Using death as a resolution for the protagonist’s problems, the authors, Gustave Flaubert and Laura Esquivel, represent the suffering and sickness of female characters, in their works, Madame Bovary and Like Water For Chocolate, respectively, leading to their tragic ending, death.
begins with a description of fifteen year-old Charles Bovary on his first day of school in Rouen. A narrator describes the scenes, and a bit of Bovary's background, but it's an impersonal, unidentified voice -- writing in the first person plural, no less (, rather than ), a unified front of us-against-him that emphasises Bovary's outsider status and sets the stage for how this character will be treated throughout the book. (The unusual address of the opening pages is particularly striking because this narrator disappears, the bulk of the novel being written by the more familiar omniscient narrator, as if Flaubert had changed his mind about how to present his story. Surprisingly, he gets away with it; it's not a jarring switch.)
The book is called , but there are two such characters before Emma is even introduced. The first is Charles' mother, who takes a firm hand in guiding her only son's life, making most of the arrangements, including, once he finished his medical studies, finding him the proper place to "practise his art" -- in Tostes. Charles' mother also arranged for the second Madame Bovary:
Charles first encounters Emma -- the future (and one and only true) Madame Bovary -- when he is summoned to attend to the fractured leg of her father, a well-to-do farmer, Monsieur Rouault. At the time he is still married. Emma isn't particularly thrilled about living on the farm, and eventually the soon-widowed Bovary (who had taken a bit of an interest from the get-go) looks like he can be her ticket to a more exciting life. Of course, Emma is deluding herself, convincing even herself only briefly: But she realises only too soon that the small-town doctor can't offer her anywhere near the life and lifestyle she desires. Her fantasies are fed by her reading, and not at all grounded in reality. She can't adapt to the life she finds herself again stuck in, dreaming only of grander things -- especially passion, especially love. Charles, a simple man with little romance to him, isn't much help, not recognising what Emma needs to be happy (and unable, in any case, to provide it).
A fantastic ball they are invited to gives Emma a glimpse of the world of fiction she always fancies herself in, tantalizingly close. But it's only a fairy-tale night. It's also not something she can share with Charles: he is unable to revel in it in the way she does. But the experience again feeds her desires.
Escape into books (despite Charles' mother's efforts to put a stop to that) helps, providing her at least a window into the world she wants to be part of (despite almost recognising that that world is unreal -- "I hate commonplace heroes and moderate feelings such as are to be found in life", she complains). And then she encounters some men who might allow her to indulge her passions. There's Léon Dupuis, a young clerk of some ambition, and she falls in love with him. And then there's Rodolphe Boulanger, who immediately recognises the possibilities: Growing tired of his current mistress Rodolphe sets the worries about shaking Emma off aside for the time being, and Emma finally has her full-blown passionate affair. Or as much of one as one can have in the backwater she finds herself in.
Charles looks set to possibly redeem himself with a daring act of healing -- a clubfoot operation -- but he fails miserably, and Emma can feel only contempt for her husband: Fantasy is stronger than reality; her lover eventually disappoints as well, unable to take her fantay to the extremes she demands, cruelly standing her up.
Emma's crisis after losing her lover is deep, but she eventually finds relief the only place she can: in the arms of another -- as old love Léon comes back into her life. Emma becomes less discreet, and compounds matters by taking up more credit than she can possibly pay off. Charles, meanwhile, remains ever the fool, blind to her faults and her carryings-on.
The collapse, when it comes, is spectacular. Léon, the temporary romantic, comes to his senses when he figures out that continuing in this way could threaten his career. Besides, he got what he wanted out of his system: (What wonderful damning lines !)
And Emma, too, is sated by her experience with him: their affair no longer offers the passion she longs for -- indeed: "Emma had rediscovered in adultery all the banality of marriage." But when it's over almost everything she's done catches up with her, and it is too much for her.
Charles must bury Emma -- and insists: "I want her buried in her wedding-dress", as if that would allow a return to practically the last moment there was any hope for the two of them.
The story doesn't end with her death. Flaubert ties up a few loose ends, including allowing Charles to finally realise what Emma had done behind his back. But he can't even get into a proper rage against Rodolphe. Ever the boring fatalist -- and never one to take on any responsibility -- he can only deliver himself "of the one large utterance he ever made: 'It is the fault of Fate'". Soon enough he too is dead.
The Bovary's also had a daughter, Berthe, and while her father adores her Emma can barely stand the little thing (she had longed for a son, and fainted dead away upon learning she had given birth to this instead), and her fate is the saddest of all. Peripheral throughout, Flaubert quickly follows her sad lot after her mother's death: finding her father dead, she's shuffled off first to the original Madame Bovary (who then also dies "within the year") and then an aunt who "sends her to earn her living in a cotton-mill". That's Emma's legacy, the real world in all its glory.
is an almost universally known classic, burdened by its own reputation: it is almost impossible to come to the text without some sense of who this famous character is and what she does in these pages. Still, Flaubert's ruthless portrait of Emma, and her relentless pursuit of passion are striking, whether read for the first or fifth time. She is not a sympathetic character -- her treatment of her daughter alone is enough to put most readers off -- but one can understand her dreams and desires (if not necessarily commiserate with her, given the consequences she brings upon herself because of them). Significantly, practically none of the other characters are very sympathetic either, and they all have failings that exacerbate her own. Charles is kind, but he's a dolt, entirely incapable of being understanding (of practically anything, it sometimes seems). He's a kind fellow, but obviously not a match for a wife with such passionate dreams.
Flaubert presents the story very well, with an eye for detail and revealing observation. The story is a familiar and almost banal one, but he carries it along expertly. He uses many minor characters to convey the whole societal order shuddering in these times, both shaken by and readily adapting to these often unsettling events, dwelling only on what he has to. There is no side he sympathises with here: all are culpable.
It's a strange, bold, odd tapestry, both beguiling and unpleasant. A fine, weighty, and haunting read.
Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert - Complete Review
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