Understanding Madame Bovary (I)

Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857)
Trans. Alan Russell
Penguin, 1987

Emma Bovary and I have met before, but we were not long acquainted. I started to read Flaubert’s novel in between high school and university, but I never finished it. Not even close, actually.

When we last moved house, I pulled out the folded piece of looseleaf that had marked my furthest point reached. It was discoloured, one side covered  — and the back partly so — with a pencilled list of all the words that I had read so far, but which I did not know.

That list gave me that weird, mixed-up feeling I sometimes get looking back at then-me: head-shaking and envying, finger-wagging and marvelling, and eye-rolling and gaping. I read it through and I vividly recall crouching there, in that strange echo-y, once-book-stuffed-and-now-box-stuffed space, reading a vocabulary list permeated with innocence and ignorance, all muddled up with five-dollar words.

That more recent then-me (likely overwhelmed by book packing) threw out the list, and the now-me regrets that. I’m curious what specifically in this novel tripped up the farther-back-then-me who couldn’t get into Madame Bovary.

But that’s a weird, mixed-up feeling too, because as much as I wonder what difficulties I might have had with the novel’s vocabulary (the words just don’t seem that hard, y’know?), I know full well what some of the other challenges were.

The long descriptive passages. The French words peppering the page. The pervasive sorrow and sense of disappointment.

But ever since, and more keenly in recent years, I’ve wanted to mend this severed relationship. Madame Bovary has felt decidedly undone and when I saw Frances’ announcement of the Read-a-long, I was thrilled.

And anxious. And, as the date approached, my determination mixed with that familiar sense of Reader’s-Burden. And soon I was feeling decidedly procrastinate-y. (And the fact that my other current read was Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom likely wasn’t helping: can you imagine a more different novel?)*

But now I know Emma Bovary better than I ever did before. (Although you know that that’s not saying much. Simply reading Part One doesn’t equate to a true intimacy by any stretch, does it?)

And many of the qualities that I had remarked upon in that awkward phase of our reacquaintance, on an early morning commute which was largely comprised by rereading various parts of the first 20 pages, that began as potential difficulties (and which were likely deal-breakers for way-back-then-me) became pleasures.

Rich descriptive passages. Unmistakable regional flavour. Recognition of an intense loneliness that resonated at a basic human level.

It’s the same book. Yet experienced so differently. Which makes sense when you can measure different reading sessions across months, years, decades. But the now-me’s reading experience shifted over a morning’s reading session.

(One of the things I’m most looking forward to in this read-a-long is seeing how the reading experience has changed for those who have read it before. And for those who have not only read it before, but have re-read with an eye specifically to translation. Can’t wait!)

Here is one of the passages that stood out for me for its use of language. (And, yes, it’s quite likely that scarified would have been on my list, because I was a thorough list-maker, although I wonder why I wouldn’t have thought I could have approached that one with a good guess instead.)

“Charles’ mother came to see them now and again. But after a few days the daughter-in-law seemed to sharpen her on her own sharp edge, and they would both be at him like a pair of knives, scarifying him with their comments and criticisms!”  (32)

In-laws, sharpening each other on their own sharp edges. I love it. (Although this wouldn’t have helped draw in the way-back-then-me, who hadn’t any real experience of in-laws, and I doubt the passage would have seemed remarkable beyond that ten-dollar word in it.)

But when I looked for this passage online, I found, instead, the translation below, by Eleanor Marx-Aveling.

“Charles’s mother came to see them from time to time, but after a few days the daughter-in-law seemed to put her own edge on her, and then, like two knives, they scarified him with their reflections and observations.”

And of course this novel’s translation is likely what many participants will be discussing at length (which is fascinating, and I feel a bit sheepish because I had hoped to buy Lydia Davis’ version and have not, so I won’t be able to contribute in that way). But I’ll set this aside for now (and stop trying to combine these two into my perfect version of that memorable passage) and enjoy what others have to say on that subject.

I, myself, will concentrate on getting to know Emma Bovary.

And how she could use a friend. Does she not seem to desperately need someone with whom she could sit on a couch (er, settee?) and eat ice-cream (um, crème-glacée?).

Someone who might admit to her that they, too, thought words like blisspassion, and ecstasy had turned out to mean something completely unexpected?

“Before the wedding, she had believed herself in love. But not having obtained the happiness that should have resulted from that love, she now fancied that she must have been mistaken. and Emma wondered exactly what was meant in life by the words ‘bliss’, ‘passion’, ‘ecstasy’, which had looked so beautiful in books.”

See, Emma Bovary and I have a shared confusion about vocabulary: we might make good friends yet.

But not in any way which would truly help this lonely, sad woman. “And all the time, deep within her, she was waiting for something to happen.” Sigh. “And so they would follow on, one after another, always the same; innumerable days that brought nothing.” Le Sigh. “Would this misery last for ever? Was there no escape? Was she not quite as good as all the lucky women?”
But I think I know what’s truly making Emma Bovary unhappy.

Actually, I think she considered the possibility as well, but perhaps she was simply too broken down, by that time, to recognize its authenticity.

