Gustave Flaubert (1821)
Bouvard e Pecuchet (1881)
L'Education Sentimentale/ A Simple Soul (1869) ++
In 1852 Flaubert wrote in a letter to Louise Colet: "The author in his work should be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere." The outcome of that philosophy was Madame Bovary (1857).
The novel mainly contains negative characters: Rodolphe the cynical and amoral aristocrat; Homais the pompous enlightened scientist who is wrong about everything but is eventually honored by the state; Lheureux the heartless merchant, a machine to make money and destroy people's lives; the people of the village who take advantage of Charles after his wife dies; and above all the adulterous Emma, the recklessly ambitious vain greedy selfish woman who is eventually proven to be essentially foolish and stupid.
Is Emma the protagonist, the woman whose life spirals down to ruin, or Charles, the good idiot, the real protagonist? Charles is a naive gullible clueless clumsy hardworking, a good husband and a good father, hopelessly and utterly in love with his undeserving wife. He is both the idiot and the innocent of the tragedy. Charles never understands what is going on around him, believes in an immutable order of things, and is a supremely forgiving saint who is not capable of hate or revenge. A conclusion is that one cannot afford to be weak in a society driven by selfishness. if you are weak, everybody punches you: the business men, the scientists, the intellectuals, the rich, the bureaucrats. It's survival of the fittest, not of the kindest.
Another, secondary conclusion, is that the arts are unhealthy. Emma is infatuated with romantic and gothic novels, which turn her into a compulsive dreamer, and dabbles in music and painting. The arts conspire to pull her away from her loving husband, who is willing to sacrifice everything for her, and instead push her into the arms of the men who will betray her.
Everything in the novel is realistic, except the narrator itself. At the beginning the unnamed narrator is someone who speaks in the first person and claims to have been a classmate of Charles. As far as we can tell, this unnamed narrator never appears in the story, but he seems to know the life of Charles. This narrator turns into a neutral and omniscient third person, who reports the facts in an almost documentary manner, adding introspection into the psyches of the characters, but maintaining a detached tone, as if he was merely describing a mechanical clockwork.
Charles decides that it's best to move to another town, after four years of successful business there. Just then Emma gets pregnant. We are then introduced to characters of the new town, Yonville, as they assemble at the inn of Madame Lefrancois: the pharmacist Homais who is a deist like his idol Voltaire, the tax collector Binet, the priest Bournisien, and the young Leon Dupuis, who rents a room in Homais' house and works for the lawyer, Guillaumin. The stagecoach carrying Charles and Emma arrives. Charles and Emma dine with Homais, who is Charles' only contact in town, and Leon. Leon is bored of that town, but fond of music and literature, and offers Emma his collection of books. Emma, who was hoping for a boy, gives birth to a girl, Berthe. Homais' servant Justin is flirting with Emma's Felicite`. Leon falls in love with Emma, but cannot find the courage to speak up. He tears up the letters that he writes to her. The town begins to gossip. Emma eventually begins to long for his love but a misunderstanding makes her believe that Leon doesn't love her. Charles, who considers Leon a trusted friend, notices none of this. Emma tries to talk to priest Bournisien but he's useless: when Emma mentions that she's not feeling well, Bournisien implies that her husband, a doctor, must know what is best for her. Emma is also being a negligent mother, who finds her daughter ugly and even causes the child to injure herself. Leon decides to leave for Paris to study. Emma falls into chronic melancholy, she faints, she even spits blood; and refuses to be cured by Charles. She tries in vain to find new interests in life. Charles' mother dislikes her and believes that she suffers from the evil influence of amoral novels. (Note the auto-parody: we are reading an amoral novel, Flaubert's novel). One day the rich womanizer Rodolphe Boulanger, a 34-year-pold bachelor, shows up and, realizing that she's tired of her husband, immediately decides to seduce Emma. He pretends to be bored and lonely. He dares grab her hand during an agricultural show that consumes the whole town. He then waits six weeks before making his next move: he invites Emma to go riding with him. Charles enthusiastically approves, hoping that this will help her health. Rodolphe, alone with Emma has his chance and doesn't waste it: she initially resists him, weakly speaking of morals, but then surrenders. Back home, she stares in the mirror, both ashamed and excited to be a woman with a lover. Soon she is secretly visiting Rodolphe at his castle whenever Charles goes out. She also started writing letters to him. Rodolphe gets annoyed that she's risking being discovered.
One day Emma is suddenly hopeful that her husband Charles would seize an opportunity to escape his mediocrity. Encouraged by Homais, who is fanatical about scientific progress, Charles decides to operate on the club-footed Hippolyte, the stable-boy of the inn, an operation that would make him famous. Charles and Emma start dreaming of getting rich. The whole town encourages Hippolyte to accept the offer of the surgery, and Charles pays all expenses. Homais is ready to write a report for the press, but the operation fails miserable. Gangrene spreads from the foot to the rest of the body of poor Hippolyte, and a celebrated doctor must be summoned to amputate the leg. Charles is dishonored and ruined. Emma is more convinced than ever of his mediocrity, and returns to Rodolphe. Emma grows more sentimental about their love affair, and starts giving Rodolphe gifts. Lheureux, the shopkeeper, takes advantage selling Emma expensive items that she cannot afford. She resorts to stealing money from her husband. Rodolphe, however, sees her as just one of the many lovers he has had, and even gets bored. She hass been married for four years. Emma takes more chances, the townsfolk gossip. On a visit, Charles' mother gets into a big argument with Emma over her behavior that she disapproves. Emma insults her mother-in-law, considering her an unsophisticated, narrow-minded peasant. Later, a distraught Emma tells Rodolphe that she wants to leave Charles. Rodolphe accepts to flee with her, and Emma purchases from Lheureux a trunk and clothes for the journey. The day before they are supposed to elope, however, Rodolphe changes his mind and writes a farewell letter to Emma. Emma is taken by colvulsions and falls sick. Charles, still unaware of the affair, still loving her deeply, neglects his patients to take care of her. He needs money and has to pay Lheureux's bill. Charles ends up borrowing money from Lheureux, knowing that he won't be able to repay it. Emma's health slowly improves. She finds comfort in religion, which pleases the priest, Bournisien, and even indulges in charity. The anti-clerical Homais, instead, advises Charles to take Emma to theater in nearby Rouen, where a famous tenor, Edgar Lagardy is scheduled to perform in Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor (which is based on Walter Scott's romantic novel "The Bride of Lammermoor"). Emma is moved by the story of Lucia, who refuses to marry a man she doesn't love, and identifies with her pain. At that opera they meet Leon, who has completed his studies in Paris. Charles has to return to town but insists that Emma stays one more day to catch another performance by the famous Lagardy, as suggested by Leon. Charles considers Leon an old friend, but it's obvious that Leon still has a crush on Emma.
They haven't seen each other in three years. Emma tries to resist the younger man's love, and he rudely interrupts her visit to a church, incapable of restraining his lust for Emma. Charles' father dies at the age of 58. Emma is not deterred by Charles' sorrow. She takes advantage of their financial struggles to spend three days in Rouen with Leon, officially to ask Leon for legal advice. Those three days are like a honeymoon for Emma and Leon. She then finds an excuse to travel to Rouen once a week: piano lessons. At the same time Lheureux talks her into obtaining power of attorney from Charles, which Charles, who does not doubt her, gladly consents to. Emma can now spend as much money as she likes, and the two lovers enjoy a lavish lifestyle, but the debts accumulate, held by Lheureux, who is skilled at getting her further and further into debt. Charles' mother warns him in vain that Emma will ruin him. Charles is blind to Emma's behavior. Once she doesn't return home and Charles rides his horse all night to Rouen to find her, and still he doesn't suspect anything. One day Homais visits Leon in Rouen. Homais too is clueless: Homais suspects that Leon is after Emma's servant Felicite'. Emma's love ends up straining her relationship with Leon, who begins to resent her nonstop attentions. At the same time, Emma has to find increasingly creative ways to hide her debts to Charles. She collects money from his patients without telling him. Charles is still devoted to Emma, and can’t figure out the cause of her temper. They now sleep in separate rooms: Emma in the bedroom, devouring gothic novels, and Charles in the attic. Finally the law catches up with her. Lheureux demands that she pays her debt or all her belongings will be confiscated. She begs Lheureux in vain. She asks Leon for the money but Leon has none. She has to beg the notables of the town, but that is also in vain. The notary, Guillaumin, has always been secretly in love with her and would help her but demands that she becomes his lover. She refuses. She is desperate. The thought if her husband makes her angry: she knows that Charles will forgive her, and she cannot bear the thought of his magnanimity. She decides to ask Rodolphe, who has returned to live in the town. Rodolphe calmly ignores her pleas. Emma tells him that she would have done anything for him out of love, but obviously Rodolphe is not willing to do anything for her. She returns home where Charles has discovered that they are bankrupt and that their valuables will be confiscated. Charles is especially worried that she has disappeared. Yet again, Charles loves her over anything else. Emma breaks into the laboratory of Homais and eats arsenic. Then she walks back home, tells Charles not to ask her any question, writes a letter and tells him to read it the following day. And she prepares to die. When the poison takes effect, Charles despairs. He reads the letter and realizes it's arsenic. He dispatches the servants to fetch the luminaries, but there is nothing to be done. Emma dies. Charles feels guilty that she lived unhappy. The priest and the pharmacist spend the night with the corpse, but end up arguing nonstop about religion. Emma's father and Charles' mother come to the funeral, while Rodolphe and Leon both sleep in peace in their respective homes. Charles then realizes the extent of the debts. Everybody takes advantage of him, showing him exaggerated bills for expenses incurred by his wife. Felicite' steals the wardrobe and runs away with a boy. Léon, in the meantime, marries well and becomes a notary. Homais becomes a journalist Charles and his daughter Berthe are now poor and shunned by everybody. Homais, instead, is successful as a journalist and has ambitions to obtain the Legion of Honor. One day finally Charles discovers Leon's and Rodolphe's love letters, and he finally understands how Emma always cheated on him. He becomes a recluse. One day Charles, now penniless, meets Rodolphe and instead of attacking him Charles meekly concludes that it was fate. One day Berthe finds him death of heartbreak. There is no money left. She is sent to Charles' mother, but she dies, and Emma's father is now paralyzed, so Berthe is raised by an aunt but has to go to work in a cotton mill. Meanwhile, Homais is finally decorated with the Legion of Honor.