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Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
By: (1821-1880)

The strands woven together in Gustave Flaubert's famous, path breaking 1856 novel Madame Bovary include a provincial town in Normandy, France, a shy young doctor with an indifferent career and a lovely young woman who lives in a fantasy world based on the innumerable romantic novels she reads. Of course there is also the story of a dull marriage punctuated by passionate, adulterous love affairs.

First published in serial form in a Parisian magazine and deemed to be the “perfect” novel, Flaubert's debut was received by both readers and critics with acclaim and admiration. However, its bold theme, path breaking ideas of women's rights and the condemnation of middleclass morality led to its being legally attacked by the Church and the government. This was in spite of the fact that the magazine's editors had already done their own censoring of “offending passages.” Flaubert himself was shocked and the resulting very public trial in 1857 added to the book's notoriety. The charges were dismissed and the book was seen by the judges as promoting morality and strengthening of family values instead. However, it remained controversial and was banned time and again by various upholders of “morality” till as recently as 1954.

Madame Bovary marks a watershed in the development of the novel form. Flaubert's revolutionary techniques like the use of “style indirect libre” where the environment itself responds to a person's emotions, his use of realism and objectivity were all radically new literary devices.

In the almost linear, simple plot, Charles Bovary is a truly “ordinary” man. A country doctor who marries a wife chosen by his mother, he then meets and falls in love with the beautiful, young Emma Roualt when he visits her father's farm on a call. His wife, a much older woman, is jealous, but she soon dies. Charles and Emma marry and move to a larger town where Emma swiftly becomes disillusioned with her husband, their financial situation and social position, though she has attained motherhood by now. She embarks on a series of love affairs to satisfy her hankering after fame and fortune. Each of these affairs brings about her moral and psychological degradation, while she simultaneously plunges herself and her family into financial ruin. What follows is a vivid depiction of life and the human condition.

For the discerning and sensitive reader, Flaubert's brilliant portrait of the tragically flawed Emma Bovary, with her shallow, provincial preoccupations, her craving for love and money and the meaninglessness of bourgeois life in the countryside make this one of the finest works of literature.

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