Main image
19th September
written by Steph
Great book, but mind the translation!

Great book, but mind the translation!

It may seem premature to start looking at my reading list and taking stock of trends and gaps in my reading for the year, but I fully admit that I’ve already begun to do so. Perhaps my passing the “50 Books Read” mark has had something to do with it (this is the first time I’ve read so many books in one 12-month period!). I didn’t have any hard set goals for my reading, as I don’t like to restrict myself in that way. I really just wanted to read more books, and hopefully find a few gems. Looking at my list thus far, one thing I was a bit saddened to realize is that I haven’t read many so-called classics this year. True, I have crossed some titles off the 1001 Books list, but even those titles tend to fall on the more contemporary end of the spectrum. While I’ve read many very good (modern) books this year, I have felt to some extent that I’ve read a lot of middling and mediocre books as well. I know that labeling a book a “Classic” does not guarantee that it will be a book that I find worthwhile or even one that I enjoy, but I suppose that I do feel that there must be a reason these books continue to be published and taught, centuries after their initial publication. Also, I do feel like I’ve grown unaccustomed to reading classics, and so while they are slightly outside my literary sweet spot, I also find them challenging. But in a good way!  I feel they cause my mind to stretch and flex in a way reading more contemporary literature rarely does, and even if at times classics may bog me down, I tend to feel invigorated afterwards, like nothing is beyond my reading comprehension. Anyway, back on track here, I decided to read Madame Bovary mostly because it was sitting in our apartment unread and also it was quite a bit slimmer than many of the other classics we have reposing on our shelves. I tend to find long books daunting, so I figured a shorter classic (which would already likely prove challenging in and of itself) was probably a good way to ease myself back in. I assume that most of you are familiar with the basic premise of this book, but if not, a quick summary: the book follows the life and exploits of Emma Bovary, who marries a young country doctor, Charles. Emma longs for a life of passion and Grand Romance, and finds the bucolic little towns in which she and her husband live to be incredibly stifling. Her husband also fails to incite ardent desire within her, and so she winds up seeking it elsewhere, namely in the arms of other men. Always chasing the dream, Emma’s endless pursuit of pleasure eventually causes some monetary problems for the Bovaries, and Emma ultimately turns to increasingly desperate measures in order to dig herself out of her various entanglements. [I won’t say anymore at this point about how things end, but I will remark on it later, so if you truly don’t know how this story ends and worry that knowing anything more than what I’ve written thus far will ruin your reading of this novel (I don’t think it will, for what it’s worth) then you should probably stop reading here.] My reading of Madame Bovary was a bit of a rollercoaster, as I started off being fairly unimpressed by it. To me the plot seemed overly similar to Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, which I read several years ago, and I couldn’t stop myself from comparing the two. Whereas AK hooks you in almost immediately, I felt that Madame Bovary was more of a slow boil, especially because Flaubert did not seem to have as light and witty a pen as Tolstoy (who I actually find really funny and Jane Austen-esque). I grumbled to Tony that I didn’t see why we needed to have two stories remain in the literary canon about adulterous wives that took the exact same perspective on the issue, and I felt quite put off about this for a while…  I had a definite preference for Tolstoy over Flaubert, but then I finally did some Googling and found out that Flaubert actually wrote his novel well before Tolstoy did. My bad! So even though I was using AK as the blueprint, I realized that I needed to give the Frenchman his due and acknowledged that his wasn’t just a hollow copy. I decided to push on! I’m really glad I did stick with Madame Bovary because the more I read, the more I felt it established itself as its own story in my mind, and I did eventually stop comparing it to AK (well, for the most part… at the very least, it started to hold its own in the comparisons). By the end of the story, I was marveling at how intricately plotted the story was, with certain scenes from early in the novel resonating and recurring later in the novel and imbuing the images with new meaning (particularly vivid for me was when Emma gives herself to Rodolphe for the first time, how she walks through the field, lifting her skirts and picking the verdure that clings to them, much as she did on her wedding day to Charles. The parallel is subtle, but when caught, really breathtaking.). Moreover, I found the depiction of the interpersonal dynamics really very clever. I loved how the dynamic between Charles and his first wife reverses between Charles and Emma, and then once again between Emma and her lovers, everything coming full circle. I discovered that Flaubert worked on this novel for five years, and I have to say I am not surprised, as the novel has clearly been pored over and skillfully crafted. Not one image is unintentional, and the foreshadowing is well done, and I really appreciated the mastery and precision that is required in such an undertaking. The basic story itself is interesting enough, but as you read this novel, so rich and layered, it becomes patently clear why it continues to be studied and taught, why people love to read and re-read it. It’s certainly one of those novels that is more than meets the eye, one with many depths lying beneath its surface.  