Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 1, 2010

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert #BookReview

Oh, the perils of reading novels!  The great French novelist Gustave Flaubert, (1821-1880) warned husbands to guard against their wives reading them to excess, for see how they turned the head of his foolish heroine, Emma Bovary!  In his cautionary tale Madame Bovary, responsibility for adultery, scandal, disgrace, death and the ruination of the entire family can all be laid at the foot of the corrupting influence of the French novel.   So beware!

Poor Emma!  Seldom can there have been a heroine so naughty and yet so engaging of our sympathies.  She’s pretty, of course, and not smart enough to see through the wiles of those who would exploit her; she’s too immature to recognise just how lucky she is to have a husband so devoted.  (Though he is a bit dull.  And his manners leave a bit to be desired.  And he is remarkably naive about his wife’s misbehaviour).

Balzac had a heroine like her too: a foolish woman who flirted with marital peril because she was bored by the niceness of her husband in A Daughter of Eve. Angelique at least had an excuse because her mother’s religiosity had ill-prepared her for life; Emma has no one to blame but herself.  (And the novels.)

You can take this novel seriously – and there are no end of serious summaries and analyses out there – or you can simply enjoy it.

I recommend chocolates, cognac, a comfy chair and a nice (not boring) spouse lurking in the background – just in case the power and influence of the novel overwhelms you as you read…

PS 12/3/13 For a proper review, see Bookish Girl.

Author:  Gustave Flaubert
Title: Madame Bovary
Translator: Eleanor Marx-Aveling
Publisher: Amazon Kindle
Source: Personal library


  1. EVeryone seems to be terribly excited about the new translation by Lydia Davis. I suspect it makes little difference however as the quality of the story shines through even the most mundane of translations. I am sure you’re right about not taking it too seriously

  2. Hi Tom,
    What amused me most was the way the 19th century made it possible for authors to tidy things up at the end. Back then an author could do early death as a plot solution because of course lots of people did die young. Authors have to work a lot harder these days, don’t they?

  3. I’m trying to think of a modern novel about a wife’s infidelity and I can’t seem to come up with one.

  4. I have an old copy of this which I have been meaning to get to for ages and ages and I think this autumn is going to be the time. Some bloggers I have seen are doing a readathon with Nonsuch Book. Do you think this is a good book for a readalong in parts or one you should just sit and devour at your own pace? I would be intrigued to know.

  5. This is one of my favorite French novels of the 19th Century.
    Come on ! Being married to Charles Bovary is an excuse in itself for adultery. And being married to Emma is a good one too. I pity these poor couples from a time when divorce was such a shame that you were chained to an ill-matched spouse till death.

    M. Homais, the pharmacist, is an interesting character too. Stupidity pushed to such an extreme that it becomes funny.

  6. *chuckle*
    Surely, Tony, you have overlooked the notorious Booker nominated Slap? Tho’ almost everyone in that is unfaithful…
    Simon, I’ve gone off the whole idea of ‘group reads’ – I don’t like being tied to a schedule, but also, it seems to me that few people who commit to it actually follow through. Madame Bovary isn’t very long anyway so my advice is to just read it at your own pace.
    Book Around the Corner, I agree entirely. Any man who dribbles on his cravat deserves to be cuckolded LOL. BTW did you study this one at school?

  7. I didn’t study Madame Bovary at school. The only literature I did at school were the mandatory classes in junior high and two first years of high school. I chose maths and physics after that. I suppose Madame Bovary is more for literature students.

    • I was wondering how they would handle the moral/ethical issues in it with school kids.

  8. You mean the fact that Emma Bovary cheats on her husband ? This is a very anglo-saxon question ! :-)
    For me, and I believe for a French, it’s not a moral or ethical question. It’s a personal matter. It’s private and unique as these people are unique.

    • Even in Catholic schools where (I guess?) Catholics are not supposed to?

  9. I would have to be in a VERY VERY VERY conservative Catholic school.
    This is regarded as a story and I’d say they would probably mention that it’s bad but it wouldn’t be discussed for a long time.

