Madame Bovary, Bovarysme, Heartbreak (and me)

If I could sum up my review of Madame Bovary in six words, it would read: “holy sh*it, I loved this book.” It broke my sad little heart, and for entirely the wrong reasons, I swear. I’d like to discuss this book in terms of sympathy, the character and portrayal of Emma, and the concept of “bovarysme,” a crime of which I am entirely guilty. I hope, however, not to the same extent that Emma is. Oh, Emma. You broke my heart.

Madame-Bovary-reviewEmma Rouault is a passionate girl who believes her life should resemble the plot of a romance novel. When she marries Charles Bovary, a dull doctor who takes Emma to live in rural Normandy, Emma finds herself confined by a middle-class wife’s life and grows to hate her boring husband. Bred on the high drama of the romance novel, she believes only in romantic love. When she marries Bovary, she endeavors to “find out what precisely was meant in life by the words delight, passion, and intoxication, which had seemed so beautiful to her in books.” Emma filters her experience through the novelistic tropes of stories, and when real life does not measure up, when she grows to despise her husband, she conducts love affairs with disastrous results.

First there is the grand Rodolphe Boulanger, a player if there ever was one. While he is interested only in an empty affair, Emma fancies herself in love with him and they plot to elope, even though Rodolphe has no intention of following through with the scheme. Then there is Léon, a young lawyer’s clerk helplessly besotted with her. But even this affair ends badly, as Emma becomes overbearing and controlling. Both men renounce their previous devotion to Emma. She falls deeply into debt due to her preference for luxury and finery, and ends up taking her own life by ingesting arsenic.

When reading this book, I didn’t know whether I wanted to hug Emma or throttle her, or maybe both. A country girl, Emma has been bred on dreams and the drama of the romance novel. This is the way Emma initially reminded me of Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland; both allow themselves to believe their lives resemble novels (in Catherine’s case, it’s the gothic novel) and fail to perceive reality.

Forgive this rather lengthy block quote from the last third of the novel; it so clearly explains Emma’s emotional state and her philosophy, and the prose itself is gorgeous and poetic. Really, I had the e-book version on my iPhone that was the original translation, but my physical book was the new translation by Adam Thorpe, and I do think the newer translation is much more elegant and finely worded.

She wasn’t happy, had never been so. From where did it come then–this deficiency of life, this instantaneous decay of everything she leaned upon? But, if only somewhere there were a manly and handsome being, valiant by nature, full of both high spirits and breeding, a poet’s heart in the guise of an angel, lyre strung with bronze, sounding its elegiac epithalamia to the heavens, why might she not accidentally meet him? Oh, impossible thought! Nothing, anyway, was worth the looking for; everything lied! Each smile concealed a yawn of tedium, each joy a curse, every pleasure its disgust, and the finest kisses left you nothing on the lips but the unattainable desire for a voluptuousness still more sublime. (339)

This is the emotional state that coined the term “bovarysme,” a tendency toward escapist dreaming in which one fancies herself the heroine of a novel and rejects everyday reality. The difference between Catherine and Emma lies in genre: In Northanger Abbey, a comedy, Catherine is treated with humor and light-hearted sarcasm; Emma’s story is thoroughly tragic. She believes she will only find true happiness with the next man or the next, relying on their devotion and hollow emotion to feel fulfilled. Obviously, she is constantly disappointed.

As a lover of stories and a dedicated reader of novels, I understand how it sort of becomes hardwired to perceive real-life events as simply plot points. Reading novels makes you a romantic, and it does have the tendency to separate you from reality as if by a veil. Looking for a resolution while reading a novel makes you look for that similar resolution in real life, a happily-ever-after of sorts. I’m not the only one to think like this, I’m sure, but it’s a slippery little trap. Catherine Morland escaped from this way of thinking; Emma did–and could–not.

Gustave Flaubert famously said of his main character, “Emma Bovary, c’est moi.” A man who loved romance, exotic tales, beauty, and art, Flaubert treated Emma with a deft hand of both sympathy and indictment. She’s absurd and ridiculous, incapable of true, genuine emotion, yet she is a product of her time and her environment. It’s not a crime to love art; it’s a crime to let art paint over reality. Flaubert knew this, even as he said, “Life is such a hideous business that the only way to tolerate it is to avoid it…by living in Art.” But one cannot live in art, because art is not life, and to think otherwise is to render yourself incapable of experiencing life without the obscuring veil of “art” constantly pulled over your eyes. Emma not only did not remove the veil, she never noticed it was there at all. Art and life were, for her, inseparable and indistinct.

