Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary

★★★★

“Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” 

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Title: Madame Bovary
Author: Gustave Flaubert
Language: English (Originally French)
Publication details: UK: Transatlantic Press, 2012. (First published 1856)
Pages: 388

The gist of it:

  • Madame Bovary: resident drama queen and hopeless romantic.
  • Tires of husband, commences passionate love affairs.
  • Bemoans husband. Neglects daughter. Continues with the hanky-panky.
  • Accumulates debt. Crippling amounts of it.
  • This cannot end well.

My ponderings:

Madame Bovary was such a delightful read! Well, it isn’t exactly the happiest of stories (read: the ending was utterly depressing), but it was the only ending that seemed suitable given the attitude of the titular protagonist. I’d like to call her a heroine but…no.

Madame Bovary has her head filled with romantic fantasies. Just like how girls of today go all starry-eyed for their charming, attractive, bright-eyed, adorkable celebrity crushes, Madame Bovary longs for a passionate man to sweep her off her feet with a love affair of excitement and intrigue.

“She wanted to get some personal profit out of things, and she rejected as useless all that did not contribute to the immediate desires of her heart, being of a temperament more sentimental than artistic, looking for emotions, not landscapes.”

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Madame Bovary, 19th century tumblr girl.
Alas, she winds up marrying a doctor, Mr. Charles Bovary. Mr. Bovary is entirely besotted and devoted to his wife, but annoys her with his faithful love, his ordinary routine, his dullness.

 

“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 of every corner of her heart.”

Madame Bovary proceeds to conduct two affairs – one with Rodolphe, whose intentions were dubious from the start; and one with dear, sweet Leon, who ultimately backs a hasty retreat down from the pedestal she placed him upon. Actually, she did that to Rodolphe as well.Safe to say, Madame Bovary has put her entire idea of romance, love and passion on a pedestal of impossible heights. She expects complete and utter devotion from her lovers, for them to be thinking of her at each and every waking moment, to write her poems and propose elopement. Ironically, her husband does show signs of such devotion to her, practically lavishing her to the point where she wants for nothing and willing to uproot his familial ties and business to suit her desired location and lifestyle. Though of course Madame Bovary doesn’t appreciate his efforts because she finds him ‘dull’. What a world.

Madame Bovary was not written to be a likable character, I should think, in fact she is so unlikable that one can’t help but read more on what petty complaint she will come up with next. Madame is the epitome of a hopeless romantic, except replace the bubbliness with bitterness. Sometimes I pity her, feel glad that I do not think like her, and eagerly await reading about what foolish mistake she shall make next.

On the other hand, as much as I do not condone her naively perfect fantasies, I can’t help but relate to her desire for romance and intrigue in her life. I’m a teenage girl, I’ll admit I’ve dreamed of that perfect rom-com male lead, who’s both charming yet shy, to make an entrance into my life. Madame Bovary wants a man to charm the pants off of her, and what girl hasn’t longed for something similar from time to time?

“Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon.”

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Rapunzel will do fine, it’s me who has to worry about romantic prospects! Me!

Madame Bovary is, however, a totally selfish bitch. Pardon my French.

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Dear god, get over yourself!

She doesn’t give two hoots about her husband who is not only totally devoted to her, but also works his ass of as a doctor in order to provide for her! Well, he’s definitely overly-obsessed with her, but hey at least he has good intentions.

I’ll admit, I thought her romance with Leon was just so dreamy. I definitely saw the appeal in him, his shyness and his innocence. In the end, Madame Bovary proved too much of a head-case for him to handle, but they had some sweet and intimate moments.

Leon crushing from afar:

“…Leon did not know what to do between his fear of being indiscreet and the desire for an intimacy that seemed almost impossible.”

Reading a book to her:

“Leon stopped, pointing with a gesture to his sleeping audience; then they talked in low tones, and their conversation seemed the more sweet to them because it was unheard.”

Exchanging glances over plant-watering:

“She had a board with a balustrade fixed against her window to hold the pots. The clerk, too, had his small hanging garden; they saw each other tending their flowers at their windows.

 

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Swooning intensifies.
It wasn’t always smiles and roses though…

“Love, little by little, was quelled by absence; regret stifled beneath habit; and this incendiary light that had empurpled her pale sky was overspread and faded by degrees. In the supineness of her conscience she even took her repugnance towards her husband for aspirations towards her lover, the burning of hate for the warmth of tenderness; but as the tempest still raged, and as passion burnt itself down to the very cinders, and no help came, no sun rose, there was night on all sides, and she was lost in the terrible cold that pierced her.”

Rodolphe knew how to turn on the charm as well, though one must take into account his general seediness. Here’s how he describes his attraction to Madame Bovary:

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 “For one does not struggle against Heaven; one cannot resist the smile of angels; one is carried away by that which is beautiful, charming, adorable.”

No wonder Madame Bovary fell head over dainty heels for him:

“Hers was an idiotic sort of attachment, full of admiration for him, of voluptuousness for her, a beatitude that benumbed her; her soul sank into this drunkenness, shriveled up, drowned in it, like Clarence in his butt of Malmsey.”

Having mentioned how romantic her two lovers were, one thing I really enjoyed in this book was how her lovers actually abandoned her in the end. It didn’t follow the cliché ‘love each other to eternity and beyond’ trope. Instead her lovers realized the high-maintenance, crazy that she was and backed out of the deal. I like that. I’m cynical, so I prefer nitty-gritty, realistic outcomes as compared to happily-ever-afters. Well, I guess especially more so in this case seeing as Madame Bovary certainly got what was coming to her. I do wish for happy endings when I start to grow fond for the character.The ending was a downer, but really what could one expect with the downward spiral Madame was headed in? I do feel bad for her daughter though; that little girl is the one who ended up bearing the brunt of her mom’s reckless behaviour.

Spoiler alert: she ended up being sent to work in a cotton mill. It was the 1800s, she was an orphan, and she was working in a cotton mill. Her prospects don’t look good.

As one may tell from the many quotes I’ve cited, the prose in Madame Bovary is absolutely beautiful! It’s some of the most mellifluous, romantic, whimsical writing I’ve ever read. The prose is love.

Recommends it to: anyone looking to read about the life of an unsatisfied 19th century woman getting dumped by her lovers. I know this book is supposed to be a social commentary, but I actually enjoyed it just as a tragic story of a woman with her head in the clouds.

 

Quotes:

“…accompanied by little quiverings of the lips, each one uttering gentle word in a voice trembling with anger.”

“She wanted to die, but she also wanted to live in Paris.”

“…laziness most suave.”

“Those who were beginning to grow old has an air of youth, while there was something mature in the faces of the young.”

“An infinity of passion can be contained in one minute, like a crowd in a small space.”

“Motionless we traverse countries we fancy we see, and your thought, blending with the fiction, playing with the details, follows the outline of the adventures. It mingles with the characters, and it seems as if it were yourself palpitating beneath their costumes.”

“‘Duty, duty!’ Ah! By Jove! One’s duty is to feel what is great, cherish the beautiful, and not accept all the conventions of society with the ignominy that it imposes upon us.”

“Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a curse, all pleasure satiety, and the sweetest kisses left upon your lips only the unattainable desire for a greater delight.”

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