Having finished it, I’m not quite so sure it was a bad thing French literature was missing from my life. There were parts of the novel I really enjoyed, the romance, the passion, but there were parts that dredged on and definitely left me wishing Flaubert was a more concise writer.
This is of course the story of Madame Bovary (Emma – my trivia question was ‘ In which novel by Gustave Flaubert is Emma the protagonist?’) and her fall from grace. I would say it’s a story of lessons—Don’t live beyond your means; Believe in love, and don’t give into lust; and Never stop dreaming, but know where the line between dream and reality is. We follow Charles Bovary from his time as a young school boy through to his education and his first wife. His first wife dies and he eventually marries Emma, and the rest of the story is about their love (or lack thereof) and Emma’s search for extramarital love/life. The ending is sad, but poignant.
Although the story is about Emma, it was the myriad minor characters which stand out. Whereas Emma’s child-like nature overpowered her character, or perhaps highlighted the lack of responsibility and childish (incredibly debatable, but I don’t know of a different term now) innocence of her character, her husband, Charles’ complete lack of common sense and perceived emotion, made his character the bumbling buffoon he was. However, neither of these characters irked me quite as much as Homais, the local chemist and insufferable know-it-all. There is something to be said about those trying to better their position, but it is definitely not to be said about him. His lack of dignity and lack of loyalty to anyone other than himself and his own further improvement in the world often made Emma’s selfishness seem rather trite and understandable.
I’m sure there is much more I could say about the novel, such as the introduction of Madame Bovary through her husband and not as a character of her own, but I believe that is a product of the time period and the French culture. This novel had some interesting similarities with Slammerkin, but I believe they were mostly superficial.
Recommendation: As a classic, it’s not the best I’ve read, but it’s worth reading for some of the great quotes/descriptions. I doubt I will read any more of Flaubert’s work and am somewhat hesitant about moving into the French Literature on my list, but we shall see as once they’re on my list they have to stay on my list (for the most part).
Quotes from Madame Bovary
“In her life’s isolation she centered on the child’s head all her shattered, broken little vanities.” (12)
“Before marriage she thought herself in love; but the happiness that should have followed this love not having come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words felicity, passion, rapture, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.” (46)
“Accustomed to calm aspects of life, she turned, on the contrary, to those of excitement. She loved the sea only for the sake of its storms, and the green fields only when broken up by ruins.” (48)
“But as the intimacy of their life became deeper, the greater became the gulf that separated her from him.” (53)
“A man, on the contrary, should he not know everything, excel in manifold activities, initiate you into the energies of passion, the refinements of life, all mysteries? But this one taught nothing, knew nothing, wished nothing. He thought her happy; and she resented this easy calm, this serene heaviness, the very happiness she gave him.” (54)
“…she watched her son’s happiness in sad silence, as a ruined man looks through the windows at people dining in his old house.” (56)
“When she had thus for a while struck the flint on her heart without getting a spark, incapable, moreover, of understanding what she did not experience as of believing anything that did not present itself in conventional forms, she persuaded herself without difficulty that Charles’s passion was nothing very exorbitant. His outbursts became regular; he embraced her at certain fixed times. It was one habit among other habits, and, like a dessert, looked forward to after the monotony of dinner.” (57)
“But she–her life was cold as a garret whose dormer window looks on the north, and ennui, the silent spider, was weaving its web in the darkness in every corner of her heart.” (58)
“A breath of love had passed over the stitches on the canvas; each prick of the needle had fixed there a hope or a memory, and all those interwoven threads of silk were but the continuity of the same silent passion.” (74)
“Moreover she no longer concealed her contempt for anything or anybody, and at times she set herself to express singular opinions, finding fault with that which others approved, and approving things perverse and immoral, all of which made her husband open his eyes widely.” (85)
“A man, at least, is free; he may travel over passions and over countries, overcome obstacles, taste of the most far-away pleasures. But a woman is always hampered. At once inert and flexible, she has against her the weakness of the flesh and legal dependence. Her will, like the veil of her bonnet, held by a string, flutters in every wind; there is always some desire that draws her, some conventionality that restrains.” (112)
“Coming joys, like tropical shores, throw over the immensity before them their inborn softness, an odorous wind, and we are lulled by this intoxication without a thought of the horizon that we do not even know.” (120)
“Love, she thought, must come suddenly, with great outbursts and lightnings–a hurricane of the skies, which falls upon life, revolutionises it, roots up the will like a leaf, and sweeps the whole heart into the abyss.” (127)
“But the disparaging of those we love always alienates us from them to some extent. We must not touch our idols; the gilt sticks to our fingers.” (344)
“Besides, nothing was worth the trouble of seeking it; everything was a lie. Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a curse, all pleasure satiety, and the sweetest kisses left upon your lips only the unattainable desire for a greater delight.” (346)
“And in all his plans Homais always stuck to the weeping willow, which he looked upon as the indispensable symbol of sorrow.” (419)