‘It would be impossible now for any of us to remember a thing about him. He was a boy of sober temperament, who played at play-time, worked in school hours, listened in class, slept well in the dormitory, ate well in the refectory’.
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, Pg.8-9
Gustave Flaubert’s debut novel, Madame Bovary, was published in 1856-7 and opens up to a realistic portrayal of the provincial lives of Charles Bovary and his soon-to-be wife, Emma Rouault – the infamous Madame Bovary. Although the novel is principally named after Emma, Flaubert is cautious not to give away everything at first. We begin with a short history of Charles Bovary’s life, told from the first person plural ‘we’ – from the humiliation he suffered in his school days, to his unremarkable career as a medical health officer. There is only one brief moment where Charles strays from the path his mother – the first Madame Bovary – has forcibly placed him on: ‘He became a tavern-goer, a great domino-player. To closet himself every evening in some scruffy public-room, so as to tap on a marble table his little bits of sheep-bone marked with black spots, this seemed to him a precious act of liberty’ (pg.10).
Teasing us further, Flaubert then introduces another Madame Bovary to the story – Charles’ first wife, the ‘splendidly be-pimpled, Madame Dubuc’, a widow with a large sum of money to her name. This marriage, like everything else in Charles’ life is engineered by his domineering and interfering mother and the new Madame Bovary – Heloise – seems only to replace this figure:
‘Charles had pictured marriage as the advent of a better life, thinking he would be more free, and able to dispose of his own person and his own money. But his wife was master; in company he had to say this, not say that, eat fish every Friday, wear what she wanted him to, harass at her instigation the patients who didn’t pay up. She opened his letters, watched over his comings and goings, and listened, through the partition wall, to his consultations, when there were women in his surgery’.
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, Pg.11
Luckily, for Charles, Heloise Bovary doesn’t last long and dies suddenly, leaving him free to pursue the young Emma Rouault, the daughter of a former patient of his, whose leg he treated for a fracture whilst Heloise was still alive. Flaubert allows us glimpses of this young woman from as early as Chapter Two: ‘Charles was surprised at the whiteness of her nails. They were lustrous, tapering, more highly polished than Dieppe ivories, and cut into an almond shape’ (pg.15). But we are only allowed snatches of her appearance, descriptions of her hands, her eyes, the ‘fulness of her lips’, her ‘black hair’. It is the work of the reader to piece these images together to try and create a whole (if at all possible).
We then witness the swift marriage between these two characters and the subsequent transformation of Mademoiselle Emma Rouault into the third, and final, Madame Bovary. As a young woman who has been brought up on an unhealthy diet of sentimental romances, she views Charles’ proposal as a way out of her dull, provincial life. Yet she quickly realises her disillusionment with the kind of love she reads in romantic novels to the reality of married life:
‘Next morning, however, he seemed a different man. He was the one you would think had just lost his virginity, whereas the bride gave not the slightest sign of anything to anybody’.
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, Pg.28
Perhaps the wedding night was not at all like Emma had read it to be in her novels. Perhaps she is already starting to feel the seeds of dissatisfaction that has plagued her life and will continue to do so. Either way, it is clear that she has remained unchanged by the marriage and Charles is oblivious to this. The subsequent chapters follow their early years in Tostes where Emma attempts to step into the role of Madame Bovary. She becomes the dutiful wife, acquires the most fashionable household items, trains her help up to be ladies maids’. This all pays off when Charles and herself are invited to a prestigious party at La Vaubyessard, home of the Marquis d’Andervilles. Yet this pivotal moment in Part One only serves to bring Emma’s disappointment with her own life into sharp relief. By the end of Part One it appears as if Emma is on the brink of desperation. She can no longer go on living the boring life of Madame Bovary, symbolised in the burning wedding bouquet – an object that once held all the promises of married life.
Reading this a second time, I am again struck by how easily accessible I find Flaubert’s style of writing – although I do recognise the limitations of a translation and how it will never live up to the original French. I love the unsettling effect of the shifting narrative perspectives; how Flaubert refuses to give up his heroine to the reader straight away but leaves us in suspense, wanting to know more; and, how we are only given subtle descriptions of what our characters see through their own viewpoint. I look forward to reading on and rediscovering Flaubert’s masterpiece of French literature.