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Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary - Ronald Pickup, Gustave Flaubert Of all the books I had to read in high school, this is the only one I truly hated. Probably the most boring book I ever forced myself to finish. None of the characters are likeable, the story is tedious, and I think it only still gets assigned in English classes because it was "controversial" a hundred and fifty years ago.

November, 2012 reread

Okay, I get it now.

Previously, I gave Madame Bovary 1 star, because among all the books I had to read in high school, that was the only one I remembered absolutely hating (though The Mayor of Casterbridge was pretty close). But that was many, many years ago, and since lately I've been reading or rereading a lot of classics, I kept looking at that 1 star and thinking, "Well, it couldn't really have been that bad, could it?"

So, I girded my literary loins and gave Madame Bovary another spin. And it wasn't that bad. Though it wasn't that good either, hence I have upgraded it to a respectable if not impressive 3 stars. Flaubert may or may not be a great stylist, as I've found that French literature translated into English depends as much on the skill of the translator as that of the writer. But he does have a fine grasp of details, all the details of a hum-drum middle-class life in 19th century France. And he has a fine grasp of characterization -- all his hum-drum middle-class characters in their banal, day-to-day existence.

And that's the point. Madame Bovary is famous for being a novel about adultery, and for getting the author charged with obscenity. But there's absolutely nothing titillating or even exciting in this book. Flaubert is writing about disappointment, about mediocrity, about the banality of the bourgeoisie. This is the ultimate anti-romance, which is why it's so renowned as a work of Realism.

Emma Bovary cheats on her husband because she's bored and disappointed. She grew up with romantic fantasies, and finds herself married to an unambitious country doctor of little talent. Charles Bovary absolutely loves, adores his wife. No matter how badly she mistreats him, he just keeps doting on her. He never blames her for anything. He's kind, faithful, reliable, a good provider, peaceful, never has a harsh word... what many women would consider the ideal husband. And he's dull as a brick. Emma ends up falling first for a young law student, and later a caddish landowner, because she is hoping for an escape from the tedium of married life. Instead, her affairs turn equally tedious, with all the added misery of furtiveness and fear of scandal.

Flaubert was charged with obscenity because the book does not explicitly condemn Emma for her infidelity and supposedly it glamorized adultery. How anyone could read this book, even in the 19th century, and think it's glamorizing anything, I can't imagine. Emma Bovary's life is nothing but misery and disappointment. She's not very likable -- she's a terrible wife and mother -- but one can't help feeling sorry for her. Charles Bovary is a nice man, but about as interesting as mud, and one feels sorry for him too, but you can almost excuse Emma for cheating on him. Which is maybe what made this book so scandalously "obscene."

Anyway, as a teenager reading this book, of course I didn't relate to it at all. How can a teenager empathize with the inner life of a bored bourgeoisie housewife? How could I have identified with the monotony of an outwardly successful but utterly, unhappily one-sided marriage? Madame Bovary is all about how romanticism cannot flourish in a world of mundane realism. And it's about a bad marriage and how the middle class is boring and stupid. What teenager wants to read about that, let alone is going to grasp its meaning? I think foisting this off on teenagers does them a disservice. Sure, not all books read in high school should necessarily be "fun," and Madame Bovary is notable for its historical importance and for being a benchmark of the Realist movement in literature, but I still think it's just a horrible book to stick high school students with. Let them wait until college to read about how boring marriage and middle class life is.