Gustave Flaubert’s genius lay in his infinite capacity for taking pains, and Madame Bovary—so true in its characterizations, so vivid in its setting, so convincing in its plot—is ample testimony to the realism of his work. This novel was one of the first of its type to come out of France, and its truth shocked contemporary readers. Condemned on one hand for picturing the life of a romantic adulterer, Flaubert was acclaimed on the other hand for the honesty and skill with which he handled his subject. Flaubert does not permit Emma Bovary to escape the tragedy she brings on herself. Emma finds diversion from the monotony of her life, but she finds it at the loss of her own self-respect. The truth of Emma’s struggle is universal and challenging.
Since the time of Charles Baudelaire, many critics have noted, either approvingly or disapprovingly, Flaubert’s application of an accomplished and beautifully sustained style to a banal subject matter in Madame Bovary. In Flaubert’s own time, many readers objected to an adulterous heroine not only as banal but also as vulgar. Baudelaire, however, offered the telling defense against this criticism in his acknowledgment that the logic of the work as a whole provides an indictment of the immoral behavior.
Flaubert himself viewed his book as “all cunning and stylistic ruse.” His intention was to write “a book about nothing, a book with no exterior attachment . . . a book that would have almost no subject.” Flaubert’s goals, however, were not as purely aesthetic as they might initially seem, for he did not mean to eschew significance entirely. Rather, he meant that any subject matter, no matter how trivial, could be raised to art by language and pattern. Like Stendhal and Honoré de Balzac, Flaubert believed that quotidian matters could be treated seriously, but he goes further than his predecessors in refusing to provide narrative guidance and interpretation.
Literary critic Erich Auerbach observed that Flaubert seems simply to pick scenes that are significant and endow them with a language that allows them to be interpreted. As a result, many commentators have seen Flaubert as the first modern novelist, even a precursor of the antinovelist, because of his unwillingness to deal with subject matter in the traditional, narrative manner. Certainly, he represents a break with the past, for although he retains the story, he makes the novel, in his own words, into “a coloration, a nuance.”
At the heart of the novel is a provincial dreamer, a romantic who distorts her environment and ultimately destroys herself with wish fulfillment born of the desperate boredom of her circumscribed situation. Her romantic illusions are, however, not so much the theme of the novel as they are the prime example of human stupidity, which is reflected by all the characters. Charles is trapped by his complacency as much as...
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