Madame Bovary is the greatest novel written by Gustave Flaubert. The 1855
masterpiece portrays in searing detail the tragic tale of a young girl whose dreams turned into nightmares; whose sandcastles are swept away by unfulfilled passion; whose young life is ended in a tragic death. Years before Tolstoy limned the adultress woman in his Anna Karenina we see the consequences which ensue when a middle class wife and mother breaks the seventh commandment.
The novel takes place near Rouen in the north of France. There are actually three Madame Bovarys in the story. Madame Bovary Sr. who is the mother of Charles Bovary dominates her weak son. Madame Bovary I is an ugly but wealthy woman who dies allowing Charles to wed the lovely Emma
Bovary who is the the famed woman of the book's title. Emma has grown up on a farm coddled by her widower father. She has immersed herself in romantic tales and spent time in a French convent. Emma dreams of castles in the air and a charming prince to take her to paradise. Today she would be a reader of Harlequin Romances. She is a virgin plum ripe for picking!
Charles Bovary （"bovine" meaning cow-like; also think "ovary for his scandolous wife Emma） is a dull, stupid and lethargic public health inspector. He is a good man but is a total dullard! Charles weds Emma after treating her father. At first all goes well as the couple set up house in a French provincial town where little exciting ever occurs. They have a daughter Berthe with whom Emma has little to do. She never grows up to becoming a mature woman.
Emma carries on two affairs in the novel with the law student Leon and the wealthy but callous womanizing aristocrat Rodolphe. She is sucked into a cesspool of overwhelming debt being addicted to clothing, jewelry and furniture. Emma's lovers forsake her as her disillusionment with men and life itelf takes over life. Madame Bovary ends her life by committing suicide. The account of her horrific, painful and grotesque death from her fatal injection of arsenic rat poison will never be forgotten by the
reader. Despite her many sins she deserves pity at such a sad end. Her husband dies a few years later and her daughter has to be farmed out to a relative.
What makes this novel of adultery, satirical views of provincial life, mockery of the relgious hypocrisy in the French countryside and lacerating portraits of such types as the village atheist Homais so great? In my opinion the reasons this is such a landmark work must include:
a. A picture of a woman seeking to break out of the nineteenth century bourgeoisie view of females as placid wives and mothers with no aspirations of their own. Throughout the novel there are images of birds seeking freedom from cages. Emma is a modern feminist in the nineteenth century society she finds impossible to escape. Emma is an iconoclastic rebel.
b. A satirical and cynical view of human hypocrisy drawn with skill in the pictures Flaubert draws of such figures as the village priest, scientist, merchants and moneylenders. Society is concerned with money and social status to the detriment of more spiritual and ethical values.
c. Flaubert introduces a new realism to the novel which will influence such naturalist as Emile Zola and others. The novel reads as if it was written today instead of over 150 years ago.
d. Flaubert's descriptions of the beauty of nature （and its indifference to human suffering and troubles） are beautifully etched. His use of language and the level of suspense he maintains throughout the work are excellent.
e. Flaubert is not afraid to describe female sexual longings. His sex scenes are tasteful to our eyes but viewed as prurient reading in his own day.