Introducing Emma Bovary

Article excerpt

The Western literary canon includes a small number of characters who embody the tensions in our culture and help define the way we think about ourselves. Odysseus, Hamlet, Don Quixote, and Faust top the list, with only a few comparable female characters. Emma Bovary, one of the best known, has sometimes been called a "female Quixote" because of her larger-than-life yet delusional fantasies. Any new translation of Gustave Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary (1857), which gave life to her, is a significant event. But a translation, and its reception, may also be troubling. They can, however, make us take a fresh look at the lasting power of Emma Bovary.

IN 1849 a young Norman woman named Delphine Delamare died by her own hand, of poison. Her suicide was the subject of much gossip, and a friend of the writer Gustave Flaubert drew his attention to it. Flaubert, then thirty, had settled into his family's country home, outside Rouen, to concentrate on fiction writing. We can only guess why Delphine's grim story caught his imagination. The wife of a country doctor, she had married unhappily, continued her search for love, run into debt and, finally, chose death to end her troubles. This story of adulterous sex and money--natural tabloid companions--became the core of the novel we know as Madame Bovary, a book that Flaubert spent five years writing. One might fairly say that Flaubert was Emma Bovary's first translator, turning, as he did, aspects of Delphine's life into fiction.


Iconic characters cannot be separated from their stories. Flaubert's plot is deceptively simple--a domestic odyssey gone wrong. Young Emma Rouault, who lives with her self-absorbed father on a small Normandy farm, agrees to marry Charles Bovary, the sincere but doltish local medical officer. With little aptitude for marriage or home-making, she moves into his house, where his mother rules, and soon drifts into dreams of romance and a more glamorous life. An affair with the handsome Viscount Rodolphe--an unrepentant rake--only exacerbates her fantasies, and, inevitably, he ends their dalliance.

Disappointed by her husband's lack of ambition, and unable to make a bond with her baby daughter, Emma falls into another affair, this time with a passive but not unattractive clerk, Leon Dupuis. As her daily life flattens out, her longings flourish, and Emma turns to shopping as an escape from ennui. Borrowing money, she nearly bankrupts her family. After swallowing arsenic, Emma dies a hideous death, leaving a trail of suffering behind her, with the repellent local pharmacist Monsieur Homais about to receive the Legion of Honour for his public career. What makes Emma's story more than a commonplace tale of adultery are the subtle irony and wealth of detail with which Flaubert conveys Emma's confining world and psyche.

IT'S often noted that Flaubert said of his heroine "La Bovary, c'est moi." Readers and writers have been saying much the same ever since, even when Emma's troubles seem a little too close for comfort. Along with numerous translations of her story into more languages than I can count, there have been several movie versions--also translations, into the conventions of film. Hollywood took on Emma in Vincente Minnelli's lavish but banal black-and-white Madame Bovary (1949), starring Jennifer Jones, with a cameo by James Mason as Flaubert. (In order to circumvent postwar censorship, the screenwriters gave their movie a preachy frame, where Flaubert/Mason defends his choice of subject matter as moral.) The late French director Claude Chabrol filmed his version in 1991, starring a miscast, laconic Isabelle Huppert, who doesn't quite suggest Emma's desperate energy--Isabelle Adjani, with her frantic dark eyes, would have been ideal. A curious Russian version, Save and Protect (1989), with a gross, middle-aged, Siberian Emma, was directed by Aleksandr Sokurov, and has been played in art houses and university film courses; oddly, it best captures the novel's hovering gloom. …