<![CDATA[This week marks the anniversary of the birth of Gustave Flaubert in 1821. His debut novel; Madame Bovary, was a pioneering classic of the French realism movement, which saw the author put on trial for obscenity in 1857. Flaubert, who grew up in Rouen, France, once claimed that the eponymous lead character of his debut novel was in fact based on himself. Superficially this seems an unlikely claim. Flaubert's father was the chief surgeon at a hospital in Rouen. Flaubert himself spent his entire life in the upper echelons of society, and for much of his adulthood inhabited Paris' suave intellectual circles. Emma Bovary on the other hand, is born into the family of an uneducated farmer, she spends her life in rural France, and can only dream of moving in the kind of high society that was typical for Flaubert. It seems probable that the similarities Flaubert alluded to were on a much more personal, psychological level. After failing his law school exams in 1840, Flaubert suffered a mental breakdown - similarly, a strong sense of despair and mental anguish dominates the live of Emma. At a young age Flaubert became fixated on a much older woman, named Elisa Schlessinger, he long fantasised about a relationship with her, but it was never realised. Later on, his generally reclusive life was occasionally disrupted by complicated romances, including one with Louise Colet which ended particularly bitterly. This confusion and longing can be seen as represented by Emma, a woman who chases an idealised image of romantic love but is frequently left unsatisfied. Madame Bovary was written in the midst of a time of great upheaval in France. The consequences of the French Revolution and Napoleonic era were still visible, and a drastic change was taking place in French society. The aristocracy had all but disappeared, and been replaced by the new bourgeoisie - essentially a middle class of people who didn't enjoy the inherited wealth of the nobility, but were financially secure with jobs that didn't require physical labour. Flaubert's novel often takes swipes at this 'new' social class, possibly reflecting his own feelings of distrust towards it. The emotional instability and constant dissatisfaction of Bovary could be seen as a consequence of bourgeoisie materialism and superficiality. The character of Homais, a local pharmacist, is probably the most explicit embodiment of an arrogant, baseless middle class. He frequently indulges in long winded speeches that rarely say anything of value. He advocates a treatment for a man with club foot which ultimately leads to the whole leg being amputated. Towards the end of the novel, he has an opportunity to save Emma's life, but instead of taking the most practical course of action, over analyses the situation in an attempt to show his own intelligence. Emma is of course the focus of the book. The plot essentially outlines her growing disillusion with her marriage to Charles Bovary. Although Charles himself is ultimately a decent man, Emma becomes depressed and bored with their married life. She embarks on a series of affairs, while also accumulating enormous debts with a local money lender. Flaubert's writing style in describing these events sits somewhere between realism and romanticism, the two genres that dominated French literature during the nineteenth century. He maintained some appreciation of romance, evidenced in vivid, idealistic descriptions throughout the book, but these are always contrasted with the cold hard facts of rural reality - depression, boredom and debt. The detail with which Flaubert described Emma's steamy affairs saw him put on trial for obscenity in 1857. He was acquitted, and the book became a popular classic. It remains a masterful account of a failed pursuit of romance, and a key work in the development of the modern novel.
A Study of Provincial Life by Gustave Flaubert Dora Knowlton Thompson Ranous