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Definition: Madame Bovary from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Novel by Gustave Flaubert, published in France in 1857. It aroused controversy by its portrayal of a country doctor's wife driven to suicide by a series of unhappy love affairs.

Summary Article: MADAME BOVARY (1857)
from France and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History

Madame Bovary, written by Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), tells the story of a provincial married woman who takes two lovers, signs promissory notes to fund her love affairs and penchant for luxury (thereby ruining her devoted and faithful husband), fails to demonstrate maternal feelings for her daughter Berthe, and then finally commits suicide by taking arsenic. The famous trial of author and text as an outrage to religious and civic morality rebounded in favor of the defense, resulting in acquittal on moral grounds. As the novel itself portrayed and criticized bourgeois double standards, so it served as a warning against the dangers surrounding gullible young women fed on romances. Indeed, the eponymous heroine’s self-delusion, fantasy, and longing for what is not is a fatal flaw apparent to some degree in all the characters in Madame Bovary. Thanks to such representations, the term “Bovaryisme” entered the dictionary, defined by Jules de Gaultier in 1902 as “the power to conceive of oneself other than one is.”

The social realism of the work and its manner of representing complex psychological and emotional states reverberate beyond provincial France and the French realist novel of the nineteenth century. Influencing other contemporary European historical novelists such as Tolstoy and Galdós, Madame Bovary also heralded the modernist novel in its traditions on both sides of the Atlantic. As a reflection on fiction and its devices, Flaubert’s stylistic experiments with multiple points of view and composite description caused Henry James to describe Flaubert as “the novelist’s novelist.” Indeed, it is Flaubert’s choreography of multifaceted detail to unmask a more complex truth that William Faulkner develops. More recently, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1965) remakes a transatlantic Madame Bovary, while the French New Novelists claimed Flaubert as a direct aesthetic precursor.

The iconic status of Flaubert’s novel as high art and social critique continues to dominate its reception and adaptations in other media. Claude Chabrol’s film adaptation of Madame Bovary (1991) faithfully reuses key lines in the text in its screenplay, lovingly attends to nineteenth-century Norman costume and custom, but fails to do justice to the themes of female passion and social situation in the choice of the aloof Isabelle Huppert as Emma Bovary. It is Flaubert’s humane criticism of human passion and folly against the backdrop of social and economic change that has most marked South American novelist-critics, such as Mario Vargas Llosa, and North American filmmakers, such as Vincente Minnelli. His 1949 version of Madame Bovary neatly recasts and transposes nineteenth-century French provincial culture into what is (especially in the scene of the Vaubyessard Ball) also a postwar remake of Gone with the Wind (Fleming, 1939). In its depiction of oppressive, rigidly demarcated social and gender roles (summed up by the use of the trial and courtroom as frame), predatory survivors, and the strength of female passions, Minnelli’s Madame Bovary marks the launch of the novel’s power to describe popular American, as well as European, culture and society. Thus, where Baudelaire and nineteenth-century critics engaged with Emma’s “hysteria,” American critics today read in her a representation of modern diseases of image, such as anorexia, mythomania, and shopping addiction, or the preference for virtual not economic reality.

See also:

Chabrol, Claude; Chopin, Kate; Cinema, 1945 to the Present; James, Henry.

  • Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Ed. Paul de Man. Trans. Eleanor Marx Aveling. New York: W. W. Norton, 1965.
  • James, Henry. The House of Fiction: Essays on the Novel. Ed. Leon Edel. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1957.
  • Porter, Lawrence M. A Gustave Flaubert Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.
  • Mary Orr
    Copyright © 2005 by Bill Marshall

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