Madame Bovary

Gustave Flaubert, 1856

The timeless tale of a neurotic housewife. The story was first released in serialized form in the Revue de Paris. It was attacked by the courts for obscenity and the resulting trial made the book all the more famous. The trial ended in acquittal and the full volume became a bestseller in 1857.

She wanted to die, but she also wanted to live in Paris.

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Set in Normandy, near the town of Rouen. A young man named Charles Bovary struggles to get his medical degree. He does just well enough to get a position as a health officer, which was an occupation created by an old French civic program that allowed people with enough medical training to practice medicine without a license. These were essentially public servants who made house calls at no or low cost. Charles comes home to find his mother has picked out for him a disagreeable, but supposedly wealthy widow, to marry. 

Charles takes up his practice and one day his work brings him to a farm where he meets the love of his life, Emma. Young, beautiful, with a mind dizzied in poetry. Educated in a convent, Emma has a big mind for the luxury and romance she read about in cheap novels. When Charles’s grumpy wife unexpectedly widows him he begins courting Emma. I’m not totally sure what the point of the widow was, maybe it’s a French lit thing, maybe it’s just Rational storytelling. 

After Charles and Emma marry we see a lot less of Charles in the story. It becomes all about Emma, who can’t believe how dull and drab married life is. Seeing her disappointment, Charles up and moves his practice to a bigger city for her, thinking that she will enjoy the bustle. They have a daughter who Emma is even more bored by. The first thrill of her married life comes from a flirtation with a young and cultured law student. He moved away before anything serious happens, driving Emma into an angry depression. 

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars. 

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Emma’s dreary life takes a wild turn when a rakish landowner brings his servant to Charles for a bleeding. He meets Emma and thinks her an easy target. They start up an affair that goes on for years with Charles completely oblivious. Eventually, she insists that she and the wealthy Rodolphe run away together. Rodolphe doesn’t care for this plan at all and tells her as much in a letter. This knocks the stuffing out of Emma so hard that she falls deathly ill for a time and gets super into being pious.

When her health recovers Charles takes Emma to the opera. There she runs into her old crush, the law student with whom she shared a flirtation. They start up an affair, but he soon finds her melodrama boring and she finds him unexciting. So Emma takes up shopping for luxury items to fill the void. As typical this quickly gets beyond her means and soon she’s maintaining her habit on merchant credit. When this maxes out she finagles to get power of attorney over her husband’s estate. 

Her consumer debt, grown monstrous in size, gets called in. Emma begs money from several people including her old lovers, all of whom turn her down. With no way out she decides to end it, drinking a bottle of arsenic and dying hideously. Her husband, Charles, had been oblivious to all the debts. He finds her corpse, and his heart intricately breaks in the book’s most poetic and genuinely romantic scene. He gives up working and turns Emma’s room into a shrine. He begins to emulate her tastes in finery and luxury. He lives off of selling his possessions until even those are seized by Emma’s creditors. In the left behind debris, he finds Emma’s letters from her lovers. The reading of these causes him to suffer a complete mental breakdown and he dies soon after. 

Charles and Emma’s daughter is placed with Charles’s mother, but she dies right after. The girl is then shuffled off to an impoverished aunt who puts her to work in a cotton mill. A young family, with all the potential to become community leaders, was snuffed out because a girl thought she deserved to be a storybook princess. Instead of refining into maturity and real worldsense, she walked the Left Hand Path of materialism. 

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