“At the bottom of her heart, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know what this chance would be, what wind would bring it her, towards what shore it would drive her, if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, laden with anguish or full of bliss to the portholes. But each morning, as she awoke, she hoped it would come that day; she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, wondered that it did not come; then at sunset, always more saddened, she longed for the morrow.”
Great literature brings many benefits to attentive readers. One of them is vicarious learning. Masterful works of fiction like Madame Bovary transport us to a sphere of imagination that not only allows but enhances our self-awareness. As we identify with richly drawn characters, we likewise see our lives more clearly.
Emma Bovary’s story is about what happens to a woman who builds a life around false images and undergoes the inevitable disappointments for doing so. My story about Madame Bovary is about what didn’t happen. Madame Bovary prevented me from cheating. I don’t mean I would have taken a lover if I’d not been warned by her story in time. Although, who knows? Maybe I would have…
Is there any book you’ve read that has transformed your thinking and life as Madame Bovary did for the author?
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
D I G D E E P E R
Writing was not easy for the French novelist Gustave Flaubert. Because of his concern for form and precise detail, he often struggled for days searching for le seul mot juste (“the exactly right word”). He took five years to write Madame Bovary, his best-known work.
Gustave Flaubert was born on Dec. 12, 1821, in Rouen, France, where his father, Achille, was chief surgeon at the Hôtel-Dieu (hospital). His mother, Caroline Fleuriot, was the daughter of a doctor. Gustave was one of six children, only three of whom survived.
While a student in Rouen, Gustave showed an early interest in literature. He and his friends acted in plays he had written when he was only 11. His first published work, Song of Death, appeared in the review Le Colibri in 1837.
At the insistence of his father, Flaubert went to Paris in 1841 to study law. In 1843, having failed his examinations and suffering from the onset of a nervous disorder, he decided to devote all his time to literature. After the deaths of his father and sister, in 1846, a sizable inheritance enabled him to retire to the family estate at Croisset to write.
Flaubert sought to make literature a pure art. His aim was to write faultless, meticulously chiseled prose. “My head reels and throat aches with chasing after, slogging over, delving into, turning around, groping after, and bellowing, in a hundred thousand different ways, a sentence that I’ve at last finished,” he said while working on Madame Bovary.
Published in serial form in 1856, it tells the story of Emma Bovary, an irresponsible, selfish, extravagant young woman who, involved in debt and intrigue, poisons herself. The novel caused such a sensation in France that its author was put on trial for the alleged immorality of the book.
For Madame Bovary, Flaubert took a commonplace story of adultery and made of it a book that continues to be read because of its profound humanity. The story is that of Emma, a girl in provincial France who eagerly marries her father’s physician, country doctor Charles Bovary, to escape life on the farm. Emma soon comes to discover, though, that Charles is far from the prince that she had hoped for and that married life is quite unbearable. Disgusted and frustrated, Emma begins to act out her romantic fantasies and embarks on an ultimately disastrous love affair.
Madame Bovary cost the author five years of hard work. Believing that there was “no such thing as a synonym,” Flaubert worked and reworked the book, searching for exactly the right word to describe every situation. The novel, with the subtitle Moeurs de province (Provincial Customs), eventually appeared in installments in his friend Maxime du Camp’s journal Revue de Parisfrom Oct. 1 to Dec. 15, 1856. The French government then brought the author to trial on the ground of his novel’s alleged immorality, and he narrowly escaped conviction. With its unrelenting objectivity the novel marked the beginning of a new age of realism in literature.
Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).
Karen Swallow Prior is Professor of English at Liberty University and an award-winning teacher. She is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.com and for Christianity Today, where she blogs frequently at Her.meneutics. Her writing has appeared in Relevant, Think Christian, and Salvo. She is a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a member of INK: A Creative Collective, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.
Booked draws on classics like Great Expectations, delights such as Charlotte’s Web, the poetry of Hopkins and Donne, and more. This thoughtful, straight-up memoir will be pure pleasure for book-lovers, teachers, and anyone who has struggled to find a way to articulate the inexpressible through a love of story.