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The Hope Diamond of Novels
on August 17, 2000
Making a statement like Madame Bovary is the "greatest" novel ever written would be superfluous. It could be argued that it is the most perfectly written novel in the history of letters and that in creating it, Flaubert mastered the genre. What can't be argued is that it is one of the most influential novels ever written. It changed the face of literature as no other novel has, and has been appreciated and acknowledged by virtually every important novelist who was either Flaubert's contemporary or who came after him.
It's interesting to see the range in opinion that still surrounds this novel. Some of the Readers here at Amazon are morally affronted by the novel's central character, viewing her as something sinister and "unlikeable," and panning the novel for this reason. Such a reaction recalls the negative reviews Bovary engendered soon after its initial publication. It was attacked by many of the authorities of French literature at the time for being ugly and perverse, and for the impression that the novel presented no properly moral frame. These readers didn't "like" Emma much either, and they took their dislike out on her creator.
But this is one of the factors making Madame Bovary "modern". One of the hallmarks of modern novels is that they often portray unsympathetic characters, and Emma certainly falls into this category. How can we as readers "like" a woman who elbows her toddler daughter away from her so forcefully that the child "fell against the chest of drawers, and cut her cheek on the brass curtain-holder." After this pernicious behavior, Emma has a few brief moments of self-castigation and maybe even remorse, but very soon is struck by "what an ugly child" Berthe is. Emma's self-centeredness borders on solipsism. For readers looking for maternal instincts in their female characters or for a depiction of a devoted wife, they had better turn to Pearl S. Buck and The Good Earth, perhaps, rather than to Flaubert.
Much has been made of Flaubert's attempts to remove himself from the narrative, that he was searching for some sort of ultimate objectivity. His narrative technique is much more complex than that, however. It is his employment of a shifting narrative, sometimes objective, sometimes subjective, that again is an indicator of the novel's modernity. At times the narrator is merely reporting events or is involved in providing descriptive details. Yet often the authorial voice makes rather plain how the reader is to look at Emma and her plebeian persona. When she finally succumbs to Rodolphe and thinks she is truly in love, Flaubert becomes downright cynical: " `I've a lover, a lover,' she said to herself again and again, revelling in the thought as if she had attained a second puberty. At last she would know the delights of love, the feverish joys of which she had despaired. She was entering a marvelous world where all was passion, ecstasy, delirium."
Emma is a neurasthenic, in the modern sense, but in the 19th century she would have been said to suffer from hysteria, a mental condition diagnosed primarily in women. When her lovers leave her, she has what amounts to nervous breakdowns. After Rodolphe leaves her she makes herself so sick that she comes near death. Her imagination is much too powerful and too impressionable for her own good. This is part of the reason for Flaubert's oft-repeated quote, "Bovary, c'est moi." Flaubert was a neurasthenic as well and could easily work himself into a swoon as a result of his imaginative flights. There is even conjecture that he may have been, like Dostoevsky, an epileptic, and it is further intimated that this disorder was brought on by nerves, though this may be dubious, medically speaking.
Madame Bovary is not flawless, but it comes awfully close. It is one of the great controlled experiments in the fiction of any era. It even anticipates cinematic technique in many instances, but particularly in the scene at the Agricultural Fair. Note how Flaubert juxtaposes the utterly mundane activities and speeches occurring in the town square with Rodolphe's equally inane seduction of Emma in the empty Council Chamber above the square:
"He took her hand and she did not withdraw it."
"`General Prize!' cried the Chairman.'"
"`Just now, for instance, when I came to call on you...'"
"Monsieur Bizet of Quincampoix."
"`...how could I know that I should escort you here?'"
"`And I've stayed with you, because I couldn't tear myself away, though I've tried a hundred times.'"
This is representative Flaubert. With a few deft strokes, he lays the whole absurdity of both the seduction and the provincial's activities bare.
If you have read this book previously and have come away feeling demoralized and even angered, please try reading it again, this time concentrating on the richness of its metaphors, Flaubert's mastery of foreshadowing, symbolism and description. Maybe you will come away with your viewpoint changed. For those who have not yet read this classic of classics, I know that if your mind remains open, you will come away with an appreciation for this master-novelist and for this monumental work.