This book had been read by many of the Arodene Road book club mostly at school and given our age group some time ago!!
One or two of us thought that the role of women had not changed so much since this was written but that is a matter up for debate.
We started by considering if there were any characters in the novel that we liked or indeed felt sympathy with but there was not a consensus here the only one being that we did not have any feelings for most of the main characters including Emma and Charles., although there was sympathy for the boy with a club foot (on whom Charles performs an unsuccessful operation) and Emma’s wet nurse.
It tells the story of a woman who came from a farming background who married a doctor and whose life within the marriage was restrictive, boring, and unhappy. The novel gives detailed descriptions about how life in provincial 19th century France is about family occupation and wealth which are the determining factors in having a place in society. The novel says very little if anything about the lower classes.
Emma has little to do apart from reading romantic novels and daydreaming about a different and more exciting life. She has two adulterous affairs one with Rodolphe and the other with Leon both being a diversion from the boredom she had within her marriage and which her husband Charles failed to notice. In both these affairs she does not appear in any way to feel guilty.
We were all surprised about her conceiving as the novel portrays Charles as quite a sexless man. Emma would have preferred a son we thought because she did not want a daughter to face a comparable situation to her and that we concluded was why she was so neglectful and disappointed with the birth and quite heartless towards her daughter.
When they move to yet another provincial town it does not help Emma’s position and as she takes over the financial affairs of the family quickly gets into debt. She is extravagant in what she buys, things that she easily discards which is linked to her boredom and after one affair ends and then another. This debt and the embarrassment within the society on which she moves is her eventual downfall.
The end of the novel, to some extent, is sad in the way Emma takes her own life, an act of rebellion within that society, and how Charles starts to realize that he could have been a different person. Despite the fact there is no money and objects are being dispossessed he arranges a lavish funeral including having her dressed in her wedding dress. He feels guilty and lonely and despite the way she behaved towards him he still loves her.
There were different views about the novel, but it is difficult to dispute Flaubert’s writing and despite it being controversial at the time it gives an excellent example of French provincial life and the position of women and the overbearing society norms.
Julie, Arodene Road Book Club