When I first came across this book and its history, I was expecting a scintillatingly sordid affair. However, a couple pages in, I realised that this was a book about reality. Gustave Flaubert gives us a harsh reflection of realism through the eyes of Emma in Madame Bovary.
As the story progresses from Charles Bovary’s schooldays through his entry into medicine as a mediocre doctor to his second wife Emma Rouault and finally to her arsenic-laced death, you get the sense that this might not be a story you could necessarily enjoy. The entire narrative leaves you with a bitter taste in your mouth. Emma Bovary’s character is not a likeable one – she is a covetous, despicable woman, lacking intellect beyond day to day requirements, can’t form meaningful connections with anyone around her, including her own child, and falls in to each new impulse of hers readily. Yet, stepping away from this car wreck is unthinkable.
Flaubert’s writing is on the bones. He does not waste words on unnecessary embellishments. ‘A good sentence in prose,’ says Flaubert, ‘should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable, as rhythmic and sonorous.’ His writing is always to the point, even in descriptive passages. Where Dickens would use thousands of words upon a scene, Flaubert captures the same with just a few.
One of the reasons this novel still resonates with readers of the twenty-first century is that it is a relatable and modern narrative. Flaubert does not deify Emma Bovary – she is not the epitome of womanly virtue. Instead, she is human. She has succumbed to all her flaws, and that is probably why it was such a debated book. We don’t particularly like being faced head first with our shortcomings.
Frailty, thy name is human.