A Classic I Just “Didn’t Get”: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks


Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.


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Is there a classic book you just “didn’t get?”

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Madame Bovary A Classic I Didn't Get

Despite my love of classics, there are a number didn’t really “get” (at least until I went to a class discussion about them and could begin to see what other readers were getting out of the book!), but my mind really blanked at coming up with specific titles when I saw the prompt for this week.

In a stroke of genius, I decided to go to my Goodreads shelves and see what classics I had given low star ratings to. The only problem: many of these I read ten years ago or more, and I don’t think I remember enough about them to say why I didn’t like them or what I didn’t get about them! (Though I did actually write a review of The Turn of the Screw for the blog, and I think I “get” Brave New World; I just don’t like it.)

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With all that in mind, I’m officially going with:

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Unfortunately I don’t seem to have written a review of Madame Bovary, which would be helpful in refreshing my thoughts because I read it in 2013. However, personally I’m just not a fan of that genre of novel that (perhaps reductively) could be called: wealthy woman becomes unhappy in her marriage and starts taking lovers and…readers are supposed to be sympathetic to that? I’m not a big fan of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence or The Awakening by Kate Chopin for similar reasons.

I suppose there’s an argument that, in the past, women were stuck in unhappy marriages, if divorce was not an option, and that makes infidelity more forgivable than if they could leave their husbands and pursue new prospects that way. Even with that in mind, I’ve never been on board with books about adultery, especially in instances where the woman isn’t really being treated badly but has just never been truly in love with or excited by her husband.

Madame Bovary really focuses on that point, that Madame Bovary is experiencing ennui. This means 1) it’s hard to feel that she’s doing the “right” thing or “doesn’t have other options” when she cheats because she’s just bored! and 2) the book is kind of boring because it focuses on how boring the life of the protagonist is. I felt as if I were listlessly drifting through the whole book, not as if I were reading anything interesting.

Even if one argues we’re not supposed to sympathize with Madame Bovary, I don’t get the appeal of the book. So Flaubert is just portraying a bored immoral woman and asking us to ponder how bored and immoral she is? I’ll pass, thanks.

Have you read Madame Bovary? What did you think?

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Summary of the Dover version of Madame Bovary:

Bored and unhappy in a lifeless marriage, Emma Bovary yearns to escape from the dull circumstances of provincial life. Married to a simple-minded but indulgent country doctor, she takes one lover, then another, hastens her husband’s financial ruin with her extravagance…

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1888) was brought to trial by the French government on the grounds of the novel’s alleged immorality, but unlike his less fortunate contemporary, Baudelaire, he narrowly escaped conviction.

Falubert’s powerful and deeply moving examination of the moral degeneration of a middle-class Frenchwoman is universally regarded as one of the landmarks of 19th-century fiction. It is reproduced here, complete and unabridged, in the classic translation by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, daughter of Karl Marx.


12 thoughts on “A Classic I Just “Didn’t Get”: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Classic Remarks)

  1. Nish says:

    I am not a big fan of adultery in books either even if they are well done. Have you read The end of the affair. That’s another aggravating one.


  2. OriginalTeenMuslimah says:

    I’ll be honest, I’ve read the book and was slightly confused when I got to the end lol. When a character is as immoral as her, I expected there to be, I dunno, some kind of redemption at the end? but no, I guess the author just wanted to portray her like that and leave it.


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yeah, I can kind of see it artistically. She’s just a bored unhappy woman with poor morals. The end? But it’s not really a satisfying story written that way! One kind of wonders what he point of reading it was.


  3. Krysta says:

    Yeah, I don’t really like adultery in books, either. Sometimes critics seem to act like it’s an exciting thing to see a woman break free from her marriage or whatever, but it can be hard to see what’s so freeing about a woman needing to find herself in yet another man. Who will inevitably leave her or be her downfall because these older books usually need to show a moral by punishing an unfaithful woman.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lory says:

    I agree that reading books about characters who are bored with their life is just too boring to get on with. There is a point to be made about the ennui of modern life, but I’d far rather hear from authors who have solutions.


  5. BookerTalk says:

    I think there is more to this book than a married woman who is bored with her life and looking for a bit of excitement. Emma Bovary is a dreamer who has aspirations to emulate the lives of those who are above her station in life. So in a sense its a study of the romantic malady, the inability to reconcile conflicts between the aspirations and the realities

    Liked by 1 person

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