A great blend of skillful novel crafting and a great story as well. As I read, Tony kept asking me if anything sexy had happened, as apparently the book incurred a fairly scandalous reputation upon its initial release (it was charged with obscenity). To be honest, I found very few scenes risqué, and felt that the discussion of sex was pretty veiled. Then again, I’m not an 1857 reader. There were moments that were overt, but this is not exactly what one would call a bodice-ripper; there’s a lot of reading between the lines and many things are taken as understood without being explicitly stated (I believe that when Emma finally gives herself over to her first lover, there’s some grasping around the waist and eventually the line saying that she gave in… and then we jump forward in time and Emma thinks to herself that she now has a lover, so uh, yeah, stuff went on in that field that wasn’t committed to paper, I suppose!). But I guess, the thing is that maybe Madame Bovary is a novel about sex for some, but for me, it was really about the consuming nature of passion. Emma is a wildly passionate woman, who has allowed her childhood readings of ridiculous and over-the-top romances to color her vision of reality. She is always seeking the thrill of undying love and having the finest and the best things… she takes lovers not because she is sexually unsatisfied by her husband (though I’m sure she probably was), but because she craves the courtship and the fiery flame of desire – she wants someone to prostrate himself on the altar of love, and all because of her. She writes love letters because she believes that is how it is done. She has set her expectations so high that nothing can ever truly measure up, and eventually the diversions she finds must necessarily sputter out. I think surely a large reason why Madame Bovary was so scandalous in its day must be because it depicts a woman who so wantonly pursues her desires and is so hedonistic. And look, I didn't really like the character of Emma very much as she's pretty awful, but I did still find a lot of things to enjoy in this novel. In fact, I think one thing I liked especially was the way it ends (or almost ends). I enjoyed AK a good deal, but I never really liked the eponymous character all that much. I found Anna incredibly selfish and thoughtless, and while I get that Tolstoy felt there was something admirable about her willingness to relinquish everything – her name, her family, her reputation, her fortune - all for the sake of passion, I could never empathize with her. I kind of always felt that her husband got the short stick in the book (and wrote an essay to that effect in my third year Tolstoy course, I believe), but that’s not really the point. The point is that even though both Anna and Emma reach rather grisly ends, I relished the death of Emma, and think Anna got of lightly. Whereas Anna throws herself in front of a train and is pretty much killed in a single paragraph (i.e., immediately), Emma’s death is agonizingly painful, stretching out over pages. I think that even though Flaubert found parts of Emma admirable, he also realized she was really a pretty terrible person, and gives her a fitting death. I thought that was awesome! One other thing I realized about the book: it’s called Madame Bovary and it largely is Emma’s story, but the novel actually begins with Charles (Emma isn’t introduced until perhaps the third chapter). Furthermore, the novel doesn’t conclude with Emma’s death, but continues on, only wrapping up when Charles himself shakes loose this mortal coil. I don’t know that this means anything, but I just thought it was interesting; kind of like even though the story was about Emma, it was never really her own, and the real way to appreciate it was to see how she affected those around her. The last thing I’ll say before wrapping this review up is that as much as I came to adore this book, it was not without its struggles. At times Flaubert goes into lengthy descriptions of the pastoral landscape, or dives into endless depictions of how unremarkable the setting was and how mundane Emma’s existence was. This happened on many occasions throughout the novel, and sometimes they were written quite lovely and were captivating. But more commonly they were just really boring and things I felt I merely needed to get through in order to get back to the story. Whereas I had grasped within a paragraph or so whatever it was Flaubert was getting at, sometimes this would go on for several pages. I think this was one of the things I felt most jarring after a prolonged stretch of contemporary novels – modern novels don’t seem to be nearly as descriptive and detailed in this respect. It seems they're much more efficient at setting the scene and then moving on. Anyway, this may have just been part and parcel of Flaubert’s writing… but I think it may have been more of an issue with the translation I read. When I picked up my copy of Madame Bovary, I didn’t even think to take that into account (because I always forget that all translations are not created equal). When I was finding the writing particularly limp and dry, I took a break and looked up translations. I couldn’t find a definitive consensus as to which translation is best (though you might wish to steer clear of the Margaret Mauldon version), but my version, by Frances Steegmuller is generally considered to be quite dated and perhaps a bit tired. I think the best and most edifying description I found through my browsing was at a page where someone who clearly loves this novel to bits had read as many English translations as he could get his hands on, and wound up saying Steegmuller’s version was “like listening to a familiar melody played on out-of-tune instruments.”  I can’t say it any better myself, so I won’t. This individual’s favorite version is done by Paul de Man, so perhaps that is one for you to keep in mind.  I discovered that Oneworld Classics has a new translation done by Christopher Moncrieff that is due out some time next year that would probably be my top choice to try next (provided you can wait that long!). In an ideal world, I would like for my French to be proficient enough so that I could read Madame Bovary in its original form and appreciate it. My French is good, but I don’t know that I can handle 150-year old French; I fear most of the subtleties would fly over my head. My lofty goal is to one day try to read it untranslated – perhaps now that I’ve read it in English and have the general drift, I could handle it – but should that never happen, I think it’s fair to say that I’d like to read it again anyways, in English, just with a different translator. Rating: 4 out of 5


