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Madame Bovary (Vintage Classics) Paperback – December 14, 1991
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It is easy to find, if not respite, distraction, in the classics of Flaubert’s era. Few novelists at the time or since have succeeded to such an extent in their ability to develop characters and construct scenes. Monsieur Homais, the chemist, has to remain one of the least attractive but most lifelike characters in all of literature. He is, at once, both the everyman and the no man. But he is nothing, if not larger than life.
Many writers have tried to duplicate the imagery and all-encompassing scene development which gives each major scene a dimension of smell, touch, and even taste, beyond the visual. Few writers, however, have succeeded. The words bog down like a horse crossing a fast moving river. For Flaubert, by contrast, the prose clips along like a horse trotting down a cobblestone street.
Who has described Notre Dame, for example, more completely? “It was a beautiful summer morning. Silver plate sparkled in the jeweler’s windows, and the light falling obliquely on the cathedral made mirrors of the corners of the grey stones; a flock of birds fluttered in the grey sky round the trefoil bell-turrets; the square, resounding with cries, was fragrant with the flowers that bordered its pavement, roses, jasmines, pinks, narcissi, and tube-roses, unevenly spaced out between moist grasses, catmint, and chickweed for the birds; the fountains gurgled in the centre, and under large umbrellas, amidst melons, piled up in heaps, flower-women, bare-headed, were twisting paper round bunches of violets.”
Few authors could even approach such descriptive tracts without losing readers by the score. That Flaubert even attempts it is a testament to the self-confidence of Madame Bovary herself. Hers, in the end, however, is not appealing, while Flaubert’s prose remains faithful to the standard throughout.
Despite the soaring nature of the prose, however, the story is, in the end, not uplifting. The book is considered an exploration of love, but love, with all of its passion, is ultimately trivialized.
It is hard to imagine that any reader is cheering for Emma by the middle of the book. We inevitably see ourselves in her complex but superficial character, however, which may be the reason we all come back to her.
The money line is, “It is the fault of fatality!” It belongs to Monsieur Bovary but we are told it is the only fine phrase he ever turned, an observation appropriate to the shallowness of the character.
I, the hapless romantic perhaps, refuse to accept this trivialized assessment of love and life. I nonetheless continue to find great inspiration in the writing itself. Even after many readings it is hard not to get carried away by the effort of the prose. And that, perhaps, is the real tribute to love in this timeless classic.
It is absolutely useless - unless one is trying to smuggle it into a country where it's banned.
For that reason I am really enjoying my Kindle and free Kindle editions of classic books. I love reading these classics on the Kindle because it allows me to quickly look up archaic words.
And re-reading these great works makes it clear why they are classics and why people are still reading them.
Emma Bovary is STILL a relevant character. Change the horses and carriages to cars and the unscrupulous milliner to a credit card company and this book might have been written about a 21st Century woman. She craves love and longs for passion in her life while completely overlooking the husband who adores her and loves her with almost frightening intensity.
Ignore the original publication date. It's still fresh and still great literature.