Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

A dead man took me to the opera last night. Sitting there I realized you knew you’d be dead by now. Wally, it was because you took me there, I was able to write this.

What if Emma Bovary had seen Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk?

On Thursday I had the good fortune to see Shostakovitch’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. It was the depiction of a woman in the provinces of mid-nineteenth century Russia married to an impotent dullard, with a father-in-law whose own lecherous feelings towards her made him see her as a licentious whore. If she is not one in practice, he knows she must be one in intent. The father-in-law keeps constant watch on his daughter-in-law to make sure she is not doing with another what he wishes to do to her himself. She is unfulfilled in every sense and knows there must be something better in life. Eventually, despite the menacingly watchful guard of the father-in-law she manages to take a lover.

The scene in which she first meets her lover impresses upon us just how appalling her predicament is. The men under her husband’s employ are gang-raping a servant girl. Fifty or so men are on stage inciting the soon-to-be lover of Katerina into the rape. He has set about his task enthusiastically. Katerina is such a strong, confident woman she is able to walk into this situation and take control of it, saving the girl. Yet she is so powerless that she must fall in love with this man, even as she watches him rape another, because he is actually the best of a remarkably bad bunch. Such was the Russia that the Bolsheviks wished to transform.

The lover is good-for-nothing. A woman less desperate would have been able to see that. If Emma Bovary had been watching Lady Macbeth, at that point when she attends the opera, she would have recognised it too. She would, like the rest of us, have been pleased when Katerina kills her father-in-law after he discovers her lover and has him brutally flogged. When Katerina next kills her husband this too would have seemed – if not quite morally correct, then certainly a very understandable way to proceed. We want happiness for Katerina.

But at some point, as Katerina begins to pay the cost for what she has done, through her enduring guilt, would not Emma have called out to Katerina ‘don’t take that path’. To be bored, unfulfilled, to live a mean life – all would be better than the path she was instead choosing. Katerina’s murders are discovered. As she ends up in a convict labour camp watching her husband making love to one of the other convicts, would not Emma have thought to herself ‘Thank heavens I have a husband who loves me? A husband who is able to bear me children. Sophisticated and cultured surrounds. Thank heavens I am not Katerina’.

We, the observer, can see that distinction. We can see that life in the Russian provinces at not such a different period of time from that of Emma’s, is a nasty brutish violent existence. We can see that Emma is surrounded by culture, material comforts, company, purpose in life, albeit in menial domestic roles. We see, further, that Emma can have – and does have – both domesticity and romance. What would Katerina have given to have Emma’s life? A husband who loved and cared for her, the possibility of children, and lovers if need or whim dictated. Luxury. Would Katerina have admonished Emma? ‘Stop, go no further along this path of self-destruction, be happy with what you have, it is so much more than it might be.’

Yet even though Emma’s life is as blessed as Katerina’s is wretched, even though we feel that Emma chooses her fate, whilst Katerina’s is forced upon her and even though we feel that Katerina has a nobility of spirit keeping her pure even as the scummy world around her drags her down, a spirit that is not obvious in Emma, still we empathise with Emma.

And, in fact, it is precisely that Emma does choose her fate which makes her character admirable. Never does she give up on her dream and hopes. The lines that stand out for me in the book are:

They knew one another too well for any of those surprises of possession that increase its joys a hundred-fold. She was as sick of him as he was weary of her. Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.

She knows what she wants is impossible and yet she will not give up. She does what we all want to do. Madame Bovary isn’t a study of boredom and frustration, nor is Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. They are about belief and about being true to one’s beliefs no matter what.

There is significant difference between us, the readers, and these two characters. We do not, in general, any longer hold with the practice of having beliefs. Consequently we would not be foolish enough either to kill for our happiness or to die for lack of it. We need to step outside ourselves to understand Emma. To be irritated with Emma is to be mean-spirited. We take it for granted that we will marry for love and that we will be in love with the person we choose to spend our life with. We fall in love whenever, and with whomever, we please. Don’t judge Emma in terms of what you are. Judge Emma for what you would be in her shoes.

That state of romantic love is entirely necessary to our being. We may not believe in it, but we nonetheless cannot escape it. Does anything make that more clear than the demise of Emma’s husband? It is not, after all, with Emma’s death that the novel ends. Far from it. We watch Charles suffer and die a perfect romantic death from grief. Ironically, it would have been enough to make Emma love her husband…if only she could have seen it.

So, what would have happened if Emma saw Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk? Would she have advised Katerina against several murders and suicide? No. She would have seen the utter inevitability of Katerina’s fate. What would have happened if Katerina had been magically transported into Emma’s place? She would have died for want of what she desperately desired and could not find. Their fates were both inescapable.

