Review of Madam Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
By PAUL D. MILLER
[Spoilers] Emma Bovary is an idiotic, listless romantic who pines for love and meaning. She tries to find it in novels, marriage, motherhood, two adulterous affairs, Catholic religion, and opulent living. Crushed by debt, she commits suicide. The end.
Despite its perfunctory plot, Madame Bovary is nonetheless engaging and Flaubert has some wonderfully descriptive prose. The characters have depth and the book kept my attention. The problem is that I simply hated Emma from page 1. I hated her ennui, her vague and directionless longing, her solipsism, her selfish willingness to put her own quest for meaning above the needs of her husband and daughter.
This led to a problem for my ability to appreciate the book. I think Flaubert thought he was writing a tragedy. We’re supposed to feel empathy for Emma and thus to feel pity for her horrible end. However, a tragedy, in Aristotle’s definition, is the tale of a noble hero’s downfall as he attempts to reconcile opposing moral imperatives, or because he suffers from a tragic flaw. Madame Bovary is only tragic if you believe in the moral imperative of romanticism. I don’t. Emma is not noble in any sense of the word. She believes in an abhorrent worldview, makes foolish and wicked decisions, and suffers predictable consequences. Her story isn’t a tragedy; it is a morality play in which the sinner gets what’s coming to them. I felt no pity for Emma Bovary.
If the novel has merit, it is because Flaubert at times seems to detach himself as narrator from Emma’s romanticism, to show it for the foolish and destructive thing it is. For example, Emma’s first lover, Rudolph, is a cynical pick-up-artist. In an early scene we hear his inner monologue as he contemplates Emma like a project for his lust. He decides to seduce her. Then we see the seduction scene, in which he is the most meticulously-drawn romantic hero, uttering all the phrases and going through all the motions that Emerson or Thoreau or Coleridge or Byron might want from all men. He is passionate, articulate, longing, poetic, led by instinct, worshipful of her beauty. But the reader knows it is all an act. I actually loved this scene because Flaubert seems to be mocking the idea of romanticism, drawing a parody of it, showing how it can be a tool for cynical manipulation.
But having done that, Flaubert deprives Emma in the eyes of the reader of any nobility she might have had in her quest for love. Instead of being a noble heroine on a quest, she deteriorates into an easily-deceived fool led by a lie and exploited by other, stronger, more intelligent people around her. Nor can I feel pity for her as a victim, because she clearly has agency and wills herself to believe in the lie and perpetuate it through her own bad decisions.
So I appreciated the book–as a morality play, not a tragedy. It is edifying to read how the wicked are punished, I suppose (except Rudolph gets no punishment in the book). Flaubert has drawn an accurate and instructive portrait of how romanticism is destructive, manipulative, deceitful, foolish, and wrong. His book would have been interesting if at least one of the characters had something redeeming about them, or if Emma had encountered and had to respond to Protestant religion and its promise of grace, instead of Catholic religion and its burden of works. Alas, the book is set in France.