Okay, to be clear, this book was not at all what I thought it would be. I was, no lie, expecting torrid sex scenes. Why? I have no idea. I just was. Funny thing is, I don’t read anything even approaching erotica so I’m not sure where this thought came from. Obviously, something was lost in translation for me.
Charles Bovary is a less than ambitious man but he’s a good man. A doctor by trade, he’s happy practicing in a quiet French hamlet. After he starts his medical practice, his mother finds him a wife; an older and rather unhappy woman who dies early on in their marriage leaving Charles the opportunity to find love. He believes he may have found it in a woman named Emma who he met while setting her father’s broken leg. Emma has dreams, the first of which is to get away from her father’s home, so when Charles asks, she agrees to marry him. Married life is agony for her. She has a pleasant home, a husband who cares for her immensely — almost to the point of smothering her — and she has few tangible complaints. What she wants is romance though. After attending a ball, it’s all she can think about and her boring life holds no interest for her. Charles decides that Emma needs a change of scenery and moves the family (a child will soon be born to the couple) to Yonville. Emma soon finds herself entranced by a law student, Léon Dupuis, who seems to return her affection. Appalled by her own thoughts, she refuses to act and Léon soon leaves to finish his degree.
However, when Emma meets Rodolphe Boulanger, all thoughts of propriety go out the window and she gives in to his advances and starts the affair. She wants to run away, but Rodolphe, who has had several mistresses, decides that she is too clingy and breaks off the affair on the morning they’re to leave town together. Shattered by the end of the affair, Emma falls into a deep depression and sickness. When she finally recovers, Charles again tries to re-interest her in life this time believing the theatre will be the answer. It’s here that she once more meets Léon and begins her second affair. Lie after lie build up as do her debts. Emma is incapable of handling the lies or the debts and begins begging others for help, which doesn’t arrive. In a final dramatic act, she deals the only way she can.
At first, I felt sorry for Charles. He was boring but loving. He wasn’t ambitious at all and was happy with his life. He had a beautiful wife and child and a medical practice that provided the necessities of life. But, again, he was boring. Then he tried to pin everything wrong with his wife on a nervous condition which annoyed me and any sympathy I may have had for the clueless husband vanished. Emma on the other hand, doesn’t exactly deserve any praise. She wants everything, expensive things, is constantly bored, obsessive, and refuses to see any good in her life. She’s always looking for the next best thing. And it must be said, she’s a horrid excuse for a mother. Emma is interesting though and the reason to keep reading because every other character in this book is flat. Toward the end though, when the proverbial dirty laundry is aired, everyone is at fault in some way or another and it’s hard to have any sympathy for any of the characters.
My book had two additional sections at the end about the book itself, trials, bannings, etc. I didn’t read them. I think I wanted to look back on the book from my own perspective and not the perspective of a scandalous 19th Century trial discussing the need for a stricter moral code. Also, I think it would have made me upset and I enjoyed this book and didn’t want it to be marred.
So, back to my first paragraph — the sex. It’s there but it’s off screen. There’s kissing, there’s heavy petting, but shall we say, not what I was expecting considering the ruckus this book caused. Then again, that was back in the day. I don’t want to get into a discussion of morals, really, I’m the last person, but it’s an interesting part of this story and while I never felt lectured to, obviously, Emma is a lesson. But her character is more than simply a woman having an affair, she’s a woman unhinged but somewhat deserving of some understanding, even if it’s just to understand her depression better.
By Gustave Flaubert