Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

by Ankit Srivastava

[box]In his review of Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert, Ankit Srivastava professes his admiration for how Flaubert has dealt with a seemingly boring subject of life in rural France with excellence – and most importantly, without judgment on the protagonist’s attempts to make her dreary life more interesting.[/box]

Legend has it that Gustave Flaubert, a romanticist at heart, got challenged by his friends to write a novel based upon the dreariest of all dreary subjects: life in rural France. What he produced is now widely considered to be the book that gave birth to the movement of literary realism. Madame Bovary is a painstaking and masterpiece study of the monotony that was rural life in France in the middle of the nineteenth century. But what makes this book really stand head and shoulder above many other great novels is how Flaubert manages to create vigorous emotional turbulence against the background of the commonplace and the mundane.

Madame Bovary is the story of a small town starry-eyed young girl, Emma, who has grown up reading the flamboyant stories of heroic sacrifices and of forbidden love. She has lived within the romanticized confines of the passionate tunes and melodies which have inadvertently promised her a life similarly fine and invigorating. She grows up to discover that real life doesn’t quite live up to the grand image that  she had imagined growing up but she is too much of a romantic to give up against the weak bargain that she seems to have received. She marries a young doctor named Charles almost believing that she has finally possessed that fine and sweeping love that she had dreamt of growing up, only to be disappointed yet again. Charles, although madly in love with Emma, is after all merely a common man and Emma’s disappointment at his love, which lacks the vigour of fiction, turns her to yearn and look out for other ways by which she might satiate her dreams of beauty, wealth, passion and high society. The novel explores how the boredom of the rural life and the special disappointment it engenders in Emma, who had dreams of such beauty, force her into extra-marital affairs, crushing debt and eventual ruin.

Along the way Flaubert gives us a compelling description of a person in the complete throes of her passions and the extents of self-centeredness and cruelty to which they push her. The novel is a nuanced study in the power that our passions have on our perception of reality and morality. Perhaps Emma isn’t me and you but we have all had glimpses of her. She is forever looking at the world through the tinted glasses of her own twisted imagination and we’ve all had times when we have tried to fit the reality around us in the neat little moulds which our prejudices often produce. While most of us possess the rationality to snap out of such a mistake, Emma is forever caught in the dichotomy that the world around her is to her imagined reality. She is perpetually disappointed by it but her mistake is that she never gives up trying to bridge that gap. She flaunts the social boundaries in the little pathetic ways that she can but she doesn’t possess the courage to stand up to the social ridicule which must surely accompany such digressions. She is caught in an infinite limbo as she tries to sustain both the image of a respectable housewife and a life pulsating with the pleasures and passions of illicit liaisons.

And yet, she is merely a human being not quite sure of what she is doing and oblivious of the repercussions of her own actions. She is a bit like us as she feels her way around trying to figure out what she can get away with. It doesn’t make her a bad person and Flaubert never paints her as such either. He never judges her actions and never resorts to the assignment of generalized labels. He tells her story dispassionately and in excruciating detail, describes the ruinous results of her actions and moves away without ever implying that she has done something immoral or that she is repentant. Her final ruin is society’s way of disapproving her actions but it is remarkable that Flaubert saved her the final disgrace of falling in her own eyes. His is a sympathetic take on human nature. He is as sympathetic to the transgressor, Emma, as he is to the victim that is Charles but one almost feels that Flaubert reserves his final plaudits for Madame Bovary. He almost seems to nod the slightest of approvals at Emma for dreaming and for being mad enough to live and die for her dreams. In this tragic story of one woman’s constant suffocations in a world much more constrained than she had imagined growing up and her doomed efforts to break free in the small ways that she can, Flaubert hints at where he, as a genuine artist, stands on the issue of the worthy way of living life. One gets a constant sense that in the juxtapositions of the monotony of everyday life and the tremendous inner world of Emma, Flaubert is relentlessly asking us to pick what we would rather choose for ourselves. And whether we would still choose flamboyance over dreary certainty if we were to meet the fate that Emma did. Madame Bovary is a great book and its greatness lies as much in its meticulous form as it does in the questions that it forces us to ask ourselves.

Ankit Srivastava is a researcher working at the University of California, San Diego. He scours the world of the written word in the perpetual search of the vitality and motion that he fails to find in the cold hard field of engineering.

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