05.09 Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
May 2009 Extra Meeting

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  1. hilaryfbbc

     /  May 17, 2009

    I enjoyed this ‘everyday story of French country folk’ for the social history detail as much as the story (which was probably quite shocking in its day). The details of clothing, transport, shops, medical matters and conventions of behaviour all interested me more than the characters, perhaps because their behaviour was so bound by (boring) social expectations. Also interesting to compare to British stories of the same era – themes of passion, betrayal, financial ruin, frustrated women – a sort of European Mills & Boon. Would make an excellent film for Keira Knightley…..
    Working in libraries, I was fascinated by the high subscriptions Mme Bovary was paying for her books. On the Bromley House (Nottingham) Library web-site – which is a modern day private members library – there is a link to a Wikipedia article about the triple – decker novel which includes the following: The three-volume novel (sometimes three-decker or triple decker) was a major stage in the development of the modern Western novel as a form, being a standard form of publishing for British fiction during the nineteenth century.

    It does not correspond closely to what would now be a trilogy of novels. In a time when books were relatively expensive to print and bind, publishing longer works of fiction had a particular relationship to a reading public who borrowed books from commercial circulating libraries. That is, a novel divided into three parts could create a demand (Part I whetting an appetite for Parts II and III); the income from Part I could pay for the printing costs of the later parts; and the librarian had three volumes earning their keep, rather than one.
    The particular style of mid-Victorian fiction, of a complicated plot reaching resolution by distribution of marriage partners and property in the final pages, was well adapted to the form.
    The price in the United Kingdom of each volume of a three-volume novel remained stable at half a guinea, i.e. 10s 6d, for much of the century; which in purchasing power terms would be close to a high-quality hardback book today costing over £20
    More about Bromley House library here:

  2. moirabbc

     /  May 15, 2009

    I was very sorry to miss the meeting – I got behind with my reading and only being half-way through, I did not feel able to contribute. Please indulge me if I repeat things said in your discussion as, after a run of duds in our group choices, I found Madame Bovary stimulating and enriching. In the first half of the book, I thought Emma insufferably self-centred and silly. Her rapture at the ball left me cold.
    As the novel progressed, however, I started to feel some compassion for her and for Charles. Whether this indicates a general mellowing and more tolerant mood when at this stage, I am not sure. My Penguin copy had an introduction about Flaubert’s writing of the book which took him 5 years. When asked who was Emma, he is reputed to have replied, ‘Madame Bovary – c’est moi.’ His father had wanted him to be a doctor or lawyer but Flaubert dropped out of his studies because of an unspecified nervous complaint and was free to concentrate on writing.
    I feel there is something of Madame Bovary in all of us – a yearning for life to be other than it is, an attempt to rebel against duty and mediocrity, as exemplified by poor bourgois Charles.(Flaubert’s feared other self?) I don’t feel she had to die to atone for her adultery, rather she could not continue with her living death. Charles himself finally rebels against bourgois duty by dying, leaving the desperately unfortunate little Berthe to wind up in a cotton mill. I have to think of Berthe as a metaphor – that no good could come from such a union.
    I loved the argument between the Priest and the chemist while keeping ‘vigil’ over Emma’s body. Neither science nor religion has all the answers. Homais, the chemist is the more convincing and his increasing power and success points the way to the march of the Enlightenment. However, his flaws (and those of naked reason) are illustrated by his treatment of the blind beggar.

  3. Sarah

     /  May 14, 2009

    Michele, that is exactly how I felt the first time I read Madame Bovary (and I was quite adamant that I would never read it again.) But it does get better on subsequent readings…

  4. michelebbc

     /  May 13, 2009

    I must have missed something with this book. I found it quite heavy going, not helped by obvious mistakes in translation. Emma is completely unsympathetic, spoilt, selfish, directionless, greedy woman. She reminded me of Rosamund in Middlemarch only the character of Charles wasn’t distinct enough for me to feel anything about him one way or the other either.

  5. richardbbc

     /  May 8, 2009

    I read this twice and it wasn’t until well into the second read through that I began to enjoy it, not for what happens, but rather for the way it was written.

    It is not one of those big, baggy Victorian novels. It reads more like a modern novel than one from the 1850’s. The narrator is enigmatic, sometimes prominent and omniscient, at other times almost invisible. He can almost imperceptibly switch between different points of view and different styles of writing. Though he is describing the lives of the petit bourgeoisie he is aware that their passions and ambitions can be heroic and all consuming even though they cannot understand or express them in any other language than the cliches of religion and literature. He never rigidly controls our responses to the characters and never moralizes or sentimentalises them. Often he subtly conveys meaning through details and descriptions. For instance I gradually became aware of just how many times the word ‘dust’ is used and what a wide range of significance is attached to it. He obviously cares deeply for what in many ways is a cast of minor characters and he explores their behaviour with a mixture of clear-sightedness and affectionate humour while not hiding the ironies resulting from their behaviour. Emma may be given the last rites but her daughter is left to work in the local mill.

    My only real disappointment with the novel was the implicit way it was assumed that Emma must die to atone for her adulteries. However much Flaubert may have challenged the boundaries of good taste and literary technique with this novel such an outcome was obviously a step too far even for him.

    I was pleasantly surprised by just how difficult I found it to come to terms with this novel and how it challenged my perceptions of what a nineteenth century novel was like.

    The book certainly generated a lively discussion amongst everyone who was there on the night. A good start to the BookChatExtra meetings.

  6. Sarah

     /  May 8, 2009

    On this, the third time of reading, and the second of blogging, I find myself a little crestfallen, having finally recognised in Madame Bovary one of those chameleon books that reflects the perspective of the reader to a quite extraordinary extent. Thought it was the book, but no, that was just me.

    I hope this versatility illustrates, in itself, the power of the novel, because this failure to separate mindset from text must invalidate much of my thinking.

    Striving to find droplets of objectivity in an ocean of subjectivity (dreadful misquote!) the interesting use of “we” in, and only in, chapter 1 of Part I, snagged my attention. It may seem trivial but, in a writer such as Flaubert, it would be naive to entertain the notion of inconsequentiality. The most obvious factor here is that the classmates of whom the “we” is seemingly compromised perceive Charles in the same disdainful way that is to later characterise his relationship with Emma.

    Since this multiple first person narrator (mysteriously privy to impossibly personal details about Charles) is more complex that simply a group of Charles’ school peers, I interpreted it (with my feminist hat on) as a “we” representing society, and the point is that the existence of Charles, ineffectual and incompetent as he is, is at least registered by society, whereas that of the intelligent, ambitious and female Emma is not.

    Although the rest of the story is told through an omniscient third person narrator, it often feels as though Emma herself is relating the story, and this would give me cause to doubt the “cloddish” qualities of Charles, were it not for the initial alternative voice confirming this point of view. Given this comprehensive condemnation of Charles it has only this time occurred to me to perceive his good qualities; steadfast, loyal, well-intentioned. Flaubert’s challenge to his reader?

    Not convinced that I had in any way divined the author’s intentions I trawled Google. Apparently the opening sequence foreshadows Emma’s treatment of Charles, but also illuminates Charles strengths… Oops. Missed that.

    So, the next time I read Madame Bovary I am not going to be lured by the siren and mutable Emma. I think I will focus on the significance of the blind beggar…


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