Flaubert’s Tragic Dreamer

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert’s masterpiece Madame Bovary is a tragedy, told with cynicism.  The genius of this book is not in its plot, which is quite simple, but rather through the depth of its characters.

The story begins with Charles Bovary, a mediocre man with mediocre ambitions, whose only extravagance in life is his deep love for his wife, Emma Bovary.  Emma is different from Charles in every way.  She is excessively ambitious, extraordinarily selfish and acutely emotional.  Each of these negative traits is emphasized by her union with Charles, who is in each of these ways her opposite.  The action of the story focuses around Emma’s inevitable infidelities.  Her first lover is Rodolphe, a wealthy womanizer who awakens in Emma the lust and passion she has learned to yearn after from literature.  After a period of mourning after he deserts her, Emma gravitates to Leon, a law student whose love for literature and culture appeals to her love of the same.  Her lustful affairs, however, do not satisfy her desire for a different life, and she takes out numerous loans from a predatory lender in order to finance her covetous eye.  Eventually, her affairs and financial woes triumph and she succumbs to her tragic destiny by committing a nearly botched suicide.

As Charles and Emma play out their calamitous fate, Flaubert’s greatest creation, Monsieur Homais, the town pharmacisit, prevails.  Through his deplorable ambition and contemptible pretentiousness, Homais directly portrays the pernicious effect of banality engendered during France’s July Monarchy.  The subtle suplot of Homais’s success is possibly even more tragic than the deaths of Charles and Emma and the sad fate of their orphaned daughter.  When Homais succeeds, the banal and the bombastic triumph over true emotion and honest tragedy.  This notion makes the novel a perfect reading of existentialism.

Reinforcing this point is the language Flaubert chose to use.  The introduction of the edition I read (Alfred A. Knopf’s Everyman’s Library) noted that the author allowed himself five years to complete the book.  Though Flaubert believed that this was an embarrassingly large amount of time, the painstakingly careful choice of language conveys the argument of the novel perfectly.  The cliches and chatter of the novel emphasize the argument that it is tragic that government-enforced banality should triumph over art and emotion.

Overall, I found Madame Bovary to be a great book that is deserving of its place as a fixture in the French canon of literature.


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