Are you a housewife with a boring husband? Dream of a better life elsewhere? Think that your life should be so, so much better than you deserve? If yes, you are not alone – even way back in 1856 in France, another woman felt exactly like how you do.
That woman is Emma Rouault, a beautiful young farmer’s daughter who married a country doctor, Charles Bovary and became known as Madame Bovary. Although everyone (including herself) thinks that their marriage is made in heaven…soon Emma realizes that her husband is nothing but a simple man.
To start off, their marriage is one of coincidence and convenience – Charles was first married to a woman 25 years older than him (because she was rich).
If she had been a pleasant wife, maybe (?) Charles would not have strayed or found the YOUNGER Emma attractive. In the end, when Charles’ first wife died in a fit, it was natural for him to marry Emma.
Theirs seem like a marriage made in heaven since their “dating” days were spent talking gaily with each other. Emma was also very happy to move into Charles’ home, except for the moment his dead wife’s wedding flowers greeted her in their bridal room…
At the beginning, Emma took to her newly married life with enthusiasm as she had a maid to tend to her needs. Charles brought in enough money to ensure she had a comfortable (although not luxurious) life.
As for Charles, he was the happiest man on earth! After spending several years under the withered iron fist of his older, rich wife, he found his new wife and new life perfect. Poor Charles – he sure was a happy man who thought he’d died and gone to heaven…
Emma spent most of her time reading romantic novels, which were all about
“…love, lovers, beautiful girls, ladies in danger, horses ridden till they dropped dead, dark forests, tears and kisses, and gentlemen as brave as lions.”
She becomes so taken in by the ideas in these books that she started wondering,
“…if they could have gone far away to lands whose names fall like music on the ear, where the weddings of lovers are followed by mornings of soft delight and where, when the sun goes down, you breathe, sitting beside the sea, the sweet perfume of the lemon trees.
Why did her bedroom window not look out on to the Swiss or Scottish mountains? Why did her husband not stand beside her in a black silk jacket, the wind blowing his long hair back from his pale, white forehead?”
One day, they are invited to a high society party hosted by a national government Minister, the Marquis d’Andervilliers. Attending the party is like a dream come true for Emma who spent the entire night dancing and watching the guests
“…men talking and smoking cigars in small groups in their black and white evening dress, as the servants moved aong them carrying drinks and more small, delicate things to eat. All along the rows of seated women she could see smiles half-hidden, half-revealed, by the flowers the ladies held;
everywhere there was silk, the flash of jewels and gold, white arms, and hair piled high on elegant heads.”
The party ends but not Emma’s dreaming. She tries to liven up her dull existence as a country doctor’s wife by adding pretty, elegant touches around the house – the unsuspecting Charles is even more impressed with how clever and stylish his wife is, not knowing that her longing is growing deeper day by day.
Soon, she befriends a legal clerk, Leon Dupuis and both of them get on like a house on fire because they loved to read and talk about places they have never visited, things they have never done. They soon fall in love and there are many chances for them to profess their feelings but Emma holds back.
In the end, Leon leaves the village and Emma falls ill with despair. She also becomes pregnant.
She wants a baby boy but gets a baby girl, whom Charles adores dearly. Losing her dear friend, Emma falls 100% for the playboy, Rodolphe Boulanger’s offer of friendship (with every ddishonest intention to seduce her) which turns into a torrid affair. A silly girl in love, Emma spends a lot of her husband’s money to buy presents for Rodolphe.
She thinks that Rodolphe is willing to whisk her away to Paris, to a better life but in reality, he starts to get bored with her childish talk and plans…
“He never kissed her and held her in the old way. No! That great love of theirs, on whose waves she had been carried away, seemed to be growing shallower beneath her, like the waters of a river in a dry summer, and now she could see the mud that lay beneath it!”
She’s in for a real shock when he reneges their pact to escape together. Heartbroken and stuck in an unhappy marriage, Emma becomes depressed and falls ill.
Her life picks up again when she reunites with her old friend, Leon Dupuis, and she starts another affair. However, her lavish spending during her affair with Rodolphe lands her into huge, huge debts that the law comes after her, threatening to take over their home…everything.
Unable to deal with the harsh reality, Emma swallows poison (I’m still trying to find out what) and dies a horrible, painful death. The saddest people in the world are Charles, who only realized her affairs after that and yet loved her with all his life (and death) and her daughter, Berthe.
Reading this 3,000 word Level 6 Penguin Reader bought for only RM1 from The Big Bookshop, I am struck by the similarities between the plot here and the one in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Guy de Maupaussant’s The Necklace, which also center on the theme of young, married women who are unhappy with their lives.
Once a young wife myself, I confess that I HAVE gone down the Romantic road myself – wishing that my husband was taller, darker and handsomer (grins); earned more money or in other words be like Ronan Keating, Marcus Schenkenberg, Viggo Mortensen, South America’s national volleyball team, the Spanish football team and Bill Gates all rolled into one!
Lucky for me, I realize that he is a gem as he is and that we were brought together by friendship, love and God. For the areas that we do not share a common interest, both of us have cultivated them individually and are happy to bond where we can and leave off where we can’t.
I wished that Emma could have seen the wonderful life she had right in front of her, especially the kind, hardworking husband and beautiful daughter who loved her very much.
Also, I wished that Charles could have been more enlightened and seen the danger signs of Emma’s affairs flashing everywhere – which husband in his right mind would encourage intimate friendships between his wife and another man? Also, he should have seen that Emma was changing so much…
Since the story takes place in the 19th century during the Romantic era, man-woman relationships needed a lot of work then and that open, honest communication was unheard of.
I feel very little sympathy for Emma because she was a selfish woman from beginning to end. She took the easy way out of her troubles and ultimately left her poor husband to deal with her debts and when he died of a broken heart, her 3 year old INNOCENT little girl was left behind an unwanted and penniless child.
Moral of the story: When you are in an affair, are you REALLY sure that he will do as he says?
What do you think? If you’d read the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
P/S I can’t wait to read the full, unabridged book because Flaubert’s description and metaphors are incredible
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert