Book Review – Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

WARNING: SPOILERS

If you are the type of reader who likes to consume a novel at a leisurely pace, smelling every flower, seeing every sunset, watching every loaf of bread being baked and smelling the dough as it rises, if you want to be steeped in the flavour of French society back in the mid 1800s, then this is the book for you. However, if you like a story that moves along at a fair pace then perhaps you should look elsewhere, because this story is slow and I mean really slow. This is a story about a woman who goes astray, but, man oh man, she sure takes her time doing it. In fact she waits until halfway through the novel with the story stalling in its tracks while we plough through copious amounts of navel gazing and inner torment. And then when she does do it, with all the word skill and descriptive excellence at Flaubert’s disposal, we get “she gave herself up to him …” I wasn’t looking for pornography, but “she gave herself up to him …” Come on!

An aside: To be fair, in Flaubert’s day writing even mildly descriptive sex was frowned upon and he was in fact prosecuted for writing the scene where Emma stripped naked and pounced on Leon and another in which Emma used words during sex (apparently “Oh God oh God”) that she previously had reserved only for prayer. However – I can’t speak for anyone else – but I’m reading this novel in 2018 and judging it by the story telling standards of today.

I have come to believe that modern writing has gone way past many of these classics. In Mackay, I was in a university book group and we were given “Wuthering Heights”. The young lady running the group, a Doctor of Literature, said when she was a teenager she read this book once a year. I thought it one of the worst books I’ve ever read and when I opined that if it was written today it probably wouldn’t find a publisher some of the group wanted to drag me out the back and beat me to a pulp. I suspect that much of the expressed adoration for some of these classics has an element of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’. In “Wuthering Heights” we came to know the story by having various characters tell us about the story, that is about what happened, like witnesses, and I felt I never got close to the central characters and therefore didn’t care about them. This method of storytelling is avoided these days (generally). Flaubert didn’t keep us away from his characters, in fact we got to know them quite well, but he made the storytelling itself so tedious. For instance, the death scene near the end had quite an excellent urgent, almost tactile, atmosphere to it until the famous doctor, Dr Lariviere, showed up and then we were subjected to the action and tension being set aside while the good doctor went out for breakfast and chatted with others. He then played no important part in the passing of Emma. Why did Flaubert do this?

According to IMDB this novel has spawned no less than seven movies & TV series: 1934, 1949, 1969, 1975, 1991, 2000 & 2014.

It was interesting to see that they used to do financial factoring back in those days. I had naively assumed factoring was something modern.

The introduction, written by someone called Ferdinand Brunetiere, went on for 10 pages and, in my opinion, made the same point over and over, and made Flaubert out to be greatest writer who ever lived. I beg to differ. I’ll go for a 4, but that’s mainly for the excellent descriptive work.

Steve Reilly