Boredom, quiet as the spider, was spinning its web in the shadowy places of her heart • Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
Depicting real life • 1855–1900
1830 With its detailed analysis of French society and psychological depth, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black marks a definitive shift from Romanticism to Realism.
1830—56 The interlocking novels and stories of Honoré de Balzac’s monumental La Comédie humaine provide a panoramic view of French society from 1815 to 1848.
1869 Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education adds to the body of French realism with its vast presentation of France under Louis-Philippe.
1885 Guy de Maupassant portrays the rise to power of a ruthless social climber in Bel Ami, a Realist novel set in fin-de-siècle Paris.
Romanticism, with its focus on emotion, nature, and the heroic, dominated French literature from the end of the 18th century, but by the 1830s a new literary genre was gathering force: realism. Although the genre went on to spread throughout Europe and beyond, its beginnings and its development are particularly associated with France.
Emerging partly as a reaction to Romanticism, and reflecting the evolution of science and the social sciences, this new genre sought to depict contemporary life and society with detail and precision, in an unadorned and unromantic way. Realist writers put familiar situations and events under the literary microscope, representing them realistically rather than idealistically, even if some of the subject-matter might have been considered banal when compared with the Romantics.
Realism gathers force
One of the first French novelists of the period to take this approach was Stendhal, who incorporated both Romanticism and realism in his novels The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma (1839). Honoré de Balzac was a key pioneer of French realism, creating a keenly observed and realistic portrayal of ordinary life in his masterpiece, La Comédie humaine, which incorporated a vast series of more than 100 novels and stories. However, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary moved much further along the path of realistic depiction, and it is considered to be the finest and most influential example of French realism.
On the surface, Madame Bovary has a fairly simple plot. A young woman, Emma Bovary, is unhappily married to a rather dull doctor in provincial Normandy, in northern France. Influenced by the romantic reading of her youth, she dreams of a more exciting and fulfilling life, but her attempts to force reality to live up to her fantasies have devastating results.
"Her heart was just like that: contact with the rich had left it smeared with something that would never fade away."
Life in the provinces
The novel is more complex than the outline of its plot would suggest. From its beginning, when the reader is introduced to the young Charles Bovary, to its tragic ending, which supposedly had Flaubert himself in tears, Madame Bovary is deeply rooted in mid-19th-century provincial France. Events in the wider world were moving fast, and for the newly emerging middle classes, the centre of sophistication was Paris. But Flaubert chose to focus on the petit bourgeois in the provinces, whose lives he portrayed with an acute — and not always kindly — psychological perception.
Flaubert had begun his literary career as a Romantic, working on an exotic and mystical novel, The Temptation of Saint Anthony. However, some of his close friends, particularly his mentor, author Louis Bouilhet, reacted critically to an early draft of this work and urged him to attempt something more realistic. Drawing on a real-life event (the death of a doctor whose wife had caused a scandal), Flaubert began work on his new book. His aim was to write about the lives of ordinary people.
Rouen, the capital of Normandy, is the provincial setting of Flaubert’s text — a perfect backdrop for his skilful rendering of the lives and preoccupations of the middle class.
"There was no fire in the fireplace, the clock was still ticking, and Emma felt vaguely amazed that all those things should be so calm when there was such turmoil inside her."
Creativity in detail
The project took Flaubert five years and involved meticulous research. He set his novel in the region around Rouen, where he spent most of his life and which he knew in intimate detail; he modelled places in his novel — the villages of Tostes and Yonville — on real country towns. He walked around the region and even made maps to ensure the greatest accuracy; he drew up biographies of his fictional characters, and set out to create a prose style that was totally stripped of all Romanticism, labouring over every sentence. Sitting in his room by the river Seine at Croisset, near Rouen, he constantly corrected and rewrote every page of his manuscript, a time-consuming process. His aim was to write in an entirely new and objective fashion, without “a single subjective reaction, nor a single reflection by the author”. The result, as Flaubert had hoped, was a “tour de force”.
Divided into three sections, Madame Bovary contrasts the hopelessness of sentimental romanticism with the monotonous reality of everyday life. In particular, Flaubert criticizes the foolishness and dullness of the middle classes, whom he held in contempt, even though he was himself middle class. Emma Bovary, around whom the novel rotates, symbolizes unrealistic romanticism. She is the convent-educated daughter of a wealthy farmer. Fed by the romances of Walter Scott and the “meanderings of Lamartine”, a Romantic poet scorned by Flaubert, she dreams of living “in some old manor-house, … looking out far across the fields for the white-plumed rider galloping towards her on his black horse”.
