittersweet ending, only anguish. In fact, the only people who prosper in this story are those who use the Bovary’s, maliciously or otherwise, to get what they want!
In terms of literature, it is quite a masterpiece. Flaubert excels in providing minute detail about the setting of his characters, piling metaphors and similes in his writing, which gives the reader a very sensory and poetic experience of life in country France. He makes the reader swing from hating the characters, to being sympathetically understanding of them, to loving them, and then all the way back again.
Gustave Flaubert said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” [Madame Bovary, it is me], and I am sure we could all agree. What person does not have a selfish, vain, proud side to them? Whilst we may feel like this at times, what makes a difference in our lives is what we choose to do with this feeling. Emma cosseted it and fed it, and so it grew until it was an unsatiated, vicious, rampant desire that controlled her.
Happiness, to me, is primarily a decision. It is not our situation that defines it, it is about how we choose to respond to our situation that really determines our happiness.
Do you like stories with happy endings? Or do you prefer tragedies?