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The Book Club

Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

1. Moesurs de province (Provincial Lives).As the subtitle of the novel, Michèle Roberts pens “the phrase implies … the familiar indiscriminate contrast between Paris and the rest of France. The Parisian … was a superior self-important creature: elegant, educated, pretentious, superficial and cynical. The provincial … was in every way inferior: uncouth, narrow-minded, and avaricious, governed by petty jealousies and engrossed in sanctimonious gossip”.

2. The narrative style. With the narrative largely in reported speech, the thoughts and emotions of the characters are not privy to the reader; even though the characters have minimal dialogues or conversations with one another. The plot involving Emma Rouault – with her constantly presented as the protagonist – is ironically framed within her husband’s narrative; which might be a subtle allusion to the insubordination of women during the period of time. There is no clear narrative voice; and the absence of lengthy soliloquies or monologues drives the story forward, correspondingly placing more emphasis on what is not spoken or revealed between characters (in essence, the assortment of secrets and misinformation). Intentions are inferred from rhetoric, and subsequently confirmed through the eventual actions.

3. “Oh, why, dear God, did I marry him? The first time that we hear from Emma after her marriage, which succinctly summarises her internal turmoil and fantasies, as well as her grand passions.

4. The three Madame Bovarys. The title “Madame Bovary” can refer to Charles’s first wife, Emma, or Charles’s mother; which might suggest the formal loss of individuality of the women who are married to their husbands (living figuratively in their shadows). Emma can be perceived to be trying to break free of this conventionality. Her failure to abide by the expectations of her title and social position – coupled by cultural influences and her desire for adventure – allows her to succumb to her temptations; and she eventually kills herself when she fails to come to terms with the realities and consequences of her actions.

5. Should the reader sympathise with Emma Rouault? Not exactly; though opponents might point to her youth, gender and inexperience – rendering her vulnerable to changing circumstances – her search for emotional satisfaction and romantic fulfilment is self-centred and ultimately detrimental. Her experiments with adultery – with Rodolphe and Léon – are wild and frivolous; and her addiction to material comforts – complemented by an insatiable appetite for luxury – conversely leaves her frustrated as she is perpetually obsessed over money and wealth. She rues the privileges that her male counterparts enjoy, and seeks solace in romances and fictional texts in the absence of peripheral guidance and pillars of support. She has no mother, no close female friends, and no one dependable to consult or confide in. Nonetheless, her sexual relationships are superficial and detestable – and while society might be to blame for her numerous constraints and ideals of Romanticism (evidenced by the disappointment with her marriage and husband) – her moral transgressions are unforgivable. Her end is tragic – in debt and in despair – but she did get what she deserved.

6. Through Emma’s eyes, the banality of adultery and marriage (and life). “No matter: she wasn’t happy, and never had been … Why was life so unsatisfactory? Why did everything she leaned on crumble instantly to dust? … Besides, nothing was worth looking for: everything was a lie! Every smile concealed a yawn of boredom; every joy, a curse; every pleasure, its own surfeit; and the sweetest kisses left on one’s lips but a vain longing for a fuller delight”.
7. Should the reader sympathise with Charles Bovary? Charles’s life is sketched out quite briefly in the beginning, with the story told through the perspective of one of his classmates. Charles is presented to be dull, a little dense, and brought up under mediocre circumstances. When contrasted against his wife, he is average and contented with his lit; while Emma is beautiful and bursting with dreams and aspirations. However, even though Charles is not extraordinarily talented in his profession as a doctor, he is amiable, and maintains a decent level of respect and affection for his wife – almost subservient to her whims and fancies. He can be faulted for his indifference and apparent stupidity – in light of his wife’s suspicious activities and erratic behaviours – but the reader reserves sympathy for him as a son, husband and father. His lack of assertiveness costs him dearly; and towards the end, causes relationships with his own family members to be more estranged.

8. Charles’s delusion, or expression of true love. “Everyone must have adored her, he thought … Every man who saw her must certainly have coveted her .. This made her the lovelier in his mind; and he conceived a furious desire for her that never stopped; it fed the flames of his despair, and it grew stronger and stronger because now it could never be satisfied”.

9. Homais as an element of satire. Given his background, profession and self-proclaimed expertise, Homais is presented to be considerably proud and elitist: he passionately takes the initiative to shower Charles and Emma with overwhelming knowledge about Yonville and hospitality, he pens mighty articles that have substantial influences, he is constantly airing his perspectives on anything and everything (including cooking); though his ignorance is reflected when he is quick to publicly praise Charles’s surgery on Hippolyte’s club-foot; an operation that eventually goes horribly wrong. Homais is quintessentially a satire of the know-it-all French bourgeois. As a pharmacist – a supposed “man of knowledge” – he pioneers technological methodologies and introduces new products; his modernising perspectives complement his articulate and eloquent writing style. Homais is staunchly anti-religion and anti-clerical; but his contentions can be unconvincing and superfluous for the reader. His eventual dominance and continued success in the final chapter suggests the continued presence of individuals of similar nature and disposition in the French society.

10. Rodolphe and Léon. Both men are deeply attracted to Emma – often for her physical beauty and exterior attractiveness – though they begin and end their relationships quite differently. Rodolphe plotted the seduction of Emma right from the beginning – believing that she was no different from the previous lovers and women he had – and cruelly abandons her after he got tired of the affair. With Léon, his experience in the Paris city has emboldened him and he becomes full of himself; which drives him into a relationship with Emma; though this time round, both parties can tired of one another. Nevertheless, Emma remains at the losing end of both her escapades; and Flaubert sarcastically points out in the final chapters that the men continue with their lives quite contentedly after their separation and Emma’s death.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.

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