Passion and reality
Seeking a “marvellous passion”, Emma marries Charles Bovary, a kindly but boring doctor in the small rural village of Tostes. Almost immediately she is disappointed, not just by Charles’s dullness and lack of ambition, but also sexually. The disparity between her dreams and the unstimulating reality of her marriage, so perceptively described by Flaubert, lies at the heart of the novel.
Emma and Charles move to Yonville, a provincial town that Flaubert portrays in painstaking and often ironic detail, describing it as a “bastard region where the language is without accentuation, as the landscape is without character”. Flaubert’s ability to capture the mundane and commonplace contributed to establishing the novel as a key work in French realism. No detail is too small to be included: he describes roof-thatches like fur caps, sickly pear trees, ancient farmhouses and barns, and small graveyards typical of the region. His description of the country fair where local dignitaries make pompous speeches, aping the urban middle classes, is masterly. Dramatically, he counterpoises the tedious speeches against the passionate conversations and actions of Emma Bovary, behind a window overlooking the fair.
Flaubert dissects Madame Bovary in this 1869 caricature. The novel is a dissection of Emma’s inner mind, exploring her private thoughts with an intense psychological realism.
"She wanted equally to die and to live in Paris."
Flaubert introduces other characters who live in Yonville, among them the town pharmacist, Monsieur Homais, an atheist and self-opinionated individual who practises medicine without a licence and uses every opportunity to display his apparent knowledge in the most pompous manner; and Monsieur Lhereaux, a merchant, who callously encourages Emma to run up debts, as she seeks to overcome marital boredom with what would today be described as retail therapy. Flaubert knew such characters very well and portrays them in intimate and realistic detail; throughout the novel he brilliantly captures their dullness and their small-minded attitudes, while never allowing his writing to become dull. Just as Flaubert gently mocks Emma’s completely unachievable dreams and romanticism (and describes the tragic consequences that they have), so he also mocks the unsympathetic and pretentious aspirations of the merchant class.
Set among the realistic details of everyday routine, Flaubert’s descriptions of Emma’s romantic hopes and her frustrations within her provincial marriage are even more powerful, and appear surprisingly modern. Almost inevitably, Emma seeks romance and grand passion outside her marriage, embarking on two doomed affairs, first with the wealthy landowner and womanizer Rodolphe Boulanger, and then with Léon Dupois, a young law student, who shares her yearnings for glorious landscapes, music, and Romantic literature. Although initially excited and apparently fulfilled, Emma ultimately becomes disillusioned. As Flaubert writes: “Adultery, Emma was discovering, could be as banal as marriage.” Abandoned by one lover and rejected by the other, she spirals into a self-destructive path of increasing debt and alienation.
"Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers."
Realism on trial
Madame Bovary first appeared in serial form in the Revue de Paris. Almost immediately, Flaubert, the printer, and the manager of the Revue were brought to trial on charges of obscenity, and there was an attempt to ban the novel on the grounds of “outrage against public and religious morality”. It was not only its content but also the realism of the style itself that was considered vulgar and shocking. But Flaubert and his colleagues were acquitted, and although the novel initially received a mixed reception, it went on to become a bestseller.
Madame Bovary and Flaubert’s subsequent novel, Sentimental Education, with their objective, detailed, and stark portrayal of everyday life, marked the coming of age of French realism and at the same time its highest point. Within France, Flaubert’s work influenced other major writers, including Guy de Maupassant, whose economical style and approach reflected the realism of his mentor; and Émile Zola, who, in novels such as Germinal (1885), focused on the harsh realities of day-to-day life, and who, like Flaubert, often spent months researching his subject-matter.
Rodolphe Boulanger, Emma’s first lover, recognizes her boredom, her frustrated passion, and her willingness to be seduced, and manipulates her expertly into an affair.
Gustave Flaubert was born in Rouen, France, on 12 December 1821. His father was chief surgeon at the main hospital in Rouen. Flaubert began writing while still at school, but in 1841 he went to Paris to study law. At age 22 he developed a nervous disorder, and he left the law to devote himself to writing. In 1846 his father and his sister Caroline died; with his mother and niece, Flaubert moved to Croisset, near Rouen, where he lived for the rest of his life. He never married, but between 1846 and 1855 he carried on an affair with poet Louise Colet. Flaubert began to work on his novel Madame Bovary in 1851, completing it five years later. In 1857 he travelled to Tunisia, collecting material for his next novel, Salammbô (1862), which was set in ancient Carthage. Other works would follow, but none ever achieved the acclaim of his first novel. Flaubert died on 8 May 1880 and was buried in Rouen cemetery.
Other key works
1869 Sentimental Education
1877 Three Tales
See also: The Red and the Black • Old Goriot • Germinal • A Sentimental Education • Lolita