Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1952
In the small town of Ry in Normandy, on May 5, 1848, a doctor’s wife named Veronique Delphine Delamare poisoned herself. Her fate became the plot of one of the most important novels of modern times. Gustave Flaubert made Madame Delamare become Madame Bovary.
Published in 1851, his novel was of an unprecedented realism. Flaubert doesn’t side with any of his main characters. He is the God-like narrator, who is above the events, who does not explain but watches. His heroes are no exceptional figures who excel in heroism, but people like you and me, with their strengths and weaknesses.
Seemingly unmoved, Flaubert relates the tragedy of the Bovary family: of the mediocre but content physician Charles, his fickle wife Emma and their daughter Berthe. They all fail because of Emma Bovary’s excessive expectations in life. Young Emma believes to be destined for greater things. A veterinarian like Charles, though, can’t offer her the lifestyle she wants. And so she seeks her happiness with various lovers, who quickly get tired of her exalted behavior. Emma tries to fill her emotional void with ever more exotic luxury goods. She develops a frantic urge to spend but is unable to bear the costs. Getting up to her ears in debt, she sees no other option then to commit suicide.
After her death, Charles has to face the fact that his beloved had not only ruined but also deceived him. Deeply hurt, he dies, leaving their daughter Berthe without a penny.
This action has a terrible topicality. Madame Bovary becomes a protagonist of our modern society, in which an aggressive media leads even the most average ones to believe that everything is possible. You only have to buy this one product to feel like one of the rich and famous. It’s as if only your possessions counted, but not who you are.
Nowadays, however, Madame Bovary would not kill herself but rather seek credit counseling. The destiny of those who do not turn to themselves in order to solve their problems but to consumption instead, has become far too common.
When it was released, Flaubert’s novel was considered scandalous. His realism was too much for the readers of his days. The author faced a trial, accused of glorifying adultery through ‘Madame Bovary’. In the end, it was precisely his impartial style that helped Flaubert’s lawyer to obtain an interim order. This was the ultimate promotion for a book that was to become a 19th century top-seller.
Today, we no longer see how this novel could have caused such a big scandal. And yet we are overlooking the real scandal here: It’s the fact that a blank individual like Emma Bovary actually ruined a family through her egoism. She should have found herself a task instead.
Translated by Annika Backe