French author Gustave Flaubert and his publisher were put on trial when this book was first published in 1857 for violation of public morals. The extramarital sex
depicted was considered too graphic back then. The two men were acquitted but the controversy created a sensation among literary press
Today, Emma Bovary is one of the most famous characters in literary history. Throughout the book Emma struggles with the fact that her real life never matches her fictional expectations. Although she successfully "lives her dreams" through her marriage, her sexual encounters and her extravagant spending, she is never happy. Everything is pale and colorless compared to the vivid life portrayed in the romantic literature which she devours.
At the beginning of the story, Emma escaped the mud farm where she grew up and married a country doctor. Charles Bovary was in love with every part of Emma, and gave her anything that she desired.
“A meal together, a walk in the evening on the highroad, a gesture of her hands over her hair,” Flaubert writes. “The sight of her straw hat hanging from the window-fastener, and many other things in which Charles had never dreamed of pleasure, now made up the endless round of his happiness.”
Emma on the other hand, did not return Charles’ passion. She dreamed that the physician she married would be skilled and respected but he was disappointingly fumbling and tedious. She found it impossible to love him as deeply as she felt a wife should love a husband. As an outlet for her objectless passion, she fell into adultery first with a wealthy land-owner named Rodolphe Boulanger and later with a young clerk named Leon Dupuis.
Wealthy, and sophisticated Rodolphe first met Emma at a summer fair. He convinced her to go out horseback riding one day to a beautiful field where he wanted to make love to her.
“In my soul you are as a Madonna on a pedestal, in a place lofty, secure, immaculate,” he said, trying to persuade her “I must have your eyes, your voice, your thought!"
His convincing words worked and they began secretly making love regularly without any suspicion whatsoever from oblivious Charles. Emma was invigorated by the affair:
“When she saw herself in the glass she wondered at her face. Never had her eyes been so large, so black, of so profound a depth” Flaubert writes. “An azure infinity encompassed her, the heights of sentiment sparkled under her thought, and ordinary existence appeared only afar off, down below in the shade, through the interspaces of these heights.”
In this part of the story, it appears that Emma has everything: she has a doting husband who gives her everything, a daughter who adores her and a mysterious, moneyed man who sends her love letters every single day. However, everything soon turned to nothing for Emma. As months went by, she got so obsessed with the affair and absorbed in Rodolphe that it started to drive him away. She told him that she would be his servant, submit to his every desire as his concubine.
"He had heard these things said to him so many times that they no longer held any surprises for him” observes Flaubert, “Emma was just like all his mistresses, and the charm of novelty, gradually falling away like a garment, laid bare the eternal monotony of passion, which never varies in its forms and its expression."
Rodolphe also thought that “exaggerated speeches hiding mediocre affections must be discounted”. This not only reveals something about Emma and how he no longer shared the fantasy with her, but it reveals something about Rodolphe – who gave many exaggerated speeches to Emma while he was courting her.
Emma refused to see Rodolphe distancing himself from her and made a plan for them to run away together (along with her daughter) but Rodolphe, content to be a bachelor and happy with his station in life, cancelled the plan last minute.
The reality that Rodolphe did not actually love her came crashing down on Emma and it hit her hard. She got very sick and was bed-ridden for several months. Her dedicated husband Charles nursed her to health.
Emma’s next affair was with the young handsome clerk Leon, who lived in Rouen. She convinced her husband to pay for piano lessons so she could go on overnight trips to Rouen… then she and Leon could check into expensive hotels and have sex. Young Leon was at first totally enamored with Emma with her beauty and her glamour.
“By the diversity of her humor, in turn mystical or mirthful, talkative, taciturn, passionate, careless, she awakened in him a thousand desires, called up instincts or memories. She was the mistress of all the novels, the heroine of all the dramas, the vague "she" of all the volumes of verse.”
The months passed and Emma continued to buy love-gifts for Leon with her husband’s money. The money also afforded them reservations at the finest restaurants and nights in the best hotels. But this fantasy didn’t last either. Emma was spending much more money that she and Charles could afford and she landed into some very dangerous debt troubles. On top of that, the affair began to go sour:
"They knew one another too well to experience that wonderment of mutual possession that increases its joy a hundredfold. She was as sick of him as he was weary of her. Emma was discovering, in adultery, all the banality of marriage."
The break-up of the second affair on top of the repossession of her furniture was too much for Emma. She could not face her husband with the truth of how she ran up all of that debt. With reality crashing down on her again, Emma’s swallowed arsenic to end her earthly troubles. She hoped to expire gracefully like her fictional heroes, but she ended up getting violently ill and covered in spots before dying in disgrace.
Readers found Emma Bovary too accurate to be purely fictional and asked Flaubert who she was based on. Flaubert’s famous response is:
“Madame Bovary, c’est moi” (“Madame Bovary is me”).
In 1857 Flaubert could not have known how clearly the book would resonate with modern readers. Most people today spend a lot of time with fiction – whether it is books, movies, television or fantasy games. Many of us, can’t help but feel our lives are pale in comparison to what we read or see on the screen. Perhaps, if we looked at ourselves closely and honestly, we could say “Madame Bovary, c’est nous” (“Madame Bovary is us”)
All quotes from the Eleanor Marx-Aveling translation