French Language Blog

French Literature – Madame Bovary Posted by on Nov 15, 2009 in Culture

I was basically introduced to French literature during my third year in college which I spent in Paris studying the Cours de Civilisation Française offered at the Sorbonne through Central College Abroad.

Although it felt like I was never going to get it in the beginning, with help from the teachers at the Sorbonne and my French friends, I unlocked the treasure chest that is French literature.  One of my very favorites is Madame Bovary.  I’m not sure why really, but I fell in love with this novel by Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880).  One of my favorite excerpts is when Emma Rouault (the main character) discovers her new home three days after her wedding to the widowed Charles Bovary, a very shy, uninteresting and insensitive man she had just recently met.  The reader becomes Emma as the description is thoroughly made from her perspective.  The detailed adjectives and nouns make for impressive imagery as Flaubert uses objects instead of emotions to show who his characters are.  It’s heart-breaking to feel just like Emma, the only daughter of a rich Normand farmer, as she discovers a home that her new husband had not even prepared for her, having left it just as his first wife (who Emma refers to as l’autre) had decorated it and which as far as Emma is concerned is old, dirty and of poor taste (un papier jaune-serin, des fleurs pâles, la toile mal tendue, flambeaux d’argent plaqué, bois de sapin, une grande pièce délabrée…).  My favorite line in this chapter is: …Emma songeait à son bouquet de mariage, qui était emballé dans un carton, et se demandait, en rêvant, ce qu’on en ferait, si par hasard elle venait à mourir.

Flaubert apparently wrote this story after having read about a young woman who cheated on and was later murdered by her husband.  Hence, the fact that Emma later commits suicide which is presaged in this line I quoted.

I encourage all my readers to open up a French novel and read just a little excerpt.  Use a dictionary if you really need to, but only for the words that really block your general understanding of the story.  Don’t waste time looking up each and every one of the words you don’t know as this will frustrate you before you even finish one sentence.  And after all, the most important thing is that you get a general idea of the plot or the action as that will be enough to keep you wanting to go back for more.

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  1. Malcolm:

    This is wonderful advice on how to delve into French literature. The main thing is to get the gist of it. Men and women are different. I was not at all sympathetic to Madame Bovary. I felt she abused her husband and neglected her daughter for her own ends.

  2. Knitlark:

    Loved the post about French Literature.
    Just wanted you to know that I am reading Victor Hugo — Hunchback of Notre Dame — on my podcast. It is available (free) at or (free) on Itunes.

  3. Simon:

    I agree! Reading will help, but living in France for a while is the best way, if you can do it.

  4. Chanda:

    Thanks Malcolm for your opinion of Madame Bovary…I love sharing notes on literature!

  5. Chanda:

    Thanks so much for your comment. Yes, I agree living in France if you can is the best, especially if you make good use of your time there by meeting French people for example.

  6. Chanda:

    Thanks for your link Knitlark! Enjoy your reading.

  7. Anthony Lewis:

    I have studied French for years and agree with your remark that when reading French literature in French, it is best not to look up every word you don’t know. This is a sure way to become derailed and lose the beauty and point of each sentence. I now read, with a dictionary in the wings, and only look for those words where the meaning of the sentence is lost.

  8. Daniel Bergar:

    Nice post! I too am a huge fan of Madame Bovary and am really looking forward to teaching it next semester and sharing my passion.

    To the user above, there’s no need to look up every word any more. I’ve made a hyper-annoted version @!/10775/en/d/0/0/0/