Title: Madame Bovary
Author: Gustave Flaubert
Translator: Eleanor Marx-Aveling

Madame Bovary. I probably should have read this before; it’s one of the great classics, after all. I’m glad I didn’t. It was such hard work to get through.

It’s almost impossible for me to review this without spoilers. Normally, a great deal of what I do and don’t like about a book is tied up in the language and character development, which makes it relatively easy to discuss my thoughts without spoiling major plot points. In this case, the development of the central character is expressed through major plot points, meaning that I don’t know how to talk about the book without mentioning them. In short, SPOILER ALERT.

The problem with basing an entire book around one character—in this case, the eponymous Mme Bovary (henceforth Emma)—is that, if that character is fundamentally unlikeable, it’s more-or-less a given that the book will be as well. As far as I could tell, Emma’s reasons for cheating on her (loving, if a bit dim) husband are that… he doesn’t have perfect table manners and can’t afford to buy her a pony? Perhaps, if she had been tricked or trapped into the marriage, I would have had a little more sympathy. She wasn’t: in a revolutionary move for 19th century literature about unhappy marriages, her father refuses to consent to the marriage unless she does as well, and even removes himself from the situation so that her decision is her own. She wanted to get married to Monsieur Bovary. The fact that she changed her mind a month later is neither here nor there—it was entirely her choice. I wanted to slap her—or at least sit her down with a cup of tea and demand that she justify her life choices.

Cheating is never justified, but I have read plenty of novels where I could at least empathise with the adulterous character. Not the case here. Monsieur Bovary is not a crook, a cheat, a bully, an alcoholic or a gambler. He isn’t even emotionally absent—he’s always doing little things for Emma to demonstrate that he loves her. Emma’s fundamental inability to deal with the consequences of her choices, like grown-ups do, makes her unbearable to read. She keeps talking about how oppressed she is—oh, how hard it’s been, since she got married. She’s not oppressed, just selfish. Her narcissism and immaturity blind her to the fact that she is, in fact, an extremely blessed and comfortably-off woman Often, I felt like the narrator was asking me to sympathise with her least sympathetic actions—the occasions when she has inadequate funds to buy a present for her lover, for example, because she’s spent all her husband’s money on presents for her lovers.

I have read, of Madame Bovary, that it’s a tragic depiction of how women were pigeonholed by their parentage and marriages at the time. I feel that it’s rather a depiction of people shirking their responsibilities. This afflicts the secondary characters as well, though less dramatically than it does Emma. Monsieur Bovary is an attentive husband, but he fails to pay any attention to the family finances, even though he also has a daughter to provide for. (In fact, the daughter is treated as so irrelevant that I had to double-check her name when writing the review—it’s Berthe). M Homais completely disregards the duty of care that he has towards his patients, particularly when he talks M Bovary into a botched operation on a disabled youth, knowing that it will go wrong and merely wanting to bully the Bovarys out of town. Duty of care is not a new concept—Hippocrates, anyone? Rodolphe and Leon both embark on affairs with Emma without thinking it through properly, and then seem surprised when it doesn’t go so well. Justin is so besotted with Emma that he ignores the responsibility he has to his employer, and ends up being partially responsible for her death—though, unlike the other characters, he does appear to show remorse for his actions. The characters in this book are really not very clever, nor very easy to like.

Another factor that made me uncomfortable was the implicit message that women’s flighty little hearts and heads can’t handle education, or perhaps that the working classes should know their station. Emma’s brattish behaviour is often linked to her education, with the subtext that, had she remained an ignorant peasant girl, she would have been more satisfied with her lot in life. Of course, I can make allowances for the fact that it was the 19th century in France—Victor Hugo’s Cosette, Fantine and Esmeralda are hardly feminist icons either—but the point was laboured so heavily that it left a sour taste in my mouth. Flaubert’s contemporary Thackaray manages to write the thoroughly unlikable Becky in Vanity Fair without ever suggesting that the root cause is her education, or even her gender. He chalks it up to (lack of) parenting, which is a much more realistic take.

I did like the way that the structures and artifices Madame Bovary builds up around herself throughout the novel, the complex mess of masks and fantasies, are all comprehensively destroyed during her death throes. There is no lingering beauty about her death; she dies slowly and unromantically, in agony. Perhaps she imagined she would look like Ophelia or Juliet. Instead, she gets a thoroughly unglamorous scene, drenched not in blood but in vomit. The scene that sticks with me most vividly is that which occurs shortly after her death: her husband decides that he wants a lock of her hair. It’s a sentimental gesture, appropriate for the era; a sign of devotion which Madame Bovary herself would surely have approved. However, the person responsible for collecting the locks doesn’t snip neatly but instead hacks away at her, leaving the corpse with shiny bald patches among the hair that has been so lauded in previous chapters. It gives a sense of completeness to her ending, a devastation that would not have worked if her perfect corpse had been allowed to lie gloriously in state, inspiring emotion and heartbreak in all who saw it.

Of course, the novel itself is beautifully written. The one star I have given it is in recognition of the fact that it is perfectly executed, with flawless descriptions of people and places. Madame Bovary is a classic for a reason: it has certainly stayed with me since I’ve read it; there are pictures and thoughts in my mind, things I am turning over in my head, which would not have been there if I hadn’t read it. I just wish the experience of doing so had been at least partly enjoyable.