Review: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

When I read Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee the main character talked some about Emma Bovary. At the time I found his insights interesting. I decided then and there to bump Madame Bovary up my TBR list. After reading Flaubert’s novel I tried to remember what was said in Disgrace and for the life of me I have zero recollection. My memory is getting worse each day it seems. Oh well, at least I read another classic from my 1001 list.

This French classic is about Emma Bovary. According to Mary McCarthy, “She is a very ordinary middle-class woman, with banal expectations of life and an urge to dominate her surroundings. Her character is remarkable only for an unusual deficiency of natural feeling.” This is a great description of Emma. She is never content and is always looking to others to make her happy and to feel loved. The action of the story takes place in nineteenth-century bourgeois France and it shows the limitations women endured in that society. There were not a lot of freedoms and chances to escape their fate. But it also condemns the corruption and stupidity of men and women. Not many of Flaubert’s characters escape the author’s contempt.

To be honest, I was baffled by this novel. I didn’t like any of the characters in the story. I felt sorry for Charles, Emma’s husband, but couldn’t really relate to him. As I write this, I can’t think of one character that I enjoyed getting to know. Not one that I cheered for. Most of them got on my nerves and I wanted to slap them. Yet the writing is so beautiful it pulled me in. Even thought the characters disgusted me, I didn’t want to set the book down. And since finishing it, I keep thinking about it. This one may linger for a bit. Who know for how long though with my memory.

This is the 81st book I’ve read from my 1001 list. I’m excited to narrow in on 100. That will feel like the first milestone for this part of the challenge. Up next is Mansfield Park.

About TBM

TB Markinson is an American who's recently returned to the US after a seven-year stint in the UK and Ireland. When she isn't writing, she's traveling the world, watching sports on the telly, visiting pubs in New England, or reading. Not necessarily in that order. Her novels have hit Amazon bestseller lists for lesbian fiction and lesbian romance. She cohosts the Lesbians Who Write Podcast ( with Clare Lydon. TB also runs I Heart Lesfic (, a place for authors and fans of lesfic to come together to celebrate lesbian fiction.
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51 Responses to Review: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

  1. enjoyed your mini-critique–that you had to read on despite the fact you did not really care for the characters

  2. Vishy says:

    Nice review, TBM! Interesting to know that a comment by one of the characters in Coetzee’s book made you want to read ‘Madame Bovary’. Sorry to know that you didn’t like much any of the characters in the book, though I am glad to know that you loved Flaubert’s prose. I remember a scene from the movie ‘Little Children’ (it had Kate Winslet) in which there is a book club meeting on ‘Madame Bovary’ and Kate Winslet’s character says some positive things about Emma Bovary. I also remember a Woody Allen short story called ‘The Kugelmass Episode’ in which Emma Bovary steps out of the pages of the book and the main character falls in love with her. Those are my ‘Madame Bovary’ memories 🙂 I hope to read this book some day. Thanks for this wonderful review.

    • TBM says:

      I haven’t seen either of the movies. I would be careful about falling in love with Emma. It would be a roller coaster of a ride. Hope you read it and I would love to hear your thoughts.

      • Vishy says:

        ‘Little Children’ is a wonderful movie. Hope you get to watch it. ‘The Kugelmass Episode’ is a short story. I think Woody Allen used that concept – a character stepping out of the story into the real world – his later movie ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’. I will look forward to reading ‘Madame Bovary’.

      • TBM says:

        Thanks, Vishy! I need to add Little Children to my rental list. And I haven’t heard of The Purple Rose of Cairo. I should watch more of his movies. Have a great day!

      • Vishy says:

        You too have a great day, TBM!

      • TBM says:

        Thanks, Vishy. It’s almost quitting time so my day is looking even better 🙂

  3. Colline says:

    You will enjoy Mansfield Park. I did – but then I am a Jan Austen fan 🙂

  4. I am so glad that I’m not the only one with the memory problem, but I’ve decided that it’s only because I read so many books. And you are the same way. We are churning through so many books so quickly that there is no possible way to remember what happens or what is said in each of them. I always remember the basics of the plot and whether I like them or not, but the details are gone as soon as I become engrossed in the next book :). By the way, what’s your name again???

  5. bulldog says:

    One more down… I’m sure you will encounter many like this on your list…

    • TBM says:

      That’s a scary thought, but you’re right. I’m sure there are more Emmas out there. I mean the character of course, not anyone named Emma.

