Tuesday, June 21, 2011


What’s the story with Madame Bovary?

There’s no question that it’s one of the most celebrated novels out there - and yet, having finished it a few nights ago, I found myself wondering: really, that’s it?

All right, there’s a universe embedded in the detail; and all right, that detail amounts to portraiture of the literary variety. But come on: what is it about Madame Bovary that we are supposed to be attracted to? And another thing: where’s the sexuality? I mean, the real sexuality...

I’ve said this to Frank before, but I have serious trouble connecting with that perfected element of nineteenth century novels. Because for all the precision packed into Flaubert’s book (and others like it), there’s a curious lack of detail when it comes to the important things - like Madame Bovary’s infidelity. I mean: just because she runs her fingers against the cuff of her lover’s coat doesn’t mean that the sex was good. And if it does, well, I missed the hints, the moans.

Come on, Gustave: Madame’s driven to the ultimate act of self-destruction, and yet we’re never given access to her bedroom - and her behavior when she’s in there.

Don’t get me wrong, there were parts of this book that I greatly enjoyed (especially Flaubert’s treatment of rural France), but I found it a frustration: if there is going to be sex and sexuality there need to be ideas hovering around them. And this is where Flaubert, in the end, had me confused: what drives - I mean, what really drives - Madame Bovary toward adultery? And what is the meaning of the sex-act to which she ultimately commits herself?


  1. John Brumfield12:05 PM

    I agree; especially when Flaubert himself proclaimed, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi..." If that were true couldn't we expect more insight into her interior life?

  2. Flaubert and the publisher were tried by the French government in 1856 for blasphemy and crimes against public morals. Asking MB to be scandalous by modern standards is more than unfair.

  3. Well, we don't get to watch Lizzie getting down with Mr. Darcy, either.

    In the pre-porn age, small stimuli meant a lot more. Doesn't Henry James have a passage where the protagonist is intoxicated when his hand brushes the woman's?

    I'm reading René Girard's Deceit, Desire, and the Novel – the point he makes is that Madame Bovary doesn't have an interior life. It's all based on imitation. Even her desires are imitation.

  4. I agree, Daniel, that it's unfair to demand of a nineteenth century novel the sort of sexual content that we've come to expect (for better or worse) today.

    Still, my point is that, within the context of the book itself, Bovary's motivation is unclear.

    The result is a confused sexuality, one which assumes a two- (as opposed to a three-) dimensional quality.