Added 6.3.10

When I first wrote this review, a year or so ago, I was probably too happy to appreciate Emma’s situation. But I’ve been wondering, today as much as any day for some months, how to stop crying. Trying to think of literary advice, Madame Bovary came to mind. Are there not, in that novel, copious tears? I went to Gutenberg today, to take another look and found, for it, this list of subjects:

Subject Adultery
Subject Domestic fiction
Subject Married women
Subject France
Subject Middle class
Subject Physicians’ spouses
Subject Suicide victims (Irrelevant aside: why ‘victims’?)

Fascinating. Not love? Not romance? Not tears? What a moral judgement it is to say of this book that it is about adultery and not love. Not women’s liberation? Provincial vs urban life? The impact of the novel form upon the morals of the period? Boredom? The nature of happiness?

But one would have to say, on reflection, that the only pro-active (sorry, Flaubert, that’s a tease, don’t roll over) thing Emma did to end her tears, was to end her life. I was hoping for something a little less commital.

That left google. Keyed in ‘how to stop crying’ and it took me to a discussion which was really quite illuminating.

There were a couple of warnings.

Watch out for prolonged, heaving sobs. They will hurt your body, and you may have a stomach ache for a few days after. You may also feel sick to your stomach.

No argument here on that one, in fact I’m pleased to have found out why my stomach’s sore all the time lately, but this was under warnings as well:

Remember that strangers don’t know what you’re going through, so strange looks will be present. Ignore them.

I just wouldn’t have put this under warnings. The other day my mother sent me a letter which made me cry on the tram with the effect that nobody sat next to me. I’ve kept it with me ever since thinking if on crowded tram, read letter. Will get seat to myself. I would have put this one under ‘possible advantages,’ though, in fact, there was no such category.

All a bit of a distraction given that the job in hand was to find tips on how to stop crying. This was my favourite:

Do math problems in your head.

Oh, Emma, you poor dear thing. That’s it? If only you’d had our sophisticated 21st century knowledge. You see, it’s like this.

Emotion comes from the right side of the brain. Doing even simple addition and subtraction activates the left side of your brain and can circumvent the emotional response you’re having.

Unhappy Emma. Fancy that. If you’d lived now instead of then, you wouldn’t have had to drink acid in order to end your tears. You could have settled – like I’m going to – for a little speed and accuracy. Pardon me while I take my shoes off. I’ll be needing my toes.

6 thoughts on “Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

  1. Wonderful post! PS (you may not want to do this, but do you know that WordPress, in its wisdom, does not copy over ‘Likes’ into the Posts I Liked widget (or whatever its called) of the person-who-liked-the-post’s blog (if they choose to use this widget) unless the post has pictures.

    So……..though i like your post, it won’t appear (free traffic/publicity done for you by other bloggers) on my blog, because the post has no pictures!

    I suspect that even if you just had one picture within the post and it was the same picture for every post, wordpress would be able to use it so you appeared on other bloggers ‘posts i like’

    • Lady Fancifull, That is hilarious. If ever there was a comment on the way the world is going – anti-word, pro-picture, this would have to be it. Should not the site be called ‘’ then? Or ‘’? I have to say my feeling is that I would find that hard, to put pictures in my post because wordpress want me to. Ironically, this post had a picture in it when it first appeared elsewhere, but I didn’t think it really added to the story!

      Having said all that, I will cogitate on your suggestion.

  2. Snorts! I never thought of that – you are right of course. I suppose because I like pictures in my posts (mainly dustjackets of the books I’m reviewing and author pics, but I enjoy scouring the web for images which may suggest something of the books, it didn’t seem a hard task.

    Its a shame it doesn’t just pick up whatever gravatar/symbol/picture the blogger uses

    Curiously (or not) your ‘that’s the way the world is going’ which I picked up from a number of blogs, on different subjects, led me to re-read a book absolutely predicting all this, and one, moreover, written 60 years ago – Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, much of which i had forgotten, other than the fact of course that books were burned because they engaged with and challenged people’s minds, forcing them to think

  3. I tried hard to “like” your wonderful post but failed in the attempt. A window opened up demanding my email address and password. I worked at giving it a dozen times, but the screen went yellow and shook side to side with cyber-violence and , may I say, cyber-insolence. This is my common fate: to be on the outside looking in. My son, a data-base specialist, tells me “Dad, it’s all intuitive, you just….” And I shout, “Stop right there ! With me, nothing is a “just” Walk me through it slowly and never, never, ever use the word “just” in my hearing.

    • Hilarious, Thom. Still, at least you’ve found me. If you scroll up the top and look to the right, you will see a button for subscribing by email, so you get email updates of posts. I wonder if that will work for you:)

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