  1. I have noticed the same gap in my reading this year and hope to chalk up a couple of classics this winter. Madame Bovary is one I definitely intend to read but I think it will be next year now. I have often wished my French was strong enough to read Colette untranslated but I don’t think it is ever going to happen.

  2. Amy

    Madam Bovary is a favorite of mine and I was thrilled to see the book here. It is difficult, more like trying in areas, but overall worth reading At least I think so! But I have also read it 3 or 4 times(I have a thing for many of the classics!)

  3. I knew nothing about this book before reading your review. My knowledge of the classics is so bad that sometimes I’ve only heard of the title. I really need to read more of them. Thank you for writing such a great review.

  4. 09/20/2009

    @ Claire: I think one of the things that happens when people start blogging is that there is an emphasis on swift reading (so that one can post thoughts and impressions), but this isn’t really something classics promote. I will look forward to your thoughts on Madame Bovary – just stay away from Steegmuller!
    @ Amy: Thanks for commenting, Amy! You’re right that Mme Bovary can be trying in areas, but I definitely found it a rewarding reading experience. I’m not sure that it is one of my favorite classics, but it is very good and as I said, I do want to read it again some day! It was definitely a good one to help me on my way back to the classics!
    @ Jackie: I would say I have a pretty average familiarity of the classics, as I read a bunch while in highschool (though Tony really puts me to shame in that area!), and I do generally know what they’re about even if I haven’t read them. But I do have huge gaps in my reading that I find a bit embarrassing (like never having read any Dickens), so I think one of my own personal goals will be to rectify this. I’m glad you found my review helpful, even if you had no background knowledge on the book coming in!

  5. 09/21/2009

    Steph! You just articulated everything I felt about M. Bovary, except you probably read deeper into it than I ever did because I completely missed all that subtle image-repetition.

    BUT, I disagree with you about Anna. Why does everyone seem to misunderstand poor Anna Karenina? While I also found myself comparing Tolstoy and Flaubert, in the end, I think Anna is the likeable (if not at all admirable) character. I thought Emma was just so insipid, with extremely deluded perceptions of love and happiness, whereas Anna is passionate and intelligent with a spunky personality to boot. Also, I think I said this on my own blog, but wasn’t the difference between AK and M. Bovary that Anna’s discontent arose from external factors that were mostly outside her control and Emma’s were more internal, and stemmed from her own distorted views of romance? If Anna and Vronsky had committed the same ‘crime’ today, no one would have blinked an eyelid. But poor Emma Bovary would always be unhappy/discontented, no matter how many men she slept with. Also, don’t you think that Anna’s sudden (albeit easy and relatively painless) death, and Tolstoy’s passing over it like it hardly mattered at all, made it all the more tragic? Emma’s death felt a bit melodramatic and distasteful to me.

