Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Part 1)

“Before marriage she thought herself in love; but the happiness that should have followed this love not having come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words felicity, passion, rapture, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.” (end of Chapter 5)

It’s a terrible thing when one’s expectations are so high they cannot possibly be met. Most certainly, if a woman is discontent with her life, a man will not be able to rescue her from it. Especially if he is a man who is kind, gentle, and unambitious. A man who is complacent at best, mundane at worst. A man such as Charles Bovary.

“A man, on the contrary, should he not know everything, excel in manifold activities, initiate you into the energies of passion, the refinements of life, all mysteries? But this one taught nothing, knew nothing, wished nothing.”

Practically pulled through medical school by his mother’s good intentions, and rescued from a miserable marriage when his first wife died, Charles Bovary is becoming a doctor of some renown in the small town of Tostes. But, this is not enough for Emma who hopes for so much more.

The ball to which they were invited was the icing on the cake. After their return, Emma mopes about the cottage; the gray wool socks she wears seem to match the gray and rainy skies both outside her window and within her soul. It is a depression born of selfishness, and it can only bring woe.

“But she-her life was cold as a garret whose dormer window looks on the north, and ennui, the silent spider was weaving its web in the darkness in every corner of her heart.”

All quotes are from the Barnes and Noble classic fiction edition which I have downloaded on my Nook. Thanks to Frances, of Nonsuch Book, for hosting our read-along of Madame Bovary.

20 thoughts on “Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Part 1)”

  1. Between the romance novels and the ball, Emma has a very skewed view of life. Interesting that she was primarily raised by her father–would her mother have helped Emma's life view be a bit more realistic?


  2. You are what you read and I think that Emma has ingested a few too many romance novels. Her expectations are skewed but her reactions will prove extreme. "It is a depression born of selfishness, and it can only bring woe." Here, here.


  3. You've chosen some perfect passages here that really illustrate the conflict at the heart of this novel.I've so enjoyed reading everyone's posts today about Madame Bovary, that I just ordered this edition for my Sony reader. I'll be playing catch up, but I'll try to read along, especially when I'm in Paris in two weeks! Planning a side trip to Rouen, where I believe Flaubert was born.


  4. Hi Belleza,So what I mean by "Madame Bovary is a position, not a person" is NOT that all housewives must be miserable – certainly not!, but that 19th century provincial French society expected wives to fill very particular social positions, act in very particular ways. When she marries Charles, Emma inherits the set of behaviors that go with the "Madame Bovary" position, and is expected by everyone involved to adopt them and be happy about it, regardless of her actual desires. For a young woman who craves glamor and adventure, to live in a world where the neighbors gossip about you if you take a walk with a man who's not your husband is pretty harsh. For a lot of men and women, though, it was a model that worked well; but trying to mash everyone into the same mold is always going to be tragic for somebody.


  5. Emily, I see the role you mean. At first, I thought you meant that Emma was not a specific person, that her role was a prototype for discontent wives…but I take Emma herself very seriously. I find her a tragic, and hopefully rather singular, woman who was a victim of societal pressure as well as her own misguided choices.Expectations, in any form, are hard to live up to. Whether they are put on us by society, or self-inflicted, one wonders how they can ever be fulfilled. Emma can't seem to find the "love", although I think passion is a better word here, that she so desparately craves; nothing can give her the excitement that she felt she had with Rodolphe. I wonder if anyone could meet all of her needs, least of all herself.


  6. p.s. Sometime I would like those of us who have read Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and The Awakening to draw connections between the three women. I find them so terribly similar, and I'd love to discuss that.


  7. Yes, I think her tragedy is that she was never trained to be self-sufficient, or to think critically – so she never questions all the romanticism she imbibes, or hears the message that she is the one ultimately responsible for making her own happiness. I don't think she's a prototype, but nor do I think she's an isolated case – I think Flaubert is, at least in part, making a point about bourgeois socialization and how we're setting ourselves up (particularly women) for disappointment by teaching them to expect a stereotypical Prince Charming to solve all their problems instead of learning to think critically about what they actually want.


  8. When you mention Prince Charming, it makes me smile. I very strongly feel the Disney effect here, which I left on someone else's blog review (I can't remember whose!). The Disney effect I'm referring to is the whole idea that "someday my prince will come"…the idea that if girls are just patient enough, or beautiful enough, they will be rescued. Flaubert seems to imply that Emma has succumbed to too many romance novels; I suggest that in America today it's too much Disney-type mentality. No one can rescue us from our disappointments but ourselves.It doesn't seem to me that Emma ever wants to even try, but more on that as everyone finishes the book.


  9. Right, she doesn't want to try, but that could be largely because she's never socialized to the idea that she needs to, that relationships are hard work and happiness doesn't just fall out of the sky, that "romance" isn't a one-size-fits-all proposition. Sadly, a socialization mistake I think is alive and kicking in modern-day America.


  10. The ennui/spider web line was one I really loved, Bellezza, so I'm glad to see it here again in your post (it was one of two things I wanted to mention and then sadly forgot). Also interested in seeing how Flaubert resolves the big problem you touch on: the gap between expectations and reality for Emma (and the ramifications for all the other characters). I know in general what's up ahead, but I'm looking forward to the rest of the details. Cheers!


  11. Those are such wonderful quotes. One of the things I'm enjoying is the contrast between the lengthy detailed sections and the profound psychological observations. They really set each other off.I felt like she did try at the very beginning, but then gave up fairly quickly, especially after her introduction to luxury. I am ready to see the nose-dive continue!


  12. Hmmn, I think my comment disappeared.Yours is the first post I've read on MB that mentioned the ball, yet its importance to young Emma is immense. The novel pivots on the ball.I worry a little, in status conscious France, about how easy it appears for Emma to have made the transition from humble farmer's daughter to being perceived as a lady.


  13. Oooo, I'm intrigued that your translation shows 'felicity', 'passion', and 'rapture' for Emma's three disappointments; the version I am reading (translated by Alan Russell) uses 'bliss', 'passion', and 'ecstasy'. I wonder, if we compiled all the translations, just how many words were confusing for Emma Bovary!


  14. Davis has "bliss," "passion," and "intoxication."Certainly Emma's read too many romance novels, but she reached for them in the first place because they were forbidden, and looking to stir something up within herself.


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