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Reviving the classics: Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary is a timeless classic from Gustave Flaubert. Published in French in 1856, this book was banned for immorality.

The story follows Charles and Emma Bovary, focusing on their emotions and thoughts. Emma is a beautiful, educated young woman longing for romance and luxury. Her marriage with Charles Bovary was supposed to provide both, but she soon realised there was no love between them. Emma finds her relationship and the provincial life dull and becomes restless. Her passion for literature causes her to dream of meeting other man who could be a more suitable husband for her…

‘She asked herself if by some other chance combination it would not have been possible to meet another man; and she tried to imagine what would have been these unrealistic events, this different life, this unknown husband. All, surely, could not be like this one. . He might have been handsome, witty, distinguish, attractive, like, no doubt, the men her old companions of the convent had married.’[1]

Of course, what was considered immoral then, would not shock anyone now. It was the novel’s realism that moved the public, causing controversies. Flaubert revolutionised the narration by creating mediocre and earthbound characters, leading an ordinary life. He portrayed them as individuals through the use of free indirect discourse, a technique that allows him to blend their thoughts or speech with the narrative. Flaubert creates the feeling of a personalised experience of his characters through his writing style. The narrator of the novel seems to summarise the character’s emotions, but it is not explicitly clear where the narrator’s voice stops, and the character’s voice begins.

‘Before marriage she thought herself in love; but since the happiness that should have followed failed to come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken’[2]

Moreover, this feeling of individualisation is amplified by the fact that events in the novel are shown through the eyes of the character. For example, the novel’s setting is presented through Emma’s boredom and disheartenment. Flaubert writes first about her rising irritation with her husband’s behaviour and the disappointment of a quiet life she leads at his side. Firstly, he highlights her state of mind: ‘How sad she was on Sundays when vespers sounded! She listened with dull attention to each stroke of the cracked bell.’[3] Then, he moves to the description of the simplicity of village life: ‘The wind of the highroad blew up clouds of dust. […] And till nightfall, five or six men, always the same, stayed playing at corks in front of the large door of the inn. […] Every day at the same time the schoolmaster in a black skull-cup opened the shutters of his house, and the village policeman, wearing his sword over his blouse, passed by.’[4] This description in itself is a very neutral portrayal of the everyday life of a small community but given within the context of Emma’s attitude it seems pejorative. The narrative becomes charged with the character’s emotions.

Those interesting techniques only add to the pleasure of the lecture of this brilliant novel. Flaubert’s writing style might seem descriptive for modern readers, but he was one of the best writers. I would recommend this novel to all enthusiasts of the classics.

[1]  Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), p. 38.

[2] Flaubert, p. 30.

[3] Flaubert, p. 54.

[4] Flaubert, pp. 54-55.


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