Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

‘… None of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs’, Gustave Flaubert ( observes in what must be the Madame Bovary’s most celebrated quotation, ‘or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat our tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity’. Madame Bovary (1857) is the story of a woman caught between two worlds – one of the dull and stultifying provincial life that she leads with her Doctor husband, and the world of  fantasy – of high romance and love. It is the story, as the quotation indicates, of desperate yearning. Written with a detached irony and beautiful wit, and playing on the audience’s affection for its central character as well as showing up her desires and hopes to be fantastical, Gustave Flaubert’s great work has a central place in the history of European literature. Full of hope and full of despair, the story of Emma’s life is one that shocked the readers of its own day (resulting in a notorious literary trial) as well as resonating deeply with readers down to the present day. Its realism and exactitude of expression set a tone and standard for all subsequent fiction. Eat your heart out with this ‘must read’ classic from world literature.

Deepen an appreciation of Flaubert with The Cambridge Companion to Flaubert (2004) edited by Timothy Unwin ( This volume brings together a series of essays by acknowledged experts on Flaubert. It offers a coherent overview of the writer’s work and critical legacy, and provides insights into the very latest scholarly thinking. While a central place is given to Flaubert’s most widely read texts, attention is also paid to key areas of the corpus that have tended to be overlooked. Close textual analyses are accompanied by discussion of broader theoretical issues, and by a consideration of Flaubert’s place in the wider traditions that he both inherited and influenced. These essays provide not only a robust critical framework for readers of Flaubert, but also a fuller understanding of why he continues to exert such a powerful influence on literature and literary studies today. A concluding essay by the prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa examines Flaubert’s legacy from the point of view of the modern novelist.

Filmed at least 10 times from 1949 onwards, try the BBC TV movie of 2000 ( with Frances O’Connor as Emma and Hugh Bonneville as Charles Bovary. Available on DVD at

Probably the most sensitive interpretation on film in terms of melodrama is still the 1949 adaptation from Vincente Minnelli. ( Jennifer Jones plays Emma and Van Heflin plays Charles Bovary. The author is played by James Mason. Available on DVD at

Listen to the 45 minute discussion on the R4 ‘In Our Time‘ series at the link With Andy Martin, Lecturer in French at the University of Cambridge; Mary Orr, Professor of French at the University of Southampton; Robert Gildea, Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford. Chaired by Melvyn Bragg.

384 pages in Penguin Classics paperback edition.

First published 1857

ISBN 978-0140449129

Gustav Flaubert

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