Madame Bovary is a classic in world literature and sooner or later everyone gets around to reading it. You have high hopes from a book of such great pedigree and Flaubert does not disappoint. Emma Bovary is young and beautiful and marries Charles after a very brief, almost non-existent courtship. The courtship is chronologically prolonged but symbolically scant. It flowers into being much more powerfully after the demise of Charles’ first wife, and is soon consummated by the eager Charles. Emma arrives at her new house and slowly settles into her routine and realizes that love is not as she imagined it to be. Finding connubial bliss to be conspicuously absent, she takes on a string of lovers and surrenders herself to one paramour after another. Ensnared by her lusty zest for love and its superficial trimmings, she sinks slowly into a morass from where escape is not easily achievable. Hounded by creditors and desperate to keep her affairs a secret from her hapless husband, she commits suicide in an odiously painful manner. Charles’ character is that of the bereaving cuckold. His entire life has been undermined by his wife’s adulterous decisions, yet, despite all that, he loves her deeply and loses a big part of himself when she dies.
Flaubert’s Bovary gave us ‘Bovarysme’, a tendency to live in a daydream while escaping reality. Emma is conscious of her place in society and her duties as a faithful wife, but ignores them all in favour of living out her dream of romance. In her mind, all the misery that ensues from an illicit tryst is worth the pleasure it gave her. We see how she is ready to abandon her husband and child for a lover who betrays her at the eleventh hour. Although it takes her a long time to get over this betrayal, she eventually seduces another lover and is back to her old tricks. We see how Charles is kept in the dark regarding these affairs, but perhaps he wouldn’t have done much anyway. Emma’s disdain for the real world and all its trimmings is so real as to be palpable through the pages of the book. At times she succumbs to social pressures and tries to make something out of her husband, so that she’ll be noticed and her life will be a little more like the romantic heroines she reads about. However, her hopes are dashed by the bungling incompetence of her husband at straying beyond the familiar.
Madame Bovary is a striking indictment of social rules that make people lead double rules, but it is also not a panegyric for wanton living. It merely showcases how one might swing from a happy medium to an extreme and back, without all the blather of moral judgement that pervades so many other works about people who break the bonds of matrimony. You have no excuse for not reading this, you’ll be the richer for it.