Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Supposedly this story of a bored and beautiful doctor’s wife struck such a chord when it was published that many women claimed to be Flaubert’s inspiration. Naturally, the women couldn’t have been exactly like Emma Bovary or they would not have been alive to lay claim to the similarities. But in a larger sense, Madame Bovary speaks to anyone who has ever expected life to be more than it is, and serves as a warning that nothing is as romantic as it appears.
Emma’s life is a series of disappointments. The high point of her life is her wedding near the beginning of the book — a pastoral ideal filled with bountiful food and drink, smiling faces and laughing people. It is absolutely beautiful, and she feels her whole life is ahead of her. She is bored by town life, bored by her husband, constantly wanting more and more money and exhilaration and entertainment. The life lead by Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country would have suited her quite nicely (and, in fact, they are very similar) — but instead, she feels trapped, and conducts a series of affairs that she expects will lift her out of her tedious life. She also spends a lot of money she doesn’t have and cheats her husband out of his state.
Finally, she commits suicide, in a horrible, intentionally drawn-out scene that undermines every romantic ideal Emma ever had. There is an incredibly well-drawn moment where the people preparing her body declare that she looks like she’s sleeping, an angel too good for this world, a beautiful, pure bride. At that moment, blood and bile leak from her mouth and Flaubert depicts the unnatural angle of her head, declaring through subtext that death is not romantic and can never be anything but ugly, in direct defiance of the contemporary thought that dying tragically was the ultimate romantic ideal.
(Think Dickens here, and Beth from Little Women, though it’s notable that no one else tried to poison themselves. Emma clearly had visions of either a short, dramatic death scene or a graceful, lingering one in which she would become suffused with a heavenly light. Either way, one imagines she harbored the notion of dying beautifully and having her husband or lovers fling themselves weeping into her grave.)
This scene serves as the moral center of this work — which is probably why no one considers Madame Bovary a “fun” read. One can romanticize Emma’s affairs, one can understand her yearning for more, but Flaubert refuses to admit that romantic ideals can be achieved. There are hints that her husband is a good man, that Emma could have been happy, but she is too caught up in novels and romantic ideas to see that what she’s yearning for will disappoint her just as much as the rest of her life has so far.
Flaubert is the father of modern realism for this reason — but someone looking to escape into a Victorian novel and immerse themselves in romanticism may want to search elsewhere.