“Madame Bovary” remains as important today as it was in 1856. We are still grappling with the themes Flaubert wrote about: religion, class, love and feminism. Emma Bovary, who just “wished to live in Paris”, and experience an exciting life outside of rural France ended up committing suicide which demonstrated that her immoral, largely atheist lifestyle (with its multiple extra-marital affairs and mountainous accumulations of debt) could not be tolerated in a French society which was just beginning to be liberated by the Enlightenment. Her journey embodied France’s transition to a secular one. At the beginning of the novel, “Bovary preferred to sit in her room reading” and was rather virtuous and Catholic. By the end, having read Voltaire and other Enlightenment thinkers, she was a completely different person, one more in tune with a non-religious life. Most importantly, Madame Bovary was the extraordinary tale of the attempt at female emancipation in mid-nineteenth-century France.
Misogyny was so intricately woven into the tapestry of French society that Flaubert commented flippantly that “men always do better”. “If he asks for her I’ll give her to him” remarked Emma’s father, Monsieur Rouault, concerning Charles’ marriage proposal to Emma who was an object, a mere vessel in this society, something to be given away. It was this callous disregard for her as an individual that resulted in her rebelling and having an affair, representing the female struggle for equal rights. Contrast her with Rodolphe, with whom she had an affair, who was able to have multiple affairs without society thinking any the worse of him. Women were not afforded that privilege.
Most revealing in “Madame Bovary” was how utterly commonplace the effects of the patriarchy were. Seemingly throwaway remarks like “the men, who were in the majority sat at the first table” typified how deep-seated this attitude was. Flaubert’s burgeoning realist style captured it perfectly. “A woman is always hampered” mused Emma as she pontificated about whether or not she should have a baby with Charles, in a further examination of Rouault’s perception of women as objects: Madame Bovary was viewed as a receptacle for bringing people into the world. The feelings, the emotions of women did not enter the equation. Emma reassured herself that she was “without remorse, without anxiety, without regret” when she looked back on her extramarital affair. On one level, this was an understandable human emotion, as anyone in a relationship should regret cheating on their partner – yet in Emma’s case, the line was even more revealing. Her affair with Rodolphe, who had multiple lovers, was instructive that a promiscuous man could function perfectly well and be thought respectable in society, while Emma had to poison herself with the shame of her infidelity and immorality. Despite her frequent attempts to gain her independence, she was still ostracised by society. “You are all evil” Emma said to Leon of men, going on to reveal of the horrible, lecherous Guillaumin that “this man oppressed her horribly”, objectifying Emma with an attempt to get her to have sex with him in return for eradicating her financial debt.
The wretched episode with Guillaumin revealed the extent to which class played a role in Yonville. Emma, disillusioned with life as a woman, took to buying expensive goods on credit to make herself feel better, remarking that her “immense land of joys and passions” left her “confused in her desire for the sensuality of luxury and the desires of the heart”. Flaubert, through Emma, predated the materialism that was to become so rampant many years later. Gender seemed more significant than class in “Madame Bovary”, in so far as it was Emma’s role as a woman in society that drove her to the immorality of buying expensive goods on credit and not paying for them. This did not justify such actions (we all need to live within our means), yet it seemed important to connect her lavish spending habits to her profound unhappiness. Emma and Charles were wealthy, with a life of material comfort and servants, yet Emma destroyed their standing in society and Charles became totally destitute after her death, desperately afraid to sell any item belonging to her. Madame Bovary senior even tried in vain to get Charles to relinquish some of Emma’s clothing after her death, only for him to refuse. Emma told her servant to “do as she pleases” towards the end of the story in an exchange designed to highlight how Emma had begun to free herself from her social structure and was consequently able to see how unfair it was to even have servants. Moreover, the interplaying roles of class and gender reinforced how Emma could not fully escape her role as a woman, although she could change her class. This dynamic is still relevant today: in a global society, people can shed their social class, whereas biology is inescapable.