“What was the use? What was the use? Sewing got on her nerves.
‘I’ve read everything,’ she said to herself.”

And, so, finally, a couple of reading decades later, a couple of reading commutes later, I decide that there will be something between the now-me and Emma Bovary after all. I’m sad without a good book, too. But, it looks like I’m not going to have that problem for the next while.

How are you and Emma Bovary getting along at the end of Part One?

* Actually, as I read on in Madame Bovary, I started to wonder if there weren’t some interesting similarities with Freedom too, but I can’t say for sure. At this point I am much better acquainted with Patty Berglund; Emma Bovary need to get cozier before I can start match-making.



  1. sakura October 21, 2010 at 10:34 am - Reply

    I read Madame Bovary at university and didn’t get on with Emma at all. But upon reading your review, I think I may have to give it another go. So it’s a good thing I didn’t chuck it the last time I had a clearout of my books at home. Maybe it’s a book that can’t be read when you are too young and only when you’ve started to experience some disappointments that pepper life (not that I’m trying to be gloomy here.)

  2. Buried In Print October 19, 2010 at 10:59 am - Reply

    Thanks for all the comments: I’m so enjoying this group read, which is my first with Frances.

    Steph – I’ve never tried Moby Dick, but I probably “should”. I do find that my response to books can vary greatly, even only a couple of years later.

    Kat – I hope you do join in: I’ve found the other participants’ comments are definitely adding to my more positive experience of the novel this go around.

    Anthony – I’ll be watching for that sentence. Though I wonder if it will even be recognizable as the same one, given such differences in translation. But how intriguing, especially because her motivations dictate the degree of sympathy that we’ll have for her as the story unfolds.

    Amy – Yes, it was a disparate pair in some ways, but not in others as it turned out. Both authors are very much about detail and their characters struggle to sort out disappointments and betrayals, often resulting in severe depression and despair. I kept seeing glimpses of Emma Bovary in one of Franzen’s characters in particular and ended up very pleased that they coincided in my reading plans. (I don’t imagine Room worked out that way for you though!)

    Richard – My feelings about Emma are very much “in progress” and I’m curious to see how the second part plays out because I’m seeing so many unsympathetic comments made about Emma. Surely it can’t be all that simple or the novel wouldn’t continue to hold such a sway over readers so many years later…

    Shelley – You’re right: Emma could turn out to be one of those needy, exhausting friends, for whom nothing you do is ever enough. I’ll have to monitor our burgeoning friendship carefully, before I start offering ice-cream willy-nilly.

  3. Shelley (Book Clutter) October 18, 2010 at 4:26 pm - Reply

    I loved the quote about the knives–it was such a perfect way to describe a common situation! I wonder how much of a difference a friend would make for Emma. Would she have an unrealistic idea of what a friend should be? I definitely think you’re on to something with the ice-cream!

  4. Richard October 16, 2010 at 8:34 pm - Reply

    I’m not sure yet how I feel about Emma, Buried In Print. I kind of want to take her to task for blaming Charles for her boredom, but Flaubert doesn’t make it easy for us to judge which of the two is really at fault here (at least, not in part 1 anyway). Anyway, enjoyed your post and am intrigued that this book has read so differently for you and for so many others over the years. I think that that can only be interpreted as the sign of a complicated text (always a good thing).

  5. Amy October 16, 2010 at 4:20 pm - Reply

    I wish you had kept the list too!

    You’re reading Freedom at the same time? I just finished Emma Donaghue’s Room in between bits of Bovary, and hoo boy, was that a disparate pair of books.

  6. Anthony October 16, 2010 at 3:31 am - Reply

    The discussion about the difficulties of translation remind me to reread Edith Grossman’s ‘Why Translation Matters’. With a book that has been translated as frequently as ‘Madame Bovary’, it is inevitable there would be many differences, but the paragraph you cite is so different in emphasis: “reflections and observations” vs “comments and criticism”.

    In Part II, I have been snagged by a sentence: “Her own gentleness goaded her to rebel”. What does that mean? I need a French version and a thesaurus.

  7. Kat October 15, 2010 at 9:38 pm - Reply

    I’ve read Madame Bovary and didn’t like it much. I am, however, looking forward to reading Lydia Davis’s translation, which I rashly ordered, and since it’s the topic of discussion maybe I’ll read along with you-all. Usually the translation doesn’t make that much difference to me, but I have read the Penguin translation and perhaps a new one will make a difference–or not.

  8. steph October 15, 2010 at 8:30 pm - Reply

    Your post at the beginning with all your different mes made me laugh!

    I’ve never read Madame Bovary, though I think I started it. The only classics I am interested in these days (and even still I’m not reading them) are the really atmospheric ones, like The Moonstone, and Wuthering Heights, Kristin Lavransdatter (trilogy), Dickens, and the like. Although lately I’ve been in the mood for Les Mis. My copy seems to have disappeared, so of course now I feel even more as though I want to read it.

    Your different experience this time around has made me want to revisit classics I once loved or tried to start but didn’t ever finish. I’ve been trying to finish Moby Dick since I was ten!!

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