Woven in the narrative is the concept of the ideal life, something that smacks so violently of the American dream that it left me reeling. Emma is a bourgeois wife. She aspires to the life of a lady and what she sees as the ideal mode of existence. She destroys herself and everyone else to get it. She wants the French, 19th-century equivalent of the white-picket-fence and the suburban perfection. But she can never have it–it’s always out of reach. She can never achieve the ideal. It’s chilling.

The writing itself is the reason why 19th-century literature is my favorite to read. At each finely wrought sentence and poignant turn-of-phrase I found myself mouthing “shit, shit, shit, this is gorgeous” (clearly my own thought processes are less pretty). There’s a reason why Flaubert described Madame Bovary as a poem.

The ending is ironic in the worst way. When Emma dramatically eats arsenic and dies a slow, painful death, she leaves behind four men: Rodolphe and Léon, her lovers, are indifferent; all their loving words, all their promises mean nothing anymore. Then there is her husband, Charles, who is afflicted with a grief so deep it contributes to his death. He literally wastes away, even though he discovers her infidelity. It’s ironic that Emma strove her whole life to be loved like that, to be loved by a man who could not live without her, who adored her despite her frailties and absurdities, and that this man turned out to be her husband whom she hated more than any other (except perhaps Lheureux, her debtor). Charles was Emma’s key to transporting love, social advancement, finery, and all that she desired, if only she could have been practical and level-headed enough to work within the confines of her life, instead of moving clandestinely beyond it.

Finally, there is Justin. A young assistant to the pharmacist, Justin falls desperately in love with Emma, but she never notices. One of the most heartbreaking scenes of the novel occurs after Emma’s death, when Justin lies prostrate on Emma’s grave, completely distraught over her death:

On the grave, between the pines, a child wept on his knees, and his breast, made sore with sobbing, heaved in the shadows, under the pressure of an immense regret gentler than the moon and more unfathomable than the night. (406)

Emma never notices his affection, but if she had, would never have returned it because he is not “a manly and handsome being, valiant by nature, full of both high spirits and breeding, a poet’s heart in the guise of an angel” but a low-born, rustic person. Emma’s definition of “love” proves that what she desires is not love at all, but the appearance of it. Her pursuit of love is really the pursuit of riches and a certain standard of living. Yes, she’s lonely, but she’s not self-aware enough to recognize this uncorrupted emotion. All she knows is the material, the appearance of happiness and love, not the things themselves.

The most horrible irony, the immense tragedy of the story, is that all of Emma’s lofty aspirations and her overwhelming desire to be rich and grand left her child poor and penniless, without even the possibility of the least social advancement. When Charles dies, there are “twelve francs” left to transport little Berthe to her grandmother, where she will spend her youth and probably all her life working minimum wage in a cotton mill. This is the trap of the bourgeois, of striving to be richer and more important and sacrificing your morals and those you love in order to achieve a material ideal.

Yet, it is not just Emma who acts thus. Most of the middle-class characters in this novel are just as materialistic and ambitious as Emma–but she is a woman. Many times in the novel Emma expresses the wish to be a man, to be free to move in the world as she wishes, to travel and to love like a man (read: have sex like a man). It was qualities like these that made me ache for Emma, even as I wished to slap her across the face. She’s a victim; not just a victim, but a victim nonetheless. She’s the victim and the villain, and ultimately tragic.


Flaubert, G. and Adam Thorpe (translator). (2011) Madame Bovary. New York, NY: Random House.

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  • mushypeasonearth

    I listened to an audiobook of Madame Bovary when I was a teenager and loved it, think I will revisit it and read as an adult. Thanks for the reminder, good review.

  • It’s one of those books that I keep meaning to read.. but never get to it.. So many distractions!

    I will put it on my New Year’s resolutions!! 😀

  • “Emma’s definition of “love” proves that what she desires is not love at all, but the appearance of it.” My favorite line from this review, and so well put. This is why classic (“old”) literature is still relevant today. Now I just need to actually read the book…

  • This is one of my favorites, too. The author did a fabulous job layering symbolism with the themes you mentioned. Thanks for this post. 🙂

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