(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
Madame Bovary (1857)
By Gustave Flaubert
Book #26 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
Considered by nearly everyone to be one of the best novels ever written, French cynic Gustave Flaubert's 1857 Madame Bovary (originally published serially in 1856) is one of the first fiction projects in history to be as much a deep "character study" as a vehicle for simply propelling an exciting plot; it is an ultra-detailed look at an ultra-complex person, the Emma Bovary (nee Rouault) of the book's title, where the whole point is not just to learn what happens to her but what makes her tick in general. Because make no mistake, Bovary is one of the most complicated characters in the history of literature too, still able to ignite passionate arguments among fans to this day: some see her as a clearly sympathetic and very typical woman, forced into a whole series of awkward situations by a whole series of incompetent men in her life, just like such dunderheads have been doing to smart females for centuries; while others see her more like an unmedicated sufferer of bipolar disorder, constantly flip-flopping on what she wants out of life depending on what in particular she doesn't happen to have that particular moment, constantly adding unneeded drama to her life when bored and treating pretty much every single person around her like complete crap.
Raised in a convent, a lover of erotica, desirous of an expensive urban lifestyle yet not very smart about money, it is this dichotomy of traits that keeps Bovary careening from one radically different situation to the next: first falling hard for her father's roving rural doctor (full-time "good guy" and hence impotent cuckold Charles Bovary), thinking that their marriage will finally bring her the sophisticated Paris life she's always dreamed of; then trying and failing at a domestic life as a small-town wife and mother, after it becomes clear that Charles prefers the dowdy provincial life of the northern French farmlands, leading to a hot-and-cold emotional affair with a young law student there named Leon; then a move to essentially one of the first large "suburbs" in France's history (the fictional mid-sized Yonville, not too far from Paris by carriage or rail, based on the real-life suburb of Ry), where she embarks on a much more serious affair with a major hater-playah named Rodolph; then an unceremonial dumping by Rodolph, after she offers to leave her husband for him and bring the kid along, leading to a short period again in her life as a pious born-again Christian; with all of that followed believe it or not by a reacquaintance with the now successful young urban lawyer Leon, leading to a sexually explicit "hotel afternoons in the big city" affair (the part of the book that led to its infamous obscenity trial when it first came out); which then finally leads to an ending whose details I'll leave a surprise, but let's just say results in ruin and/or death for nearly every freaking person involved. Oh, those French and their happy endings!
The argument for it being a classic:
Madame Bovary established so many firsts, its fans will argue, it's sometimes scary: not just the first novel ever to be written in the modern, pared-down "conversational tone" we know today, not just one of the first novels to complexly combine both character and plot development equally in one manuscript, but also one of the very first novels in history to establish the "Realist" school of thought, a set of conventions which now guide almost all contemporary novels being written (but more on that in a bit), all while ironically being a perfect example of a Victorian-Age Romantic novel as well, and of containing all the hallmarks that fans of Romanticism look for even while making vicious fun of them too. In fact, this book is almost like a freaky artifact from a future time that shouldn't actually exist, if you want to get technical about it; a book that reads exactly like a contemporary mainstream-lit character study, but published at the same time as the severely overwritten, overwrought, epistolary-style adventure tales and pseudo-science babble much more typical of the mid-1800s. It's not just important as a historical artifact (but more on that in a bit too), not just seminal to the arts in about a half-dozen different ways, but is still a surprisingly great read even 152 years later; nearly every novel being written today owes one aspect of its form or another to this ultra-important precedent, fans argue, making it the very definition of a literary "classic" that should still be picked up by every lover of great books out there.
The argument against:
Ironically, the only criticisms of Madame Bovary I could find seemed to argue that the book is just too well-written; that Flaubert created such a hyper-realistic emotional trainwreck, they ended up disgusted by her and couldn't even finish. "Ugh, that Emma, I can't stand her, she's so despicable," I saw one online critique after another say, none of these people apparently realizing that that's the whole point; that the entire purpose of this book existing is to present this ultra-flawed, many times legitimately despicable character, to examine what motivates her and how she can be so sympathetic at times too, to understand ourselves better and especially those parts of our own personalities we share with her.
