Gustave Flaubert once remarked, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” (“Madame Bovary is me”). On the surface, this comment seems ridiculous; the circumstances of Flaubert’s life have nothing in common with those he created for his most famous character. Flaubert was born in 1821 in Rouen, France. Emma Bovary’s father is an uneducated farmer, whereas Flaubert’s father was a respected and wealthy doctor. In addition, Emma dreams of becoming sophisticated and cosmopolitan, while Flaubert moved in the highest literary circles in Paris. Finally, Emma endures an unhappy marriage and seeks out lovers. On the contrary, the reclusive Flaubert spent most of his time living in solitude.
Since their biographies are so strikingly dissimilar, Flaubert’s comment probably meant that he and his character shared many of the same struggles and desires. Emma Bovary becomes obsessed with an idealized vision of romantic love. Similarly, Flaubert became fixated at a young age upon an older woman named Elisa Schlessinger, with whom he fantasized about having a romantic relationship for many years. Emma suffers from ill health and a nervous condition; Flaubert also suffered from poor health and may have had epilepsy. Though he was an esteemed writer, Flaubert was afflicted with an abiding pessimism that caused him to sink into frequent depressions, just as Emma does when she realizes she never can have what she most desires.
Flaubert, too, could never attain what he most wanted. He remained lonely and bitter throughout his life as a writer. Though admired by his French contemporaries, Flaubert was deeply hurt by the moral outrage Madame Bovary provoked at its publication in 1857. The novel depicted extramarital sex in what were, for the time, graphic terms, and Flaubert and his publisher were put on trial for violation of public morals. They were acquitted, but the experience intensified Flaubert’s hatred of middle-class morality.
The hatred of middle-class values is strongly apparent in Madame Bovary. In Flaubert’s lifetime, France was caught in the throes of immense social upheaval. The Revolution of 1789 and the imperial reign of Napoleon were recent memories, and the collapse of the aristocracy was paralleled by the rise of a new middle class—or bourgeoisie—made up of merchants and capitalists with commercial, rather than inherited, fortunes. As a member of the educated elite, Flaubert found the moral conservatism, rough manners, and unsophisticated taste of this new class appalling. He attacked the merchant class in novels such as Madame Bovary, the story of a woman imprisoned by her middle-class surroundings, and in another novel, Sentimental Education.
In addition to criticizing the middle class, Flaubert’s novel also reacted against romanticism. Romantic writers, who were popular in France between the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, wrote emotional, subjective novels that stressed feeling at the expense of facts and reason. When Flaubert began writing, a new school called realism had started challenging romantic idealism with books that focused on the harsh realities of life. This school included other French writers such as Stendhal and Honorè Balzac, as well as English writers like George Eliot and Thomas Hardy. Unlike his contemporaries, however, Flaubert recognized a strong streak of romanticism in himself. In Madame Bovary, romanticism is present, but Flaubert always treats it with irony. Flaubert allows himself a few romantic moments but recognizes their flaws.
Though it was his first novel, Madame Bovary is Flaubert’s most accomplished and admired work. In many ways, the novel provides the blueprint for the genre of the modern novel. For example, Flau-bert was a pioneering stylist, matching the style of his prose to the action of his story in a remarkable new way. Where other realist novels of the mid-nineteenth century used detached, objective narration, Flaubert’s prose conveys the mood of his characters. When Emma is bored and restless, the prose plods dully; when she experiences sensual pleasure, it moves rapturously and swiftly. We frequently see this technique of communicating mood through language in novels today.