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Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert: A Mrs. B's Eccentric Book Report

Updated on July 21, 2020
Lee B profile image

I was a retired teacher and live-aboard in Seattle. Now I'm back to teaching in a remote area of New Mexico.

A Little Bit about Mrs. B

Thirty years ago I became an English teacher because I love to read and I love to share books and ideas. When someone next to me on the bus is reading, I want to see what they're reading, and I want to know what they think about it. If you invite me to your home, I’ll scope out your bookshelves. I want to share good books with people, and I want to share the meaning, ideas, and feelings that books convey.

So this is my version of a "book report"

I want to share books (and sometimes movies, short stories, paintings, and possibly other media) that have impacted my life, made me think, laugh, and cry.

I deliberately have no plan, order, or logical arrangement, so with no further ado, I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite novels: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert:

Plot Summary

Since the plot summary is usually the most lengthy and boring part of a traditional book report, I'm going to reduce it to one sentence:

A very materialistic woman reads romantic novels, has extra-marital affairs, spends money she doesn't have, and kills herself, pretty much in that order.

Stuff--Does It Really Make Us Happy?

My Inane Ramblings: Why I Love This Book

Gustave Flaubert said, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi ..." but I beg to differ. I am Madame Bovary. Or at least in recovery from a form of bovarism (a word coined from the name Emma Bovary , the main character in Flaubert's novel), which is, according to Wiktionary:

  1. An imagined or unrealistic conception of oneself
  2. (psychology) An anxiety to escape from a social or sentimental condition judged to be unsatisfactory, sometimes by building a fictitious personality

In the late 80s I was divorced, living in a small town in northern New Mexico, and broke. My divorce had been ugly and the details were public knowledge. My ex had grown up in that same small town, and to say I was a social pariah is not an exaggeration. But I didn't do the obvious thing--MOVE--because I had a job there and, well, not anywhere else.

That's when I discovered the joys of spending money I did not have. Master Card, Visa, and American Express were my friends. I finagled two loans to buy a car I also could not afford. I had an extensive, expensive wardrobe, and the mall was my home away from home.

Emma Bovary would understand the rush I got from buying things I didn't need and couldn't afford. Frequently I would charge something, deliberately not looking at the price. So Emma B. of me!

Analyzing the situation from a distance of over twenty-five years enables me to see that I was in a delusional state, escaping to a fictitious life where it mattered what I wore, drove, and had. A life where I was important, loved, and glamorous. Tellingly, this is also when I first read Flaubert's Madame Bovary .

Flaubert lovingly recounts the details of Emma's wardrobe, hair ornaments, and jewelry. Analyzing any advertisement targeted to women, one hears the same kind of seductive, sensual language to describe shoes! Coats! Watches! Emma has affairs but she is really seduced by the idea that possessions can give her life meaning.

I am in recovery, as I wrote earlier, from my raging case of bovarism . I don't think anyone is immune or gets over it completely. And I do know that we all have a vision of ourselves that is, perhaps, not entirely realistic.

Several years ago I attended my step-daughter's wedding. I wanted to look my best and had spent quite a bit of money on a new dress and shoes. I had a picture in my mind of what I looked like--feminine, sophisticated, but youthful, and fashionable. My husband was less than enthusiastic about my "look," but wisely kept his mouth shut. Imagine my horror upon seeing the wedding pictures to see that I looked frumpy, dowdy, and odd. No, the reality did not match the vision in my mind at all.

Since that time, I frequently look at people's presentation of themselves via clothing, hairstyles, and accessories. And I wonder--what was the vision that inspired that look? You, woman with a red bow in your hair, red nail polish, a red blouse, red plaid skirt, red shoes, and a red purse; I think I can see where you're going with that. And, really, just want you to know. Everything's going to be all right.

And you, Mama Anorexia, I see you at the grocery store with your kids and recognize you from the gym. When I come into the weight room, you're already there on the step machine. It's on the most difficult setting and your face shows your agony. I do my circuit and leave. You're still stepping. I use the treadmill in another room because I can't look at you anymore. On the way back to the locker room, I'm sweaty, but I feel great. I can't help but look past the doorway of the weight room. You're still there. Step. Step. Step.

Yes, you, Mama. I didn't go to the gym today, but you did. I can tell by your blotchy skin, newly showered hair, palpable exhaustion. You're buying cookies for your kids. You're a nice mom--you let them choose which cookies they want. They're taking a really long time to choose. You are giving their desires your total attention.

Oh, Mama. What vision did you have of yourself when you put on your baggy, hippy-chick overalls with your puffy, embroidered peasant blouse? I'll bet it was someone energetic, happy, pretty, healthy. Oh yeah.

Some of My Favorite Passages from Madame Bovary

1.) She only cared for the sea when it was lashed to fury by the storm, and for verdure when it served as a background to a ruin. Everything must needs minister to her personal longings, as it were, and she thrust aside as of no account whatever everything that did not immediately contribute to stir the emotions of her heart, for her temperament was sentimental rather than artistic, seeking, not pictures, but emotions.

2.) She did not confess that she had loved another man; he did not say he had forgotten her.

3.) Since he had heard those same words uttered by loose women or prostitutes, he had little belief in their sincerity when he heard them now: the more flowery a person's speech, he thought, the more suspect the feelings, or lack of feelings, it concealed. Whereas the truth is that fullness of soul can sometimes overflow in utter vapidity of language, for none of us can ever express the exact human measure of his needs or his thoughts or his sorrows; and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars. (emphasis mine)

Here's What People Far Smarter Than I Have Said

Madame Bovary, c'est moi, d'apres moi!(Madame Bovary is myself -- drawn from life!)--Gustave Flaubert

What do you think?

Will you read this book?

See results

Should you watch the movie?

Maybe. Neither the 1933, the 1949, nor the 1991 version received particularly great reviews. The 1949 version was generally rated slightly higher than the other two. I have seen only the 1991 version which is in French with English subtitles. I didn't hate it. It was pretty.


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