Critical Overview

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When Madame Bovary was published in installments in Revue de Paris in 1857, its realistic subject matter earned the novel immediate notoriety, which was enhanced when the French government soon banned it and charged Flaubert with obscenity. Its initial reception was mixed. Many readers were shocked by the novel’s “immoral” characterizations but praised Flaubert’s undeniable artistry. Others were offended more by the novel’s obvious link to realism, as noted by Lennard J. Davis, in his article on Flaubert for European Writers. Davis cites one critic who insisted that Madame Bovary “represents an obsession with description. Details are counted one by one, all are given equal value” and that, as a result, “there is neither emotion nor feeling for life in this novel.” Davis notes another reviewer who claimed that Flaubert was an “unwavering analyst . . . a describer of the minutest subtlety” but that a machine made “in Birmingham or Manchester out of good English steel” could have written a comparable novel. Most scholars, however, have celebrated the work as one of the finest of its age. F. W. J. Hemmings in The Age of Realism insists, “this finely balanced mixture, where Emma is concerned of empathy and critical objectivity . . . has earned the novel its celebrity as the first masterpiece of the realist esthetic.”

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Madame Bovary


Essays and Criticism