On our arbitrary and informal poll, 65% of readers loved or enjoyed this book. 20% thought it was ‘Okay’ and just 15% had negative reactions to it. So we have conceded that this book is justified in its worldwide reputation and longevity. Flaubert is constantly quoted by other writers as a key influence in their writing style, and as a ‘game changer’ with the introduction of his new realism in writing.

Flaubert put an enormous amount of detail into the book, and diligence into its production. The more we examine the text, the more there is to admire. Whilst most of us can’t properly appreciate the original French (and many thanks for the interesting input from those who can!), it has nevertheless generated so many different translations by now that each one adds something of the original into English. (For reference we decided our preferred translators were Adam Thorpe or Francis Steegmuller, but it’s very subjective.)

AS Byatt wrote ‘ There is no greater study of boredom than Madame Bovary’ and after long discussions amongst us about Emma’s motivations and reasons, it would seem that boredom is indeed a key driver. Or vanity. Or self delusion. Whilst the younger audience felt a certain sympathy for her being caught in a loveless and dull marriage, there was still an acknowledgement that Emma constantly sought out new thrills, more material things and more risk than was good for her. The glamourous ball was the trigger to awaken in Emma a dangerous taste for the high life. Vargas Llosa talks about Emma’s drama being “the gap between illusion and reality” and in fact she alone seems to inhabit this space – despite her best efforts her romantic targets rarely seem to reciprocate with the same level of passion. Her ‘narcissistic solitary world’ ( Freud) doesn’t even allow her daughter in, and this lack of motherly affection ultimately hardens the reader’s heart towards her.

Outside of ‘The Emma Show’, the book features a selection of unpleasant and droll characters who all shine a light on the changing face of France in the mid 19th century. Every little statement and gesture is revealing, from ‘L’heureux’ the happy draper / moneylender to ‘Homais’ the archetypal alpha male belittling everyone around him … and it is these cynics who ultimately win out in the end. There are no romantic happy endings in Madame Bovary, quite the reverse. Emma’s untimely and gruesome end seems all too inevitable, given her rash decision making throughout the novel.

And yet, despite being set in small market towns outside Paris almost two hundred years ago, there is still a relevance and a message about ‘the folly of aspiration’ that we can all appreciate even today. A truly remarkable book indeed.
October 19, 2018 by Linda Murray

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