Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
The thing about classics is that they get to stand the test of time for a reason. I read Madame Bovary over a decade ago in college and I thought it was time to take it for another spin and see what lands for me now. I know I liked it and I remembered the main points of the story as well as the ending but my take away now on it was much different.
Our protagonist (I use that term loosely) is Emma. She’s a beautiful young girl looking for her life to begin. We meet her through Charles who is a naive but overall kind fool. Charles essentially is the guy who can never finish first. He means well but he’s generally terrified of everything and also pretty ignorant, which ends up really coming back to haunt him. Emma is so much like many characters we see today. She is bright, interesting and she wants an exciting life. She marries Charles (who was recently widowed) and sets off on what she thinks will be a life of grand dreams. Turns out Emma is also really naive and actually doesn’t understand much about life at all. Emma becomes the true embodiment of what it means to want what she cannot have and she essentially stops at nothing to get it.
To give you a little context here, Flaubert was all about realism and he wanted to portray life as he believed it to be and so he was showing all the ugliness that comes with this kind of greed. There was also a point where parts of the novel were censored and the book as a whole was banned in France for a bit because adultery plays a prominent role throughout. There was also the fact that Emma is not sorry for her choices throughout the novel which many found appalling when it was published.
Now if you’re looking for some huge moral comeuppance here, this is not your book. It becomes one large cautionary tale of greed and selfishness and Emma is not likeable in the least. Her poor choices leads to the ruin of all the people who care about her (minus the ones who went running when they saw where this was headed). I already knew how it ended but I found myself tensing up as we led up to the final dissolution of it all because it was so painful. While Emma is not the lady you want to look up to, she is a truly developed character. That doesn’t make you care about her or her eventual end but it does make you think about how easy it is to get wrapped up in all the wrong ambitions and build a life of utter resentment.
Here’s the thing that hit me this time that did not the first time I read it: Emma is also a total failure. Charles is categorized from the very outset of the book as being dull and stupid so we expect very little from him. He loves Emma and their daughter and those are probably his most redeeming qualities. Emma however is set up to be destined for greatness. Her beauty has no comparison, men want to possess her, she belongs in high society and installed in a castle– but none of these things happen no matter what Emma does to spur them on. We can look at the feminist perspective which is that Emma is bound by a society that sees her worth through her ability to marry well and have children and she is most certainly a victim of that but overall Emma builds her life on this idea that she deserves more and she pays for it dearly. Emma herself makes no attempt to apologize for this and to the bitter end we hear about how her beauty never leaves her despite the ruin she has caused. But ultimately, she has failed. She goes down poor, her lovers have left her, and no one is willing to give her anything anymore.