Madame Bovary  by Gustave Flaubert

The debut novel of Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (1856) soon became notorious in contemporary French society for its supposedly scandalous content, and was the subject of a court case through which the author was accused of producing an affront to public morals. If that isn’t an incentive to read it, I don’t know what is!

Set in the early 19th century in a small town near Rouen, the novel examines the narrow nature of the provincial French society from which the eponymous protagonist, Emma Bovary, tries to escape. The story begins with an account of the early life of shy and clumsy doctor Charles Bovary, who enters into an unhappy marriage with a much older woman, Heloise Dubuc, before falling in love with the beautiful farmer’s daughter, Emma. When his first wife dies, he snatches the opportunity to ask for her hand in marriage, and his dreams seem to have been realised. However, Emma soon begins to find her marriage, motherhood, and the slow pace of rural life, boring, and becomes infatuated with young law student Léon Dupuis. Possessed by a strong sense of duty to her husband, she resists beginning an affair with him, but is then seduced by landowner Rodolphe Boulanger. The sensual excitement of this liaison opens up a world of temptation and decadent materialism for Emma, who quickly descends into a cycle of sinful behaviour that spirals towards the novel’s climactic end.

The detailed realist style which Flaubert adopts in Madame Bovary sets it apart from the Romantic movement which greatly influenced European literature at the time. Departing from the excessive interest in emotion that characterised that movement, Flaubert’s writing minutely examines the truth of human relationships in society, and his novel’s pertinent observations have led to it being described as the ‘perfect’ work of fiction. Whether this is true or not, Madame Bovary is, without doubt, one of the central works of French, and indeed world, literature, and is a great book to read if you are looking for a good story paired with perceptive and truthful writing.

image of the author, Gustave Flaubert