Saturday, October 23, 2010

Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert – possible spoilers

Madame Bovary was book one on my #diversityclassics reading list that I started last month. I was slightly intimidated, never having read Flaubert, but spending a few weekends at my mother's while she recovered from heart surgery, and not having access to the internet while I was there, was very conducive to reading.

I had very few distractions (apart from my mother of course) and finished the book over the course of two weekends.

Just sitting down and reading for several hours is, of course, a bit foreign to me now, so I savoured the experience, along with the book.

Madame Bovary is about the life of Emma Bovary in 19th century rural France.

Emma is a dreamer and a romantic, finding that real life is a harsh place to be, so she hides, in her affairs and her dreams and her shopping.

All of these things, ultimately, lead to Emma's downfall.

As does, it has to be said, being a young woman in rural 19th century France. Emma is passed with hardly a thought from her father to her husband, and instantly regrets her marriage.

She's an incurable romantic and seeks out affairs and material trappings to try and make her life seem a little less bleak.

For me, the overall tone of Madame Bovary is suffocating. Emma's life gets smaller, and smaller until the very end when she can't bear it any more, and I had to keep stopping to take little breaths as Flaubert wove a claustrophobic world around his central character.

I loved Madame Bovary, although the translation I have – by Geoffrey Wall for Penguin Classics – is a little bit choppy which could pull me out of the story a little but. But Emma as a character – as sad and doomed as she was – and the story itself are so strong that it wasn't long before I was drawn back in to Emma's tragic, suffocated life.

I think the biggest tragedy, for me, is that there really isn't another life for Emma. I kept trying to think – in my 21st century girl kind of way – that she had options, that she could have ... and that was always as far as I got.

Emma's options were truly limited. And yes, ultimately she was a victim of her own somewhat overwrought imagination, but even so it's hard not to feel sorry for her as she tries to fill her empty spaces with ridiculous affairs and purchase after purchase.

I found her husband and her lovers to be a little bit ... blurry? I couldn't quite get hold of them all that well as characters, which – if it was intentional – was very clever on Flaubert's part. It makes Emma's story and her struggles that much more painful to read, because she was so very front and centre.

The other character that did stand out was the chemist, with his strange ideas and his platitudes. He's unlikable, but certainly memorable, with his picky, pettifogging ways.

I'm not sure if I would ever re-read Madame Bovary – it's fairly draining, but I'm glad that I have read it now ... if that even makes sense.

Book two of the #diversityclassics challenge for October was supposed to be The Matriarch by Witi Ihimaera. But somehow I've let most of October slide without picking it up, so I'm moving straight on to November's book – In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

8/10 That movie that you've watched 100 times and you never get tired of


JoAnn said...

I'm reading Madame Bovary now - about halfway through the new translation. First read it in college and was very neutral, but really enjoying it now. Not sure if it's the translation or just a little more 'life experience'.

Maree said...

I'm kind of glad, I think, that I didn't read it when I was younger. The perspective of years definitely makes a difference

Jodie said...

Suffocating is a great description of the book. The coffin scene where her husband 'well meaningly' encloses her dead body in many layers and puts thick cloth on it was horrifying I thought, because it shows how little he understood her need for freedom.