This Day In Writing History
On October 1st, 1856, Madame Bovary, the legendary novel by Gustave Flaubert, was published. It first appeared in a serialized form in the French literary magazine Le Revue de Paris, published from October 1st through December 15th, 1856. The novel was considered scandalous and attacked for its alleged obscenity and immorality; Flaubert was accused of glorifying adultery. In January of 1857, the novel went on trial for obscenity. On February 7th, it was acquitted - found to be not legally obscene.
Set in provincial Northern France during the early 19th century, Madame Bovary tells the story of the ill-fated marriage of Emma Rouault and Charles Bovary, a country doctor. Although Emma is really the main character, the novel begins and ends following the life of her husband, Charles. We first see him as a shy, awkward teenager attending school and facing the ridicule of his classmates. From there, Charles struggles through higher education, but manages to graduate from a second rate medical school.
Now officially a doctor, Charles becomes an officer of the Public Health Service. His mother arranges for him to marry a widow who is supposedly rich and definitely unpleasant. So, after establishing a medical practice in Tostes, Charles falls for the lovely Emma Rouault when he arrives at her father's farm to set his broken leg. Charles checks on his patient more often than necessary so he can be near Emma, until his jealous wife puts an end to the visits. After she dies, Charles waits for a while, then begins courting Emma.
Although daintily dressed and educated in a convent, Emma yearns for romance and the finer things in life, her mind filled with fantasies from all the novels she read in the convent as a teenager. At first, Emma believes that she loves Charles, and after her father consents, she marries him. Unfortunately, despite his good intentions, Charles is clumsy and an insufferable bore. Emma grows disillusioned with her marriage and falls into a dull and listless existence. Charles decides that she needs a change of scenery, so he moves them to the nearby town of Yonville. It's a bigger town than the small village of Tostes, but Emma finds it equally boring.
After giving birth to her daughter Berthe, Emma hopes to find happiness in motherhood, but that too proves to be a disappointment. Then she meets Leon Dupuis, an intelligent, handsome young law student who shares her appreciation for the finer things and returns her admiration. However, out of fear and shame, Emma hides both her love for Leon and her contempt for her husband, and resigns herself to playing the role of devoted wife and mother. Leon leaves to study in Paris.
Later, Emma meets wealthy libertine landowner Rodolphe Boulanger when he brings in one of his servants for medical treatment. Rodolphe casts a lustful eye on Emma and decides to seduce her. He invites her to go riding with him for the sake of her health, and Charles, suspecting nothing, embraces the idea. Emma begins a passionate affair with Rodolphe that lasts for three years. Carried away by romantic fantasy, Emma risks exposing her affair with her indiscreet letters and visits to her lover. When Emma plans to elope with Rodolphe, who never had any intention of marrying her, he ends the relationship with a dear john letter enclosed in a basket of apricots. Devastated, Emma falls severely ill.
After she recovers, Emma and Charles attend an opera in Rouen after he insists that she go. The opera reawakens Emma's passions and she runs into Leon at the opera house. Later, they begin an affair. Telling Charles that she's taking piano lessons, Emma travels to Rouen every week to meet Leon at the same hotel, in the same room. At first, their affair is one of delirious passion and mutual fulfillment, but soon, Leon grows tired of the overemotional Emma, while she grows ambivalent about him, realizing that Leon will never be like the charismatic, domineering Rodolphe.
Emma next seeks happiness in material possessions. The crafty merchant Monsieur Lheureux manipulates Emma into buying lots of luxury items from him on credit, and she quickly accrues a crushing amount of debt. After Lheureux arranges for Emma to get power of attorney over her husband's estate, he calls in her debt. Desperate for money, she tries to seduce Leon into embezzling from his employer. This allows Leon to dump her without guilt, as both his employer and his mother had been pressuring him to end the relationship. When her attempt at prostituting herself to Rodolphe fails, Emma falls into despair and commits suicide by swallowing arsenic. Even the romance of suicide fails her, as she dies an agonizing death.
The novel ends with the clueless Charles grieving for Emma. He preserves her room as a shrine and adopts some of her behaviors and tastes. When he finds some of Rodolphe's love letters to Emma, he still tries to understand and forgive her. He stops working and becomes a recluse, as all of his possessions are sold to pay off Lheureux. He dies in poverty, leaving his daughter Berthe to be raised by distant relatives.
Madame Bovary is a masterpiece of French Realism that is considered one of the greatest and most influential novels ever written. It has been adapted numerous times for the stage, screen, and television.
Quote Of The Day
"An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere." - Gustave Flaubert
Today's video features the original U.S. theatrical trailer for legendary French director Claude Chabrol's brilliant 1991 feature film adaptation of Madame Bovary, starring Isabelle Huppert in the title role. Enjoy!