Madame Bovary is at its heart a love story. Reading it for the second time, Charles’s story is almost as tragic as Emma’s. He was devoted to Emma and died of a broken heart upon learning of her infidelity. I read this as the Catholic society’s coercion of them to stay together resulting in both of their untimely deaths. The public shame was too much for both of them to bear. Whilst Emma took her own life, Charles’ fate was certainly no less tragic. “Good heavens, why did I marry?” Emma mused to herself. “The more Emma recognised her [extramarital] love, the more she crushed it down.” The weight of moral expectation in society forced Emma’s hand and ensured her conformity. Despite this, “ennui, the silent spider, was weaving its web in darkness in every corner in her heart”, imploring her to break free. She did, but still suffered the consequences in an unfree society. Flaubert articulated the whole matter wonderfully: “love, she thought, must come suddenly with great outbursts and lightning in a hurricane of the skies which falls upon life, revolutionises it, roots up the will like a leaf, and seeps up the whole heart like an abyss”.
Flaubert is reputed to have agonised over every sentence he wrote, crafting, honing and perfecting them. “Lace trimmings, diamond broaches, medallion bracelets trembled on bodices gleaned on breasts” he wrote, in an attempt to portray life in France as he saw it. In some regards, Flaubert was the first realist and a line can be drawn from his work, through Hemingway’s, to that of John Fante. Unlike, say, Bukowski, Flaubert wrote with a genuine profundity of observation and not just for the sake of it. Take his casual observation of how we communicate as a species: “human speech is like a cracked tin kettle on which we hammer out tunes to make beats dance when we long to move the stars”. The description is beautiful but the ideas expressed are equally thought-provoking. “Speech is a rolling mill that thins out the sentiment” is also a most wonderful expression. I am currently reading Steven Pinker’s “The Language Instinct” and this expression keeps rattling around whilst I do. Flaubert is not just grittily describing life: his ideas set “Madame Bovary” apart and propelled it into the canon. He was a good thinker as well as a brilliant writer. Emma described how the opera singer that she witnessed “had outbursts of rage and elegiac gurglings of infinite sweetness and the notes escaped from his bare neck full of sobs and kisses”. Again, the language on display is simply stunning but it is also important thematically, as Emma’s discovery of art reinvigorated her, keeping her alive to a degree, and she went on to bond with Leon over their shared appreciation of art and literature.
Charles did not understand this sensuous, creative side to Emma and it was instructive that he diagnosed her as having a physical illness when she was emotionally unwell. With mental health not even a consideration in society at the time, the only solutions that were proposed to make her feel better were medicinal and religious ones. The priest told her to read some Catholic tracts which Emma briefly took solace in. However, critically, bare faith was not enough for Emma. She needed more. “My God is of Socrates…of Voltaire” said the chemist, proposing a radically different reading list. There were a minority of people who represented the emergence of the Enlightenment in rural French life when we learn that religion was, for some, “absurd (and) completely opposed to all physical laws”. Madame Bovary senior, representative of the older generation who disliked this new-fangled secularity, excoriated her son Charles for letting Emma laze around idly, reading what she described as “bad books against religion”. Binet also got in on the act, advising her that her “immodest thoughts and impure temptations” may have come from the “mental libertinage” that she read about. There was a wonderful piece of symbolism when Leon met Emma in a church, where he pictured her looking “like an angel” whereas the priest “petrified” her. Try as they might, they could not escape the clutches of the church.
Flaubert enunciated how doctors in society were constantly learning new facts and disciplines that were improving the lives of people. When Hippolytes’s leg became infected with gangrene, the doctors worked hard to find a solution, in contrast to the priest’s advice to him to simply pray! The ludicrousness of using faith to heal people, as was the custom, was laid bare. Yet, in some ways, Flaubert critiqued this new reliance on the science. Think of Charles, a purveyor of the new belief system: he was unable to think outside of it and consequently failed to empathise with Emma’s emotional side, which was to have tragic results.
The debate continues to rage about religion and we now have new atheism replacing the original Enlightenment strain. Now that Europe has largely liberalised and become secular, Western atheists have turned their attention to the role of Islam in the Middle East. Indeed, Islam now appears to be a larger threat than Christianity to the secularism in modern French society so, to some degree, this is inevitable. Yet it feels somewhat counterintuitive. Give me Flaubert and the original spirit of atheism every day of the week. This vision of empowered women living in a free, secular society means that “Madame Bovary” remains a perfectly written masterpiece one hundred and sixty-one years later.