Thoughts About 2014’s First Book – Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”

The village of Ry in 2006 had approximately 700 inhabitants, not too many more, one would assume, from the number of people who lived there 150 years earlier.  Situated only about 15 miles from Rouen, the regional capital of the Upper Normandy region of France, Ry is an old, somewhat sleepy, one-street town.  Historically, nothing much has happened there.

But one thing apparently did.  In 1848, Delphine Delamare, age 27, committed suicide.  She was an apparently unhappy young woman, married to the village doctor at Ry.  Her husband seemed to love her, but she was unsatisfied, had a number of adulterous relationships, ran up high debts, and could take it no longer.

Gustave Flaubert was not from Ry.  But he was from Rouen, and he lived there virtually his entire life.  Flaubert was born in 1821 and died in 1880.  Flaubert’s father was also a physician.  Flaubert never married – at times, it seemed he was married to his mother.  At least he lived with her until she died in 1872.  But he did have a number of sexual partners – some married, some in the sex trade.  And he traveled extensively.

Flaubert was, in effect, born a writer.  He wrote his entire life – but slowly, methodically.  He wrote few novels, “Madame Bovary” being the second. It was published in serial form in 1856 in the Revue de Paris, and in 1857 in book form.  He started working on it in 1850, two years after the unfortunate death of Mm. Delamare.

Flaubert’s first novel was entitled “The Temptation of St. Anthony”.  When he finished his first draft in 1849, it is said he read it to two friends who suggested that he destroy the manuscript and concentrate not on a remote historical subject, but on something contemporary, something mirroring every day life. Shortly after this disheartening evening, he got the idea for “Madame Bovary”.

Now Flaubert always said that none of the characters in “Madame Bovary” were modeled on real people.  But I am not sure anyone believes that.  Certainly not the people of Ry, who pooled their resources in the early 1990s, to put up a new tombstone for Delphine Delamare.  Under her name and dates, tourists find the following etched into the stone:  “Madame Bovary”.

Now, to be sure, others have suggested different, or additional models, for the titled lead actor in the book.  Some suggest a woman of Flaubert’s acquaintance named Louise Pradier, also someone who went through life greatly unhappy apparently, running up huge debts, although her background was quite  moneyed, and rather than being long adored by her husband, she was abandoned by him.  And some have suggested that, despite the gender difference, Flaubert used himself as a model for Emma Bovary.  After all, he was stuck in a provincial town that he did not appear to know how to escape, he dreamed of (and sometimes traveled to) far away places, he was often depressed, and he had many liaisons, most, or all, of which turned out badly for him.

Whatever the basis (or bases) for “Madame Bovary”, the book certainly stands on its own two feet.  But now, a brief aside.  Flaubert obviously wrote the book en francais. And I read it in English.  And so much depends on the translation.  The translation I read is by J. Lewis May.  He translated “Madame Bovary” in the 1920s for The Bodley Head in London; I read the Nonesuch Press edition, published in 1950.  The most recent translation is by Lydia Davis.  One of the earlier translations is, believe it or not, by Karl Marx’ daughter, Eleanor Marx Aveling.  The absolute earliest translation was by a friend of Flaubert’s.  He liked it a lot, I have read.  It is lost. In all, there have been close to 20 published translations, most of which have been published with assurances that it is better than any and all that preceded it.  I can’t speak to any of this, of course.  Nor can any English reader.  But I can say that the May translation more than satisfied me.  It read very well.  There were no signs of awkwardness, and I felt that I was reading the prose of Flaubert the way his style has been explained to me.  So cast my vote in favor of J. Lewis May.

What makes “Madame Bovary” such a good book?  It isn’t the story line which is fairly quotidian, I would say.  Emma meets the recently widowed Dr. Bovary when he comes to treat her father.  They marry, and she moves from the family farm to the town of Totes (also in Normandy) and when she tires of Totes, to Yonville (the presumed substitute for Ry).  She is well respected in the town, her husband works very hard to build up his practice and seems to be succeeding, they have a maid, their in-laws visit from time to time, they have a daughter, her husband loves her without distraction and believes she returns the affection. They have no fights.  Everything seems quite normal.

But something is wrong inside Emma Bovary.  She grows, for no apparent reason, to be indifferent to, then to dislike, then to absolutely hate her husband.  Her husband and her life.  She hates the town.  And, to tell the truth, she doesn’t seem to have much affection either for her child. She wants to get away. But how?  She has no resources, this is Catholic France of the first half of the 19th century, there is no divorce.

She has her first liaison with Leon, a young clerk/student (younger than she is), but her feet grow cold as their relationship warms up, and she treats him badly, so that the relationship will not explode her reputation.  He misreads her, believes she no longer loves him, and he leaves town, moves to Rouen.  She has her second liaison with Rodolphe, a wealthy owner of a nearby estate, comes up with ways to meet him on a regular basis.  They agree to run away with each other until, the night before they are to leave, he writes her that it wouldn’t work, it was impossible.

Her husband knows nothing of this, and does not even appear suspicious when Emma goes to Rouen for music lessons everything Thursday (she takes no music lessons, but has reconnected with Leon, spending her days in a hotel room with him); she has arranged with the “teacher” to bill her for the her “lessons”.

In the meantime, she is running up enormous debts – clothes, travel outfits, luggage, transportation, home decorating costs.  And eventually the debts are catching up with her, and her husband is realizing that there is something wrong beyond his wife’s psychological make up.  Finding no way to pay the debt, she takes arsenic and dies. After her death, her husband discovers letters from Rodolfe and Leon, and letters she wrote but did not send.  He is broke, hounded by creditors, unable to practice medicine, barely able to look after his daughter.  He dies.

That’s the story.  Simple, straightforward, but beautifully told.  You see what is going on in everyone’s mind.  You know exactly what Yonville and Rouen look like.  You know the neighbors.  You see how society works.  Everything seems unfortunate and unnecessary, but nothing seems incredible (except perhaps for Bovary’s gullibility….but people are gullible, aren’t they?)  The writing (is it Flaubert, or is it Lewis May?) is flawless.

This is not a feminist book.  It’s not a misogynist book. It is a story book.  Is he retelling the stories of Delphine Delamare and Louis Pradier?  Perhaps.  Is he delving into his own social and psychological makeup?  Perhaps.  Is he making up a simple story and trying simply to tell is perfectly?  Again, perhaps.

Highly recommended.  (And I know I gave away the plot, but this is Madame Bovary after all – it is over 150 years old, you may have read it once or twice, there have been film versions made of it time and again. Not a problem.)

2 thoughts on “Thoughts About 2014’s First Book – Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”

  1. When my book club read “Madame Bovary” about a year ago, I remember that I had read it before, maybe when we were in high school. Do you remember that? Maybe in senior English class, but it could have been earlier. Anyhow, I remembered the story but not the interpretation. One thing that struck me is that Emma Bovary shows the characteristics of a classic manic-depressive, especially in the hyper-active state. No sleep, illogical activity, dissatisfaction, suicidal thoughts. And after her manic episodes, she crashes and sleeps a lot. Anyhow, given the date when the book was written, I am fairly sure that manic depression (now called something else that I cannot remember) was not recognized as a clinical disorder.

    • I think we read it then, but I don’t think I had any ability to interpret anything. I wouldn’t call her manic depressive, I don’t think. She was depressive and looking for a way to escape but she was trapped physically and emotionally. If course it was the emotional entrapment that led her to feel physically entrapped. But she was never manic.

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