First Page Friday: ‘Madame Bovary’ by Gustavo Flaubert

I’ve got something a bit different for you today, a classic novel that I suspect that not that many people have read – ‘Madame Bovary’. It’s a relatively slim volume, and yet Flaubert took five years to complete it, writing for twelve hours a day.

Supposedly inspired by a real-life scandal, ‘Madame Bovary’ is a tale of marriage and adultery. When it was first published in 1856, the book was banned by the French government and Flaubert was put on trial for the book’s overt sexuality.

At the beginning of the novel, we meet Charles Bovary, who is the only son of a middle-class family. Charles becomes a doctor and sets up his practice in a rural village. He makes a marriage of convenience with a woman older than himself. Upon his wife’s death, Bovary marries an attractive young woman named Emma Roualt, the daughter of one of his patients.

“Oh why, dear God, did I marry him?”

‘Madame Bovary’

For a while Emma is excited and pleased by her marriage, but because of her superficial romantic ideals she was soon bored and disillusioned by her new life. As you may guess, from this point on, things go from bad to worse and the novel has a devastatingly tragic ending. Interestingly, when Flaubert was asked who Emma Bovary was based on, he always gave the same answer – himself.

“… deep in her heart she was waiting for something to happen. Like sailors in distress, she gazed around with despairing eyes upon the loneliness of her life, seeking a white sail on the immensities of the misty horizon.”

‘Madame Bovary’

This is a cautionary tale of wanting more and never being content with what you have. Emma is constantly thinking that her life would be great if only something else would happen, and I felt a profound sadness for Emma always thinking that her life needed to be more, rather than her being able to enjoy what she had.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

The First Page:

We were in class when the head-master came in, followed by a “new fellow,” not wearing the school uniform, and a school servant carrying a large desk. Those who had been asleep woke up, and every one rose as if just surprised at his work.

We began repeating the lesson. He listened with all his ears, as attentive as if at a sermon, not daring even to cross his legs or lean on his elbow; and when at two o’clock the bell rang, the master was obliged to tell him to fall into line with the rest of us.

The head-master made a sign to us to sit down. Then, turning to the class-master, he said to him in a low voice—

“Monsieur Roger, here is a pupil whom I recommend to your care; he’ll be in the second. If his work and conduct are satisfactory, he will go into one of the upper classes, as becomes his age.”

The “new fellow,” standing in the corner behind the door so that he could hardly be seen, was a country lad of about fifteen, and taller than any of us. His hair was cut square on his forehead like a village chorister’s; he looked reliable, but very ill at ease. Although he was not broad-shouldered, his short school jacket of green cloth with black buttons must have been tight about the arm-holes, and showed at the opening of the cuffs red wrists accustomed to being bare. His legs, in blue stockings, looked out from beneath yellow trousers, drawn tight by braces, He wore stout, ill-cleaned, hob-nailed boots.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy my posts about ‘The Moonstone’ and ‘Middlemarch’.

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