[This piece contains spoilers, both of classic literature and a recent film]
I just finished reading Madam Bovary. I’d never read it before, and it’s often twinned in discussion with that other novel of a doomed unfaithful woman, Anna Karenina.
It’s also a satire of petit-bourgeois mores, and probably included more subtle critiques of French society during the Bourbon Restoration than I was able to pick up on.
Madam Bovary comes from the aspirational lower middle class (her father is a smallholding farmer, who sees the local doctor as an opportunity to marry up). Today such a novel would be about her husband’s lack of ambition, her boredom in the stifling small town, her own desire to pursue education or a career. She would be experiencing the middle-class housewife crisis described by Betty Friedan as “the problem that has no name.”
In France in the 1830s, a woman like Emma Bovary didn’t have educational or employment opportunities to forego. She hadn’t abandoned her own promising career as a lawyer to get hitched. Being married to Charles Bovary, or some other rural schlub, was her only ticket. And she wasn’t happy.
In Flaubert’s narrative, she is punished for her transgressions. She ends her own life, but the penance doesn’t end there. The punishment is generational. Madam Bovary’s profligacy doesn’t only ruin her and her husband’s lives, her daughter ends up working in a mill. A downward social spiral.
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