Book Review: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madame BovaryMadame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Quite honestly I don’t know how you could give this book a rating of anything less than five stars. It is a classic and deservedly so. For there are very few books that can match the intricacy and insight into human behaviour as the classics have shown themselves capable of doing.

As I read I kept getting the feeling the story was familiar to me or at least the character of Madame Bovary. About halfway into the book I was struck with the realisation that Emma Bovary is a less sophisticated version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Having said that let me be clear that Emma Bovary lacks the empathy, graciousness, and sheer finesse of the latter. She is, in many ways, a conceited, vain woman quite possibly suffering the consequences of her own existence. It occurred to me more than once that she displayed evidence of narcissistic personality disorder. That is another conversation, perhaps, for another day. And in any case, we are all far too quick to declare moral debilitation upon one another.

Flaubert has created a character sketch which is the fulcrum of this novel. Madame Bovary and the eponymous novel are all about her. Everything is Madame Bovary. And Madame is everything. It struck me that this is how the craft of brilliant writing comes into play: Flaubert writes a novel that is as centred around its main character as the main character is centred around herself. Every other character in this book is ancillary, regardless of how central they are to the plot. This is sheer literary genius at work. It is the perfect intersection of form and function, of style and structure.

Flaubert has a real gift of observation and insight into human behaviour, suffering, and the more subtle shades of emotional experience. With immense tenderness and stifling beauty he renders the experiences of neglect, abuse of trust, envy, betrayal, avarice, abandonment, and not the least of all, enormous, staggering heartbreak that so many of us have known to occur in utter stillness within.

Admittedly, Flaubert is given to excesses. There are several long-winded, rambling passages that indulge his fancy for description and use of embroidery with adjectives and verbiage. But that is a mere trifle. As a reader of the classics and for those who cherish books that continue to outlive their time, Madame Bovary is absolutely a can’t-miss.

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