    Anywaayy, I think I need to re-read Madame Bovary, because I really rushed through it the first time round. And also so I can pick up things like this –>

    “particularly vivid for me was when Emma gives herself to Rodolphe for the first time, how she walks through the field, lifting her skirts and picking the verdure that clings to them, much as she did on her wedding day to Charles. The parallel is subtle, but when caught, really breathtaking”

    Very perceptive of you!

    As for translations, I read the Geoffrey Wall one that Penguin published. It was okay, but isn’t Moncrieff that flowery French guy who translated Proust? If so, I want to try him too!

    ps. If ever you decide to read Dickens, let me know, so we can suffer together 😀

  6. 09/21/2009

    @ Tuesday: Since I love long posts, you know that I love long comments! Especially when they are as fun as yours! 😉
    It’s been a while since I read Anna Karenina (I believe I read it in 2003!), so I can’t be as specific about it as I might like. My impressions reading it now might be different than they were then, but I did ultimately find Anna unlikeable. I DO think you make a good point though, that perhaps Anna & Emma are not so similar in terms of temperament and personality, that Emma’s behaviour is essentially internally motivated and she would have been unhappy in every situation. I fully believe nothing could live up to her expectations and so she would be forever doomed to disappointment. I think we are meant to find Anna more sympathetic because it is with Vronsky that she discovers love & passion (and that he cares about her, whereas Rodolophe at least never loves Emma)… but I still ultimately felt that Anna’s relationship with Vronsky brought out very bad things in her. I disliked how she vilified Karenin so much, even though (at least as I recall) he was willing to forgive her indiscretions (which some people might have said he did only to save face and because he was unwilling to let her go, but I thought he really did love her) AND accept her love-child as his own. Moreover, Anna was willing to give up her son in order to be with Vronsky… I suppose that even if much of the passion that occurs in the novel is not really due to Anna’s character or her machinations, I still felt her selfish and unkind.
    As for the ending, I think that Tolstoy barely focuses on Anna’s death because it seemed more dignified to do so. He couldn’t bare for us to see her sullied and broken. I didn’t see the Emma death as distasteful, though I agree it’s melodramatic – I think this is Flaubert highlighting once again that Emma goes for the over-the-top dramatics without fully grasping what that entails. She thinks it’s romantic to die by poisoning, without realizing how agonizing and prolonged it will be. Maybe again because I disliked her, I assume Flaubert gave her this death so that we could finally feel Emma got what she asked for and deserved! So many potential ways to view all of this – I love the discussion of it all!
    (Also, there are tons of great images in the book, some involving Emma’s father (there is a parallel made fairly explicit between Emma’s wedding day and funeral), as well as this wonderful scene when Emma & Charles attend the opera. I also really adored the ending itself, when we find out that the pharmacist essentially throws over Charles once the family is no longer fashionable and finally gets his medal of honour in the end – he was so slimy and horrible, always trying to get ahead!)
    I will definitely want to re-read this novel, because I think I did rush myself at times (probably those times when the translation felt particularly dry)! Moncrieff is indeed the “flowery French guy” who has worked on Proust in the past, so I think he might actually do justice to Flaubert. According to the Oneworld Classics site, the Moncrieff translation “captures the psychological realism of the original and echoes the verbal precision for which Flaubert is rightly famed.” I’m excited!
    I will let you know if do decide to read Dickens! I have Great Expectations, so it is only a matter of time before I buckle down and bite the bullet… 😉

  7. 09/21/2009

    Wow, my comment is almost as long as your post :O

  8. 09/21/2009

    “it was really about the consuming nature of passion.” I love that comment!! My review shows that I didn’t see it as deeply as you did (I thought the non-Emma parts were boooooring). I think I didn’t hate Emma. In fact, I pitied her because she was in an awful situation. And yet, like Tuesday says, Emma was pretty boring, and she’d be bored even today. I think I enjoyed the complexity of AK more than M. Bovary, but overall, I liked them both!

