First Impressions: Madame Bovary

At night, when the carriers passed under her windows in their carts singing the “Marjolaine,” she awoke, and listened to the noise of the iron-bound wheels, which, as they gained the country road, was soon deadened by the soil. “They will be here tomorrow!” she said to herself.

And she followed them in thought up and down the hills, traversing villages, gliding along the highroads by the light of the stars. At the end of some indefinite distance there was always a confused spot, into which her dream died.

Madame Bovary, Part I, Chapter 9

I follow a lot of literature-related blogs and accounts on social media, and one of my favorites is Karen Swallow Prior’s Twitter account. In case you don’t know of her, she’s a professor of English at Liberty University, as well as an author, having written two books and several essays for publications like Christianity Today and The Atlantic. The first of those two books, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, is a sort of literary memoir, a love letter to the books and authors that made her who she is. Madame Bovary is featured prominently in that book, and is often mentioned in some of Dr. Prior’s other essays as well. Eventually, my curiosity got to the point where I had to read it. Currently, I’m at Chapter 8 of Part II. Here are just a few preliminary thoughts I wanted to write down:

Because Dr. Prior’s writing tended to focus most on the moral arguments in this book, I half-expected it to take a very straightforward, even bordering on didactic, tone. So I was a little surprised by the dreamy, Romantic sound of some of the narration. Take for example this passage, describing Emma Bovary’s depression when a man she had fallen in love with moves to another city:

Everything seemed to her enveloped in a black atmosphere floating confusedly over the exterior of things, and sorrow was engulfed within her soul with soft shrieks such as the winter wind makes in ruined castles. It was that reverie which we give to things that will not return, the lassitude that seizes you after everything is done; that pain, in fine, that the interruption of every wonted movement, the sudden cessation of any prolonged vibration, brings on. [Part I, Chapter 8]

This choice of language, and the tone of the story overall so far, give me the impression that, though the writer knows full well that Emma is wrong, he can still, in a way, understand her longings. He’s not indulgent, but he’s not completely cold either. This makes the story better, I think, because it helps to humanize Emma. Going in, I was afraid the main character would make this book unbearable with her unremitting selfishness. The selfishness comes through loud and clear, but at the same time, so does the hope for an extraordinary life (not a bad desire in itself necessarily) and her love of beautiful things (also not bad if taken the right way). She has the same basic desires as everyone, although she goes about fulfilling them in the wrong way, ultimately leading her to lose everything. Flaubert, of course, is not defending his heroine—rather, he treats her as a real, complicated human being instead of just a component to a moral argument. I like authors like that, in whose books their respect and compassion for their own characters is plain to see.

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