Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary tells the story of Emma Bovary, a young doctor’s wife living in the French countryside in the mid-1850s. Though she is by no means impoverished, Emma is thoroughly unsatisfied with her admittedly banal life as a housewife, and thus makes a series of futile attempts at fabricating a highly sophisticated, quasi-aristocratic atmosphere for herself and her family. Ultimately, her decisions culminate in horrendous fates for herself, her husband, and her young daughter.
From the onset, Flaubert writes Emma Bovary as a character that you both sympathize with and absolutely despise. Readers pity her for being forced into a life of mediocrity and being unable to create true happiness for herself because of the social status of women during her time. She is in every sense of the word trapped in her lifestyle. However, readers simultaneously are disgusted with her destructive, highly selfish behaviors. Emma becomes obsessed with living outside of her means in the hopes of creating excitement for herself, and buys enormous amounts of expensive goods on credit to the eventual financial ruin of her family. Furthermore, she has multiple affairs with two men throughout her marriage, fully taking advantage of her slightly dopey husband’s trust and adoration of her in order to distract herself from her own depressive episodes. Emma Bovary is in essence the very definition of a conflicting character- readers want so badly to love her because of her plight, but simply cannot because of her behaviors.
Although the love-hate relationship with the main character of Madame Bovary is not what is typical or ideal for readers of novels, Flaubert’s writing of Madame Bovary is absolutely masterful. Flaubert vividly describes the society within the 1850s French countryside without being redundant or superfluous in his word choice, and writes with a certain sensitivity that perfectly captures the essence of the female soul and brings Emma Bovary to life. Arguably, Flaubert creates a female character just as excellently as great female writers such as Plath or the Brontë sisters do.
Overall, readers looking for a highly engaging period piece would thoroughly enjoy Madame Bovary. However, Madame Bovary is by no means lighthearted, and should be approached with the knowledge that it is highly emotional, conflicting, and frankly sometimes depressing to read. That being said, Madame Bovary is thought-provoking and splendidly written, and I would recommend it to any avid reader of classics, feminist literature, or historical fiction.