  9. 09/21/2009

    @ Rebecca: I went and read your review when I was finished, and I really enjoyed your insights. I particularly liked when you pointed out that Anna winds up in a relationship with a man who loves her, but Emma doesn’t really have that (certainly not with Rodolphe). I also thought it was interesting that you felt the novel should have been uniquely about Emma; I also picked up on the sense that the story wasn’t just about her. This didn’t bother me, but intrigued me. Emma is the principal character, yet the story wasn’t really her own!
    I’m not sure whether I liked this more or less than Anna Karenina… as much as this could drag at times, I remember Anna K had lots of looong tracts about peasant wellfare. Not exactly scintillating stuff! 😉

  10. 09/21/2009

    I had little expectation for Madame Bovary because I knew that it was a 400-page book about an adulteress. A slut really. What can you really say about one such person with 400 pages? I was more curious about what vivid scenes Flaubert might have written, the same curiosity that bound me to Lolita!

    While I am not very impressed with Emma, she doesn’t strike me as an evil person. The book itself is more character-driven, revolving around her psychology, through her pursuit of what she thinks is perfect happiness. Although Emma failed at finding the happiness she perceived, she hated no one nor did she feel a tinge of remorse at her doing, through all the betrayals, the infamies, the countless fierce desires that had racked her, she experienced the short-lived affection, sensual joys and love that art had long painted so large. Maybe one has no choice but to live the maladies of life in order to fully understand and appreciate its meaning.

  11. 09/21/2009

    I enjoyed your very perceptive review a lot-You might try
    “A Sentimental Education” next-I actually preferred it to “Madame Bovary”-

  12. wow…i haven’t read MB since the halcyon days of college! as usual, your review doesn’t disappoint and i savored every word.

    when i read this novel i remember being intrigued by a male author writing a novel of a woman’s passion–really writing about how a woman felt or what a woman wanted.

    a classic…what else can i say?

  13. 09/21/2009

    @ Matt: I didn’t really think Emma was slutty, and I didn’t think she was evil either. I think she was just misguided and got carried away. She was clearly a passionate woman, and I think she didn’t have many avenues for expressing or commuting that energy to other more positive things. Emma ultimately fails to attain the happiness she longs for, because the happiness she wishes for is the stuff of fairytales; it simply doesn’t exist. I think it’s true that without the lows one cannot truly appreciate the highs, but that being said, the highs were always short-lived for Emma because of her unreasonable expectations.
    @ Mel: Thanks for commenting! I haven’t actually heard of A Sentimental Education, so clearly I will need to look it up immediately! Thanks for the recommendation!
    @ nat: You’re right that it’s interesting that a man would decide to write about a woman’s passion. It isn’t a wholly sympathetic portrayal of women, but I don’t think that Flaubert means it to be a blanket statement about the “fairer sex”. I think he knew Emma was an extreme case, but despite her many flaws, she wasn’t a bad person. It is definitely well-deserving of the “classic” designation!
    @ Tuesday: I totally laughed out loud at Matt’s “slut” comment too (and then read it to Tony)!
    I think I actually wrote an essay for my Tolstoy course in university about how Karenin was unfairly vilified in the novel… I just thought he was kind of dull and uninspiring, but he wasn’t the monster Anna seemed to paint him as. Also, I think I may have just skimmed or maybe even skipped the last “book” in Anna K, mostly because it was just Levin’s ruminations on the peasants. I know this is the stuff that made Tolstoy tick, but I just wanted to read about Russian romances! 😉
    I don’t think I can fairly compare AK & MB, just because I read AK so long ago, it’s not as vivid in my mind. I think this clearly means I need to reread it!

  14. 09/21/2009

    Ohhh, I loved Karenin. Another grossly misunderstood, and yet loveable, character. That was probably the one moment where I really hated Anna – when Karenin swallowed his pride and decided to give things another go, and she rejected him (without a second thought).

    Hahah and yes I also loved how that creepy pharmacist guy got his medal in the end. It’s so funny when writers throw in little details like that.

    p.s. I thought the peasant welfare parts in Anna Karenina were interesting! Lots to think about. Wouldn’t be Tolstoy without those sorts of ruminations. Like Rebecca, I think I liked AK more than M Bovary. It was so much more evocative and thought-provoking. Odd, because I like Flaubert better as a writer…

  15. 09/21/2009

    pps. LOL @ Matthew –

    “A slut really”.