So how exactly should we feel about Emma Bovary, anyway? Well, to ponder that question is to avoid the much more remarkable point -- that Flaubert managed to create such a magnificently complicated creature to begin with, one who can still inspire such enflamed debates about her character a full century and a half later. (And by the way, how dispiriting to finally learn that Tom Perrotta's novel Little Children, which I highly favorably reviewed here in 2007, owes much of its success to a rather literal rip-off of many of Madame Bovary's key points, all the way down to sometimes stealing entire scenes beat-for-beat. Sheesh, no wonder Perrotta's follow-up The Abstinence Teacher was such a miserable stinker; he had no seminal semi-forgotten public-domain classic to lean on that time.) Not to mention, concentrating on Bovary's sometimes abhorrent behavior ignores a much more important point -- that every single character in this novel is abhorrent, done so by Flaubert very deliberately. Let's not forget, the book is set in the years of France's so-called "July Monarchy," which in a simplified nutshell saw the creation for the first time in history of middle-class suburbanites; and like every other bitter artist in history, Flaubert despised middle-class suburbanites with every fiber of his being, and meant in many ways for Madame Bovary to be a devastating indictment of them all -- from the schizophrenic Emma to the facile Charles, from the jealous village pharmacist Homais to the weasely neighborhood merchant Lheureux. Let's always remember that Flaubert worked for decades on an epic called Bouvard and Pecuchet, which he always considered his perpetually-unfinished masterpiece; but that when it was finally released to the public posthumously in 1881, it turned out to be not much more than a massive unfocused rant, a grand satire concerning the utterly pathetic mediocrity of most human beings and the utter folly of ever thinking we will learn anything by studying history. Now that's a bitter French artist, my friend.
But if this weren't enough, there's also the matter of the utterly remarkable language and structure used, which I now know for a personal fact because of doing this CCLaP 100 series is just so profoundly unlike any of the other novels that were being published at the same time; it really does feel like some freaky anomaly that shouldn't actually exist, snatched from the 1930s during the height of Early Modernism and somehow by time-machine accidentally left behind in the middle of the Victorian Age. (And even more remarkably, Flaubert himself wasn't particularly prolific or well-known, only finishing three other novels besides Bovary and all of them obscure even during his own lifetime.) This is why you hear so many people rave about this book's style, because it really is a perfect example of what the French call seeking le mot juste ("just the right word"); there are passages on display here that can instantly transport you in just a few paragraphs to a misty early evening in 19th-century northern rural France, before you even realize what's going on or that you'd left in the first place. And all of a sudden you've missed your bus, and you're standing on the streetcorner cursing Flaubert for being such an astounding writer in the first place.
It's remarkable, I think, that this book lays the entire groundwork for the Realist school of literary thought, a full 50 years before Henry James and others even first came up with the English version of the term, and like I said nearly every mainstream-lit novel written today gets at least some of its cues from it; because much like the "Socratic method," Realism has become so permeated in our culture that we don't even realize anymore that that's what it is when we see it, with the entire thing essentially boiling down to the idea of writing stories in a "realistic" fashion, as if we were invisible ghosts hovering over the shoulders of the characters and quietly observing the events of the story as they actually happen (now known as "omniscient narration," and the basis behind 95 percent of all novels written). But it's also true what its fans say, that it doubles as a perfect Romantic novel too, a different school of literary thought with goals that sometimes clash with those of Realism; like the best of Victorian-Age literature, Madame Bovary too places great emphasis on emotions, feelings, passion, madness, and all the other great hallmarks of being an alive human being, and also like all great Victorian novels it too features as a character a buffoonish adherent of rationalism (in this case, the constantly pontificating pharmacist Homais), a holdover "true believer" from the 1700s Enlightenment who both the Romantics and Realists could agree on regarding their mutual hatred. (Stupid fun-hating scientists!)
Although I'm only about a quarter of the way through the CCLaP 100 as of the writing of this particular review, I think it's safe to say that this is going to turn out to be one of my absolute favorites of the entire series, and it's simply astonishing in my opinion how well it's held up now over the last 150-odd years. It's a standard-bearer for sure of this entire series, one of only a handful of books in existence that nearly everyone agrees is a classic, which then helps us make the relative determination as well for much more troublesome candidates. If you're to read only a handful of books in the CCLaP 100 series, do make sure to make Madame Bovary one of them.
Is it a classic? Yes
The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next time: Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott
Two books from now: Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
Three books from now: Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
Four books from now: The Art of War, by Sun Tzu