As a comparative literature major in college I was assigned this book at least three times. It’s funny that I never read it, because I tend to be pretty conscientious. I do remember, though, finding it excruciatingly dull the first time, and just not bothering thereafter.
Well! There’s a lot to be said for encountering a big-time classic like this freshly. OMG! It’s all here: clean simple prose, adultery, dull village life, outsize expectations, provincial bores! The edition I read compares it to “Desperate Housewives” but I’ve also heard that Richard Yates had Madame Bovary in mind when he wrote Revolutionary Road. Certainly Flaubert’s characterization of Emma allows the 21st century reader to engage in the kind of casual diagnosis we all perform on our under-performing acquaintances: narcissistic, depressive, subject to mood swings…
Flippancy aside, reading this book now was like watching a Courbet canvas come to life. It’s hard for us to grasp how startling this work was in its frankness and resolute insistence on depicting the everyday. This is such a staple of our aesthetic, but it was so new and so alarming in 1857, when the novels of George Sand and Rousseau were still current. It’s as if Flaubert took hold of a big red velvet curtain and tore it aside with a rattling of brass rings and a cloud of dust. And there was real life, in its banality and its glory.
A few years ago a friend sent me the syllabus for a Harvard literature course entitled something like, “A Life Ruined by Reading.” Emma kicked it off. I suppose Madame Bovary was Flaubert’s riposte to all those fatuous novels and fantasies. If Emma hadn’t grown up on romances she might have made poor Charles a suitable wife rather than gone chasing after Leon and Rodolphe and gratifying her every desire. But at the same time, if I hadn’t grown up on Georgette Heyer I wouldn’t be reading Flaubert now.