  6. niasunset says:

    What a nice reader you are dear TBM, it’s been such a long time that I read this novel. I can say almost forgot the details, when I read you now, I remember, especially the Emma character… Thank you, it should be nice to read them again… Love, nia

  7. Beth Ann says:

    My memory is horrid. I can never remember what I read or what the book was about if I don’t write it down. Funny that you just despised all the characters. Usually one sticks out that you can grab onto but it sure sounds like there was no middle ground for you with this book! 🙂

  8. Novroz says:

    I have heard about this book before. It’s quite famous but none of the review made me want to read it. Yours confirm my decision to skip the book

    • TBM says:

      Oh no, I was the confirmation review. Not sure how to feel about that. But I can’t change my review since it is how I feel. Beautiful writing, horrible people.

      • Novroz says:

        Hahah feel happy I guess 😉
        My reading always depends on the people/characters, the writing always comes second to me. It’s a bonus when I found good story and characters with good writing (like The Lord of the rings and The Square Persimmon)

      • TBM says:

        Well then, I think you made the right decision. This probably wouldn’t work for you.

  9. i felt the same way: “beautiful writing, horrible people”. i also wanted to slap them. i think it speaks well of an author that he can elicit that kind of emotional response. i agree with you that it’s a book well worth finishing.

    • TBM says:

      I have to give it to Flaubert. His writing propelled me to continue with this book even though I kept shouting at Emma to wake up and not act like such a twit.

  10. Hey, don’t feel bad. I once started reading a book and realized I’d already read it about 5 pages in!
    Couldn’t stand Emma and that pretty much ruined the book for me. I read it in French, which helped a little bit.

  11. Valentina says:

    I loved that book. You must take the characters in the contest of their time. Congratulations on you goal moving forward.

    • TBM says:

      I agree with you. You can’t read this book from our perspective or you won’t get a thing out of it and you probably wouldn’t get past the first 50 pages.

  12. applenpear says:

    I agree with what you’ve said. The characters were awful people and I didn’t like or relate to any of them either and yet I also had to finish the book. I particularly disliked Emma. Added Disgrace to my goodreads list because I’m curious about what was said about Emma – wonder if there is anything there that might make me view her in a different light.

    • TBM says:

      Oh let me know if you read Disgrace and find out. I should warn you, Disgrace was a difficult book for me to read. I won’t say anything else since I don’t want to ruin it. Emma is a hard character to like. In the beginning I really tried, but then I just stopped trying. I see why Flaubert wrote her the way he did, but I still couldn’t like her. Like you though, I had to finish this book. His writing is compelling.

  13. I’ve never gotten around to reading Madame Bovary. I may just have to slide it onto the free bookshelf in my apartment building when no one is looking. 😉

    • TBM says:

      Ha! Do it. I got my copy for free from a friend who had to read it for school. There were comments in the margins. I haven’t seen my friend in years but from her notes I don’t think she was a fan of the book. Not one bit.

  14. Lucid Gypsy says:

    We want to warm to the characters don’t we?Hope you enjoy Mansfield more.

  15. Geoff W says:

    I completely agree with you! I wanted to smack every character, but was torn because the writing was beautiful. I read it for a similar reason. I got a question wrong in a trivia game and realized my French literature was woefully lacking and it was specifically about Flaubert so I had to read this one.

    • TBM says:

      My French literature is woefully lacking same with German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese–well I think you get the picture. I set out to change that this year but I haven’t been nearly as successful as I wanted to be. What was the trivia question?

      • Geoff W says:

        It wanted to know the author of Madame Bovary and was worded something along the lines of what French author penned the scandalous tale of Emma Bovary. The only French authors I could think of were Hugo and Dumas.

      • TBM says:

        Two other French authors I haven’t read. Hanging my head in shame!

  16. lynnsbooks says:

    I haven’t read this and I think having read your review I won’t bother. I just simply wouldn’t finish it if I disliked the characters as much as you did.
    Lynn 😀

  17. Caroline says:

    It’s one of a very few books I’ve read three times and funny enough I can’t say I ever liked it but I still think it’s amazing, especially in the original French as nobody writes like Flaubert.
    But Emma is annoying. I went through diffeent phases regarding her husband. In the end I liked him best. He’s not such a bad sort.
    I’d like to second Vishy on Little Children _ I loved that movie. I still have to read the book.
    Btw – you tempted me with your Mansfield Teaser’s. I’ve already read 100 pages. I have a feeling it’s going to be my favorite after Pride and Prejudice.

    • TBM says:

      I would love to read this in French. I was stunned by his writing and I was reading a translation. I can only imagine that it’s superb in French. I think I was more indifferent about her husband. Sometimes I felt sorry for him, other times I wanted him to wake up and see what was happening.

      I’m about halfway through Mansfield and I’m really enjoying it. It may nudge Sense and Sensibility to number 3. We’ll see. I think P & P will always be at the top. Still haven’t read Emma and Persuasion but hard to imagine they will knock P & P off the top. Glad you are enjoying it.

  18. Jo Bryant says:

    Interesting to find this on hear…I was just looking her up yesterday. As for Jane…her books never fail to find a resonance with me

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