Posted by: Nathan | June 30, 2007

Madame Bovary

Continuing my desultory romp through the classics, I recently polished of Gustave Flaubert’s famous novel Madame Bovary. I admit that I was expected a lot from this read; Flaubert is very popular right now at my university, and not only because he’s French; his style is renowned as being exceptionally beautiful. I also expected Realism because Flaubert wrote this book in 1857, but mainly because the book jacket talked about it. The final expectation I had before reading the first page was that Mme. Bovary is a famously unfaithful wife.

The experience of reading Bovary was unlike any I’ve had: I’ve never enjoyed a novel so much while caring about the characters and plot so little. This odd experience was made possible by Flaubert’s style, which managed to come through a little in the translation I read. The world of the novel is a real world. The reader sees, smells, and lives it. The details are never too overwhelming, though there are many of them. It’s not flowery—it’s descriptive. The style is detailed and precise but lilting. One gets enjoyment from reading the words on the page in their order; it sounds good.

But as great as the style is, the plot is as boring. It’s not dull because it’s set in the 1800s where life moved at a slower pace; I rarely mind that. It’s boring because it’s the most common plot I can think of: woman marries man; woman is unsatisfied due to overly romantic expectations; woman seeks happiness elsewhere; problems ensue. Reading this novel was akin to taking a road you’ve never driven only to find that you recognize the landscape after a while, and you end up at a very familiar place. I won’t tell you the ending out of principle, but I saw it coming and so will you.

And there was the problem of the title character; I didn’t like Emma Bovary. I knew she would cheat on her hubby and I wouldn’t like that, but I was prepared to have sympathy for her in some way. However, that was impossible; she’s just too unlikeable. Emma is selfish, narcissistic, and stupid. She’s promiscuous and naive at once (yes, it’s possible). Her overly romantic instincts ruin her marriage and then her life. She has a daughter but never thinks of her. She throws herself at other men who either have no good intentions or cannot handle her unrealistic fantasies and overbearing manner. In short, she’s a fool.

This book is hard to grade because it’s such an odd mixture of excellent and annoying. If I were to grade it on plot alone, it would receive an F. Style alone? A- (surely an A in French). Realism? A, and an extraordinary example of it. Characterization? A-, very complete. Actual characters? D. So the novel gets a low B-, 6.7/10.

A note on my translation. I read the Barnes and Noble hardbound classic edition. Do not read this edition. As is the case with many B&N classics, the printing is poor (some words are missing, other pages have misaligned paragraphs). Additionally, the translator wasn’t too good either. Having just taken a translation class, I noted many misplaced clauses and a few questionable substitutions. I shouldn’t be suprised, I guess, because the book doesn’t list the translator. This is an egregious oversight on the part of B&N. You hire someone to translate a great French novelist and then mass produce squi’s work but don’t mention who it was?!?

Do yourself a favor; find a good translation of Bovary (they’re out there), at least one that lists the translator.* Who knows? Maybe I would’ve enjoyed the novel more with another translator. Overall, I’m glad I read it, but it wasn’t my favorite.

*I’m pleased to find that this edition is no longer in print at, and the one they now publish lists its translator.


  1. What a great review–I love the book reviews!

    Separately, you’ve now exceeded 10,000 hits on this blog. That’s pretty impressive, my friend.

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