    The way you phrase it sounds like it would be tricky for the teacher to study this book with pupils because of the adultery.

    We had a President of the Republic who had a second “wife” and a hidden daughter for years and it wasn’t such a big deal when it came out. It’s private. And we don’t think a politician’s sex life has anything to do with his qualities as a statesman.

    • Quite different to in America where they are really prudish about it…

  10. Yes.
    What happened to Bill Clinton just for a blow job with a consenting adult is puzzling to me and I dare say for French people. The idea that nothing happened to GW Bush for lying about those weapons is even more puzzling.
    I think the consequences of these two acts would have been reversed here : a shrugg for the blow job and a HUGE scandal for the weapons.

    • Absolutely, BookAround. When history looks back, it’s the tragedy of Iraq that matters…

  11. So the husband is a devoted klutz.

    But over time devotion starts looking better and better, doesn’t it.

  12. I don’t know about that, Shelley. Over time, companionship becomes more important, and for me, that means having the companionship of someone interesting. For ordinary old love and devotion, a dog will do…

    • Haha, yes! I think Emma was right to long and look for something more, though of course she handled the whole thing foolishly. Not that there would have been many more options available to her at that time!

      • Hello Emily Jane – thank you for taking the time to comment:)
        It’s interesting to try to conjecture how women would have judged Emma back in Flaubert’s time. I don’t suppose there was such a thing as a book group LOL, but people did sit about in the evenings and read books aloud to the family, and they probably gossiped about the latest novel the way we do. Did they approve? Did they envy her the way she got away with things for so long? If only we knew!

  13. I feel left out because I have never read it. Looks like a Kindle selection….

    “For ordinary old love and devotion, a dog will do.” Made me laugh, and reminded me not to get too dull…..or I may have to find a dog.

  14. Kerry, I was thinking of the importance of this companionship last night when The Spouse and I went to the MWF Festival Club to hear Gideon Haigh and Alan Atwood talk about George Orwell. Over a drink beforehand we sorted through the latest in Canberra politics, and at dinner afterwards I expounded my pet theory that Burmese Days is *the* book which reveals Orwell’s epiphany. We then attended the John Button Oration at the MWF where Noel Pearson talked about redesigning the paradigm that underlies the ALP and staked a claim for the ‘radical centre’ (see and we dissected that in the car on the way home. How dull it would be to be married to someone who didn’t want to engage in big ideas!

  15. Very, very true, Lisa. I can hardly imagine the point, myself. I am in the midst of what I vaguely understand to be a similarly moralizing book about the perils of wandering, and, perhaps, that also suggests dull and nice should be appreciated. The book is The Age of Innocence…..I almost wrote The Innocence of Age which is a different book entirely, I am sure.

    And the article to which you link, it makes me realize how context-specific politics are. I am hesitant to believe that what would be code words in US political speech are code words for the same messages in Australian political speech.

    • Wharton’s Age of Innocence? I think that is more ‘moralizing’ than Flaubert. I get the impression in Madame Bovary that her dalliances might have been overlooked if her boredom hadn’t extended to forcing Charles into moving away from his successful practice and bankrupting him.

  16. Lisa,
    Emma Bovary was a HUGE scandal in France when it was published in Flaubert’s time

    • Oh what fun BookAround – scandal as in ‘ooh how shocking where can we buy a copy?’ or as in priests thundering from the pulpit?

      • A scandal like : Flaubert and his publisher were on trial for affront to public decency and were released. On Wikipedia in French, you can read the entire pleading of Flaubert’s lawyer.

        And thus also a scandal like : “ooh shocking where can we buy a copy” as the book was a best seller.

  17. It seems extraordinary now, doesn’t it? It shows you how standards have changed within living memory…

  18. […] reminded me I discussion I’ve had with Lisa from ANZ Lit Lovers on Madame Bovary. She asked me if it was taught in school and wondered how teachers “would handle the […]

  19. […] hadn’t read Emma Bovary (see my review) when I read Maurice Guest, so I missed this association […]

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