  16. 09/22/2009

    Hmmm dull and uninspiring, but I found Karenin’s character very likeable! At least, I enjoyed reading about him, because I could see elements of people I knew in him. I’ve noticed that happens quite often while I’m reading Tolstoy (esp. with War and Peace, just due to its size).

    As for comparing the two novels, I think I read AK before MB. Funny thing is lots of MB has already slipped from my mind and I find I can’t even remember character names, let alone plot… whereas so many ‘scenes’ and characters from AK have stayed with me. Tolstoy’s writing might not be as poetic as Flaubert’s, but it’s surprising how much more evocative it is – to me, anyway.

    Then again, it would probably be foolish to declare one book ‘better’ than the other. I’m always running around in (mental) circles trying to figure out the standards by which we should judge books as ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

  17. 09/22/2009

    I think Tolstoy is great at painting very realistic (and sympathetic) portraits of people. I think he may have been less interested in choosing the “right” words than he was in really developing his characters and telling a good story. I can’t remember if this is true or not, but to my memory, there weren’t any outright villains in AK – just various people, all with flaws, getting through life as best they could. Flaubert is more likely to rely upon extremes and caricature, I think (Rodolphe, Emma’s first lover is painted as pretty much solely devious).
    As it’s been 6 years, a good deal of AK has faded from my mind, but that’s pretty much how it goes for me and novels, and says nothing of its quality. I think I might also like it more (which isn’t to say I didn’t like it before) in a second reading, as the first time I was reading it for a class, but this time I could read it for me.
    I know that initially I start my review off by saying I thought the two stories would be interchangeable, but having now finished both, I do think there is room for both, and they both are unique in their own ways. It’s natural to compare the two, but I don’t think I could ever claim to think one was better than the other.

  18. 09/22/2009

    If you’re interested, there’s a graphic novel called Gemma Bovery which takes the Flaubert novel and updates it a bit – quite a good read and much quicker than the original (not that I’m knocking MB, which I read years ago, I do like to sink into a good book and the classics are great for that)

    Now, Anna Karenina on the other hand – I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to reading that one. Maybe if I was trapped on a desert island and that was one of the few books that had washed up on shore with me!

  19. 09/22/2009

    Wow! What an amazing review! I have this book on my shelf, and have sort of neglected it because I had the mistaken assumption that it was very dry. The way you describe it in your review makes it seem as though it’s an incredibly nuanced and thought provoking read. Now I am sorry not to have read it, not only because it sounds like a great book but because I would have loved to be able to weigh in on this conversation. I am going to try and get to this one before the year is out, and I look forward to being able to come back to this review and see if we felt the same way.

  20. 09/22/2009

    @ Lesley – Interesting info about the graphic novel. That’s not really my niche, but I would be interested to see how the author modernizes the story. And I’m not sure if it shows from my comments, but clearly others have read and enjoyed Anna Karenina; in fact, so have I! It is a massive novel, but it is very readable!
    @ zibilee: Parts of it certainly were dry, but with a good translation, I think the book would be magnificent. I can’t wait to read your thoughts on it when you get round to it – I know you’ll write a wonderful review!

  21. 09/24/2009

    Lovely, detailed review. I haven’t read this book, but it sounds like a precursor to “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin?

    There seem to be a lot of parallels in the story, and the character sketch. Have you read “The Awakening”? What did you think of it vis-a-vis to Madame Bovary? I would be very curious to know…

  22. 09/24/2009

    @ Nish: I haven’t read “The Awakening” by Chopin, so unfortunately I can’t compare the two… but I’ve been curious about Chopin for a while, so I may need to get to her sooner rather than later. Perhaps a comparison of these two is not so far away!

  23. Eddy

    In my opinion, Flaubert dreams parts of his own destiny.
    A Twin Flame presenting heavens and hells out of forgotten
    memories that will come true sometime in the future.

    Gustave will have to get by trough them. He will die,
    if he has to, just to preserve his stance. In doing so,
    he has the chance to go back to the original source.

    Flaubert is the last one who will make sense of it all, with
    the hope of re-lighting the candle of his Twin.

Leave a Reply