Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
One of the main things that's been going through my head repeatedly as I read is trying to figure out just what nineteenth-century audiences found so shocking about this novel: at first, in 2009, "shocking" is almost as surprising an adjective to apply to this as to Manet's painting Lola de Valence, which also caused scandal. But thinking other things I've read from the period, both great and mediocre, I believe I'm beginning to understand. It wasn't so much the subject matter of the novel, as the way it was written -- it was very far from the first instance of adultery in literature. But Flaubert wrote without one drop of sentimentality. There are definite conventions to how characters, especially "sinners", must be depicted in sentimental literature (and indeed in all the dominant modes of literature of the early nineteenth century), and this doesn't fit. What's more, Flaubert wrote about sex with frankness but not salaciousness. Erotica existed at the time, could be easily classified as such, as a familiar though despised genre. There were other ways of alluding to sex, such as the comic "wink nudge" or the ethereal communion of souls, but this was none of them.

I believe that sexual frankness that didn't fit conventional modes is what Madame Bovary had in common with Manet's painting -- maybe we nowadays have trouble seeing that about Lola, since we're presented with so many explicit images. But look again: the dancer's taut body is full of physical presentness, her direct gaze and outthrust hip and bosom have no coyness. This is not the sort of erotica that would be kept in the back room of a smoky tavern, but erotic it is, and not ashamed of it.

It also created great unease in the readers of the time that Flaubert refused to point out clear moral lessons; there probably were ones to be found, but not necessarily the usual ones. He went into such detail about the inner states of his main character that he created identification with her; this too causes unease when you're not sure whether you ought to be condemning the character you're drawn into identifying with.

This last characteristic is one that can still disturb people nowadays, although there are many other examples of it.

It seems to me, moreover, that although Flaubert has abundant mockery for the folly and venality of everyone in this story, he makes it hard to despise the characters because of how carefully he depicts them. Caricature would be easy, but the flawed humanity of the characters must be accepted -- no one’s outside it, not even the cowardly Léon ; the only ones without redeeming qualities are the pompously egotistical Homais and the predatory Lheureux (but, paradoxically, Lheureux is intelligent and perceptive, which would be good qualities if he didn't use them to find and exploit people's weaknesses).

Nonetheless, Flaubert's irony is absolutely merciless in his account of Emma's final day and her death; the contrast between Emma's enormous distress, and Charles' desolation, and the self-centeredness of everyone around them, is pointed. There really is something shocking about the absurdity of the conduct of the citizens of Yonville. The judge at the book's trial thought that the depiction of Emma's death was offensive to religion; it certainly is nowise in accord with the way such things are "supposed" to be according to the codes of sentimental literature.