Friday, May 15, 2009
Banned, Censored Challenged: Madame Bovary
Gustave Flaubert wrote this classic work in the 19th century. It is a biting satire of the French bourgeoisie, the petty, social climbing snobs of the middle road.
The central character is Emma Bovary, a smart, ambitious woman who finds herself married to a gentle buffoon. Exasperated by boredom, Emma aspires to wealth and the finer things in life. She has two affairs, fails as a mother and barely disguises her contempt for her well-meaning husband. She spends too much money and wracks up large amounts of debt.
She's a bad girl, Emma Bovary, but she is bad for a reason. Flaubert believed that women were stifled by the lives they were expected to lead at the time. Emma has no control over her life- her incompetent husband does. While her lovers leave whenever they feel like it, she is stuck.
What scandalizes the reader now (and when Flaubert first wrote it) is that he never condemns Emma. He agrees with Emma that the only thing she can use to free herself is her body. But she isn't good at it. She leaves a trail of debt and letters. Flaubert condemns her sloppiness- as if to say "She's not stupid for committing adultery- she's stupid for getting caught."
The novel comments on the trends of the time, using Emma as a mouthpiece to show France's upwardly mobile middle class as unsophisticated, gaudy and materialistic.
The book was published in 1857. It ignited such "moral outrage" that Flaubert and his publisher were put on trial for obscenity. They were acquitted, but the book would continue to be challenged and censored even to modern times.
Flaubert had this to say of his masterpiece: "Emma Bovary, c'est moi."