Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert is widely considered to be a pioneering work in literary realism. More than that, it is regarded as the foundational work of realism in Western literature, which has proved to be hugely influential ever since it was published back in 1856.
One of the many remarkable things about Flaubert's masterpiece is the way that it provides us with an acute psychological insight into the central character of Emma Bovary, a bored and dissatisfied provincial housewife who embarks upon extra-marital affairs in order to escape the tedium of her daily existence.
Even if we cannot condone her actions, we can certainly empathize with Emma thanks to the way in which Flaubert plumbs the depths of her soul. Our empathy with Emma makes her agonizing death all the more tragic and shocking.
Although female readers naturally identify with Madame Bovary more than their male counterparts, there is something universal about her experience that allowed Flaubert, a man who had little in common with his tragic heroine, to proclaim “Madame Bovary, c'est moi” (Madame Bovary, that's me”). It is this ability to find the universal in the particular that adds further impact to Flaubert's novel.
Flaubert's relentless commitment to realism can be seen in the manner by which he infuses everyday situations with great significance. Previously, life's daily grind, with its numerous banalities, was not considered to be appropriate subject matter for the novel, which dealt with romance, horror, and adventure.
And yet, thanks to Flaubert's remarkable gift for weaving the tiniest of details into a coherent narrative, the small, provincial world of Bovary becomes a scene of drama every bit as great as anyone would read about in a work of fantastic fiction. Or, to put it another way, Flaubert, in delineating in great detail what to lesser writers would be nothing more than everyday banalities, makes the ordinary extraordinary.