I read somewhere in one of Madeleine L’Engle’s books that she thought that the point of view Flaubert used in Madame Bovary (note: free on Kindle) would be particularly suited to novels set in the present day, so I decided to read it. It’s a classic, but somehow I missed reading it along the way.
After giving it some thought, I decided that the book is a classic not because of the story and characters, but rather in spite of them. Although the characters are insipid, vain, pompous, silly, ignorant, grasping, dishonest, and self-important (yes, all of them) and the story chronicles their unintelligent flailing about into melodrama, vice, and bungling, Flaubert employed such a witty and realistically descriptive voice (and was the first writer to employ that level of realism in his descriptions, evidently) that the book is not a dime-store bodice ripper but rather a literary masterpiece.
Of course, you don’t need me to tell you that Madame Bovary is a classic, but is it worth your time to read it? Part of me wants to say yes since classics so often build on one another and are referenced in other works, and in this case, the book really is a good example of detailed character sketches and settings. Although the main activities in the book are related to the title character’s adultery, her activities aren’t portrayed as great or something to emulate, but rather shown as shallow, banal, and ultimately ruinous.
I keep coming back to Madeleine L’Engle’s comment and wondering about it. I enjoyed the point of view Flaubert used in Madame Bovary, but I wonder why L’Engle thought it was so well-suited for novels now. The narrator gets inside the heads of various characters at various times, but always remains a bit aloof and points out every flaw, making it hard to really feel for any of the characters or enter into their motivations and perspectives (even when we are actually reading the character’s thoughts). Flaubert’s narrator sits in judgement on the characters, pronouncing them dull and condemning their lives as narrow and petty. Perhaps L’Engle thought that showing up modern paths to ruin as being banal and not glamorous would be doing readers a good turn. If so, she might have a point.
By contrast, most modern novels take us directly into the head of one (or few) characters in such a way that we sympathize and begin to take the side of the character. Both approaches can illuminate social conditions and express perspectives on certain goals and behaviors, but I wonder if the approach Flaubert took is ultimately as convincing.
I suppose if you want to express contempt for something, or prove your wit, taking Flaubert’s cue would work. However, I find that as a reader my thinking is usually more challenged by a closer, more sympathetic narrative. It’s interesting to think about how the book would have been different if Flaubert had chosen to wield his realism in a different way.
Given the ongoing penchant for books based on classics, wouldn’t it be interesting to read this story from Berthe Bovary’s point of view? In the end, I think her life was most ruined by her mother’s behavior, and it would be a challenge to construct a story of how she remembers her mother, pieces together bits of gossip and family lore, and how she views the mother who only tangentially interacted with her and yet whose decisions had such a profound effect in her life.
At any rate, what are your thoughts? If you’ve read Madame Bovary do you think it was worth it because of its literary importance? If you were rewriting the story from a different perspective, how would you do it?
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