A few nights ago I finished Madame Bovary, the infamous 1857 novel by Gustave Flaubert. It took me a little while to get into the book, but once I did, I realised that it was well worth the effort. Flaubert's use of language and imagery is very clever, but there were times when it was so subtle I was only able to appreciate the significance of what was going on with the benefit of hindsight. That said, the novel gave me plenty to think about.
In short, the novel is about a middle-class woman who has because bored with her provincial life and her rather dull husband. In search of excitement, she throws herself into two love affairs, seeks to purchase pretty things well beyond her means, and seeks to escape by reading literature of graduating intensity, starting with fairly innocuous women's fashion magazines and ending with violent pornography. In particular, it is her debts which cause her the most trouble, culminating in the financial ruin of both her and her family. The story gets more depressing from there, but I don't want to spoil the plot too much.
Perhaps the most interesting theme that is explored in the novel is that of fantasy and reality. In many respects, this novel seems to be a forerunner for novels of more recent vintage - the best example being "Requiem For a Dream". Each character in "Madame Bovary" seems to have their particular dreams which may or may not accord with reality. In Emma Bovary's case, it leads to disaster. In the case of Homais, it leads to a somewhat affected narcissism and this character convinces himself that he is more worthy and thus more self-entitled than those around him. Charles Bovary, the least ambitious of all of the characters, has found his dream in Emma Bovary and can imagine nothing else being necessary in life. While this contentment seems to be positive, it also blinds Charles to the deceit that is occurring around him, and the precarious nature of his financial position. Ignorance is not always bliss, especially when one wakes up from his or her hangover.
The whole exploration of fantasy and reality also reflects Flaubert's enduring contribution to the history of literature. If early nineteenth century European literature is guilty of anything, it is its overly romanticised and saccharine nature. Flaubert's novel is a landmark in that unlike the literature of his predecessors, it produces a story of gritty and perhaps even jarring reality. While even today the romanticism of the "Hollywood ending" is popular, the realism of "Madame Bovary" was quickly reflected in classic works such as Fyodor Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" (1869) and Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" (1877). In this respect, Flaubert was able to produce a work which ushered in an era in which literature would be not merely a form of escapism, but could rather be a sharp criticism of contemporary society.