I just read Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert. I have two ongoing goals. One is to read all of the Great Books. I know all of the complaints about the Western Cannon, and I’m not following the Western Cannon exactly. I’ve read plenty of non-Western Great Books. But, I do tend to think that the books that have made the list are generally worth reading. They made it for a reason. My other goal is to read all of the books that I was assigned as a student, but never read. Madame Bovary checks both boxes. I know it was assigned my senior year of high school, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t read a page of it at the time. It’s still an open question how I passed any of my classes in high school, but at least I’m doing the work, even if it is twenty-five (or more) years late.
I don’t know what to think about Madame Bovary. I didn’t exactly hate it. It’s better than Moby Dick or Ulysses. But I can’t honestly say I liked it much at all. I can’t help but wonder what the point of it was. According to the introduction, Flaubert was going for realism, and it was groundbreaking to do so at the time. But, for Flaubert, realism seems to be a bunch of awful people getting way too caught up in pointless nonsense from their day to day lives. It’s almost like a satire of the French common folk from the mid-nineteenth century. But satire doesn’t work when it’s punching down, and Flaubert spent the entirety of the book punching down.
In the last paragraph I mentioned the awful people. That was probably the strangest thing about the book. I’ve never read a book before where the author so clearly finds all of his characters to be completely contemptible. They didn’t generate any sympathy at all. There were only two things in the book that elicited any kind of feeling. One was when Hippolyte was the victim of a botched surgery, and the other was when Berthe was orphaned. But Hippolyte and Berthe weren’t even close to fleshed out characters. Any feeling associated with them just came from the fact that in theory it’s bad to lose a leg or to become orphaned. I just didn’t know enough about either character to feel anything specific. They were more like plot devices to show how bad Charles and Emma Bovary were.
If Madame Bovary weren’t one of the world’s Great Books, I’d describe it as sloppily written. But, I don’t read a word of French, so I can’t really comment on the style. Perhaps, in French, it’s beautiful, even though it didn’t translate as beautiful. But narratively, it is sloppy. The narrative voice is wildly inconsistent. The point of view changes frequently. It goes on lengthy tangents. And there are long periods where it is unclear whose story it is. The most egregious was during Emma Bovary’s death scene. It’s a very long and drawn out death. Personally, I think Flaubert really relished torturing his titular character. But right in the middle of her long, drawn out death scene, Flaubert takes a break and goes over to the neighbor’s house to have Homais, the pharmacist, act like an idiot for a few pages before going back to Emma dying. It didn’t advance the plot. It didn’t deepen our understanding of a character. It didn’t seem to have any reason for being in the book, but there it was.
It doesn’t do Madame Bovary any favors that the most obvious book to compare it to is Anna Karenina. They both follow women in unsatisfying relationships who have extramarital affairs and die. But Tolstoy’s characters feel real while Flaubert’s feel like caricatures. There is a depth of feeling in Tolstoy that Flaubert never approaches. The only point of comparison that Flaubert wins is that his book came out first.
Overall, Madame Bovary was just about the strangest book I’ve ever read. Strange is fine if that’s what the author is going for, but in this case, it clearly isn’t. I don’t think I’m sorry I read it. At least I have an opinion about one of the world’s Great Books. But I can’t recommend it.