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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Madame Bovary

Gustave Flaubert

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Madame Bovary

Title: Madame Bovary
Author: Gustave Flaubert
Genre: Novel
Written: 1857
Length: 361 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Madame Bovary - US
Madame Bovary - UK
Madame Bovary - Canada
Madame Bovary - India
Madame Bovary - France
Madame Bovary - Deutschland
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Madame Bovary - España
  • Please note that Madame Bovary has been translated into English numerous times. The English-language Amazon.com links above are for the Penguin Classics translation by Geoffrey Wall (and with a preface by Michele Roberts) -- but numerous others are available. The quotes in our review are taken from the previous Penguin Classics translation, by Alan Russell.
  • Madame Bovary has been filmed numerous times, most famously by Jean Renoir (1933, with Valentine Tessier as Emma and Pierre Renoir as Charles), Vincente Minnelli (1949, with Jennifer Jones, James Mason, and Louis Jourdan), and Claude Chabrol (1991, with Isabelle Huppert)

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Our Assessment:

A- : remarkable character study, impressive writing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'artiste . 18/10/1857 Charles Baudelaire
The Atlantic . 10/2004 Clive James
Causeries du Lundi . 4/5/1857 C.A.Saint-Beuve
The Globe and Mail . 1/10/2010 Jane Smiley
London Rev. of Books . 18/11/2010 Julian Barnes
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/4/1957 Harry Levin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 3/10/2010 Kathryn Harrison
Sunday Times . 21/11/2010 Sebastian Faulks
The Washington Post A+ 29/8/2004 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "As for the intimate, deeper center of the book, there is no doubt that it resides in the adulterous woman; she alone possesses all the attributes of a worthy hero, albeit in the guise of a disgraced victim." - Charles Baudelaire, L'artiste

  • "The first thing to say about Madame Bovary is that it's a terrific story. Other comparably great and famous novels aren't, but it is. Everyone should read it. (...) No doubt this new translation of Madame Bovary is a labor of love. But affection and affectation don't sit well together." - Clive James, The Atlantic

  • "Madame Bovary is first and foremost a book, a carefully composed book, amply premeditated and totally coherent, in which nothing is left to chance and in which the author or, better, the painter does exactly what he intends to do from beginning to end." - Charles Augustin Saint-Beuve, Causeries du Lundi

  • "The last translation I read was by Paul DeMan, the official Norton translation, a translation that reads like an academic exercise. (...) The great accomplishment of Davis's translation has nothing really to do with her meticulousness, and everything to do with the spirit and energy that drive the narrative." - Jane Smiley, The Globe and Mail

  • "The root feature of Davisís translation is a close attention to Flaubertís grammar and sentence structure, and an attempt to mirror it in English. (...) Davisís quest to be Ďvery close, very faithfulí to the French works best when the Flaubertian sentence is plain and declaratory. (...) To compare several different versions of Madame Bovary is not to observe a process of accumulation, some gradual but inevitable progress towards certainty and authority (except in the occasional discarding of error); rather, it is to gaze at a sequence of approximations, a set of deliquescences. (...) Davisís Madame Bovary is a linguistically careful version, in the modern style, rendered into an unobtrusively American English." - Julian Barnes, London Review of Books

  • "The power of Madame Bovary stems from Flaubertís determination to render each object of his scrutiny exactly as it looks, or sounds or smells or feels or tastes. (...) Readers cannot like Emma Bovary, and yet they follow her with the kind of attention reserved for car wrecks, whether literal or metaphorical. (...) It is a shame Flaubert will never read Davisís translation of Madame Bovary. Even he would have to agree his masterwork has been given the English translation it deserves." - Kathryn Harrison, The New York Times Book Review

  • "In Madame Bovary Flaubert never allows anything to go on too long; he can suggest years of boredom in a paragraph, capture the essence of a character in a single conversational exchange, or show us the gulf between his soulful heroine and her dull-witted husband in a sentence (and one that, moreover, presages all Emma's later experience of men). (...) This is one of the summits of prose art, and not to know such a masterpiece is to live a diminished life." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

  • "What is remarkable in Madame Bovary is that its mediocre beings, with their earthbound ambitions and pedestrian problems, impress us, by virtue of the structure and the writing that create them, as beings who are out of the ordinary within their ordinary manner of being." - Mario Vargas Llosa, in The Perpetual Orgy

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Madame Bovary 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 (we, rather than I), 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 Madame Bovary, 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:

He must have a wife as well. She found him one: a bailiff's widow from Dieppe, forty-five years of age, fifty pounds of income.
       Héloise Dubuc isn't around long; their marriage is covered in a few pages, before she expires (she "heaved a sigh and fell unconscious. She was dead ! It was incredible!"). She turns out not to have been the catch Charles' mother had hoped for (her fortune stolen by her solicitor) -- and Flaubert doesn't even deign to refer to her as 'Madame Bovary', as if she never counted as that. (He writes of Charles' "wife", "Madame", or "Bovary's bride", but never "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:
At the time of Charles' first appearance at Les Bertaux she regarded herself as being utterly disillusioned, with nothing more to learn and nothing more to feel.
     Then, the anxiety occasioned by her change of state, or perhaps a certain agitation caused by the presence of this man had sufficed to make her believe herself possessed at last of that wonderful passion which hitherto had hovered above her like a great bird of rosy plumage in the splendour of a poetic heaven ...
       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:
Three pretty words and she'd adore you, I'll be bound. Tender, charming it'd be ... Yes, but how to shake it off afterwards ?
       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:
She repented her past virtue as though it were a crime; what still remained of it collapsed beneath the savage onslaught of her pride. She revelled in all the malicious ironies of adultery triumphant. The thought of her lover returned to her with a dizzy seductiveness, she gave herself up to it entirely.
       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:
It was time to be serious. Accordingly he was renouncing the flute, elevated sentiments, and the imagination. Every bourgeois in the ferment of his youth, if only for a day or a minute has believed himself capable of a grand passion, a high endeavour. Every run-of-the-mill seducer has dreamed of Eastern queens. Not a lawyer but carries within him the débris of a poet.
       (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.

       Madame Bovary 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.

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Madame Bovary: Reviews: Madame Bovary - the films: Gustave Flaubert: Other books by Gustave Flaubert under review: Books about Gustave Flaubert under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) wrote several acknowledged classics.

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