I had never read Flaubert before I picked up this novel. I know that’s shocking, coming from someone who thinks himself as a writer at the crossroads between genre fiction (historical, mystery, thriller, et al) and high-brow literary fiction. I was challenged to examine Flaubert by literary critic, James Wood, in his classic How Fiction Works. Wood is a Flaubert aficionado and heaps praise upon Gustave as a master of realism; in fact, perhaps the inventor of that lineage of literary fiction. I stumbled upon Wood’s book and though it took a bit of time to get geared up, I finally picked up Flaubert’s classic and dug in. Here’s my take.
Madame Bovary is a difficult protagonist to like. Perhaps it’s the age she lived in and the archaic customs of her time; perhaps that’s authorial intent; perhaps that’s due to my own personal sympathies for her long-suffering husband. Though we spend much time with Emma, the daughter of a French landowner and farmer, it is Charles we meet first, in the very first chapter, and he is immediately cast as a dullard. Charles could easily be cast as the villain in this tale; one of a widower who snaps up an energetic, beautiful, somewhat distant young woman to be his second wife. But that’s not the husband’s role in Flaubert’s immorality play. I’d say morality but the author spends little time exploring the psychological and religious aspects of Madame’s engaging in serial affairs. Rather, our attention is focused almost solely upon the female protagonist’s insatiable romanticism and her attempts to conceal her financial and sexual deviance from her husband. That Charles loves Emma throughout all her deceptions, lies, and inattention to his needs, wants, and desires is a given and leads one to postulate, given all Madame’s comings and goings, that Charles is about as smart as a box of rocks. Flaubert certainly draws us into the affairs and opens our eyes to the aloofness of Rodolphe (Emma’s first lover) and the emotional ineptitude of Léon (her second conquest), and gives the reader an interesting stable of surrounding characters, both familial and townspeople, from which the story made detailed and complete. And yet …
The title of this piece telegraphs that something, in my view, is lacking in this novel to make it the classic, the five-star-read, Mr. Wood advances in his thesis. That “something”, to me, is multifaceted.
First, Flaubert wastes precious words, paragraphs, and pages on drivel; by which I mean, long-winded speeches given by dignitaries and characters at various intervals during the story. Whenever I encountered such stuffy narrative or dialogue, I found myself either skimming or simply skipping ahead. Sure, I get that in any novel, backstory and other diversions from the main action and plot are needed to flesh out a tale. But much like Ayd Rand’s insertion of John Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged, Flaubert’s attempts to educate the reader through such oral presentations by minor characters simply wastes a reader’s time and tries a reader’s patience.
In addition, despite Wood proclaiming this to be one of the first (or perhaps, the original novel) invoking realism, I found Madame herself, even with all her inner thoughts and emotions and musings revealed, to be a bit of a cardboard cutout. The early marital scenes between Emma and Charles devolve too quickly into loathing: Emma’s introduction to infidelity seems premature, forced, and untrue. Other than being a bit dull and unseeing, Charles doesn’t appear to be the sort of man to generate true animosity. Which leaves the reader surmising that all of the lust, all of the breaches of sanctimony, all of the turmoil caused by Emma’s fickle nature is based upon one fatal attribute: She is easily bored.
For its time, Madame Bovary brought to the forefront an aspect of contemporary French society (commonplace infidelity) that caused an uproar and, for the most part, introduced a writing style unique to literature. The plot is acceptably drawn; the settings lush and complete. The characters? Somewhat less satisfactory. But Wood is right: Flaubert is an author to be read when one is trying to craft fiction.
4 stars out of 5.