It was the translation of this book that united all the members of the Reading Group: we all found it to be unsatisfactory, and the word “clunky” was used a number of times to describe it. It is a testament to the power of the narrative that we were able to see beyond the translation and to understand why it is, rightly, considered a classic.
Madame Bovary is a complex, three dimensional portrait of a young woman, who moved from her single state to being a wife and mother, and who felt trapped in her female body. Fed on romantic novels and tales, scathingly attacked by Flaubert, Emma Bovary’s actions destroyed not only herself, but her husband and daughter too.
Written in 1857 the novel, with its tale of adultery and selfishness, has a very modern feel. The author’s description of Emma’s very active and predatory sexuality must have been shocking when it was first published; for Flaubert had surgical precision when he dissected Emma’s extra marital “love” affairs. Her desire to feel what she imagined she would feel from the novels she read, meant that she never experienced genuine affection and love and was incapable of giving either. Her relationships were always doomed to be disappointing. This was in contrast to the loving relationship between the apothecary Homais (whom Flaubert portrayed as a buffoon) and his wife.
One member of the group felt that Emma’s behaviour indicated that she may have been bi-polar. Others disagreed, but all felt that she did suffer from mental instability due to being so stifled by the rigidity of society’s expectations of her sex.
In Madame Bovary, the reader can find a powerful case for the emancipation of women.