Madame Bovary Essay

Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert

The following entry covers criticism of Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary from the late 1970s to the present. See also, Salammbô Criticism.

Madame Bovary, first published in 1857, is considered Flaubert's masterpiece and one of the most influential French novels of the nineteenth century. Through painstaking attention to detail and constant revision, Flaubert created a highly accurate rendering of his characters' motivations and personalities, achieving an exquisite prose style that has served as a model for numerous writers. A meticulous craftsman, Flaubert attempted to create a narrative "as rhythmical as verse and as precise as the language of science." The novel has significantly influenced literary criticism; since its publication, Madame Bovary has been one of the most frequently discussed books in the history of world literature. Many scholars have concurred with Paul de Man's assertion that "contemporary criticism of fiction owes more to this novel than to any other nineteenth-century work."

Biographical Information

In 1849, Flaubert completed the first version of his novel La tentation de Saint Antoine (1874; The Temptation of Saint Antony). Flaubert's friends Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet declared the work a failure and persuaded him to abandon historical subjects in favor of a novel that would be contemporary in content and realistic in intent. Flaubert subsequently began Madame Bovary. Although he had contempt for his bourgeois subject, he nevertheless strove to achieve stylistic perfection in the novel by working slowly and carefully for more than five years, often producing only one page in several days. Various sources have been cited as possible inspirations for the novel's plot, among them an anecdote related by Maxime Du Camp, and the autobiography of Flaubert's friend Louise Pradier, wife of the painter James Pradier. Other critics have concluded that Flaubert's imagination was in fact the primary source for the novel, pointing to the author's famous declaration: "Madame Bovary, c'est moi." Madame Bovary—Flaubert's first published novel, despite having previously completed several other manuscripts—initially appeared in installments in La Revue de Paris from October 1 through December 15, 1856. Although critics recognized the novel as a work of immense significance, the French government was of a different opinion: Flaubert, his printer, and his publisher were all tried for blasphemy and offense against public morals. All were eventually acquitted, however, and Madame Bovary acquired an elevated notoriety as a result of the publicity generated by the trial. Despite the novel's success, biographers have noted that Flaubert came to resent the fame of Madame Bovary, which greatly overshadowed his subsequent works.

Plot and Major Characters

Madame Bovary is often described as a satire on romantic beliefs and the ineffectual lives of the provincial bourgeoisie of nineteenth-century France. The novel relates the story of Emma Bovary, a bored, frustrated housewife whose dreams of romantic love—primarily inspired by popular novels of her time—are unfulfilled through her marriage to a simple country doctor, Charles Bovary. She attempts to realize her fantasies through love affairs with a local landowner and a law clerk and, later, through extravagant purchases. Unable to pay her debts and unwilling to tolerate or to conform to bourgeois values, she ultimately commits suicide by poisoning herself. Charles is comfortable with his bourgeois simplicity, in contrast with his wife's rage and frustration at the limitations of her life. Throughout the story, Charles becomes increasingly happy and content with his married life, as Emma secretly grows to hate him. Although affectionate and loyal, Charles is portrayed as an obtuse character, oblivious to the sources of his wife's unhappiness and completely naive concerning her affairs. Even the revelation of financial ruin and his wife's infidelity does not alter his adulation for Emma. Her suicide sends him into a devastating episode of grief and seems to contribute to his death at the novel's conclusion. The character Homais, the village pharmacist and champion of scientific progress and traditional patriarchal values, has been viewed by some critics as the novel's most prominent symbol of bourgeois conventionality. While depicted as the focus of satire due to his frequent use of platitudes, Homais also proves to be the most successful figure at the culmination of the plot. Geoffrey Wall has remarked: "Homais becomes ever more powerful in the final chapters, now that .. . the wifeless Charles is fading away with grief. He is enthroned as 'the happiest of fathers, the most fortunate of men'. His public apotheosis comes in the book's closing sentence, as he is awarded the Legion of Honour."

Major Themes

Social and historical themes are among the most frequently discussed motifs of Madame Bovary. Read as a social commentary, the novel depicts Flaubert's view of the conventionality and banality of the French middle class during the nineteenth century. Rosemary Lloyd has stated: "From the opening pages, with their depiction of the way in which both children and teachers impose on individuals patterns of behaviour they are obliged to copy slavishly, to the concluding lines, which record Homais's reward for conforming to the image of the successful man, Madame Bovary reveals the mechanisms of middle-class society, the way in which it creates a form of fatality." The portrayal of gender roles has also received attention in recent years. Several critics have emphasized the novel's depiction of a society in which women received a relatively useless, "ornamental" education, with Emma Bovary's largely superfluous social position being viewed as one of the sources of her malaise and unhappiness. Tony Williams has commented: "The fictional world of Madame Bovary is marked by the over-differentiation of the sexes which characterizes patriarchal society." Other important themes in the novel include the blurred relationship between fantasy and reality and the duplicitous nature of language and meaning. Emma's fruitless search for the heightened passion that she has read about in novels illustrates a dichotomy between language and real-life experience. Many critics have therefore interpreted the novel as a skeptical commentary on the escapist Romantic literature of the era, emphasizing Flaubert's demystification of Romantic and sentimental stereotypes. Others, however, have offered a more ambiguous reading of Flaubert's commentary on the Romantic imagination. A product of the Romantic temperament in conflict with practical, conventional bourgeois society, Emma Bovary can be interpreted as a victim both of her banal circumstances and of her own impressionability.

Critical Reception

Much recent criticism of Madame Bovary has evidenced a feminist or historicist perspective. Several critics have taken a feminist interest in Emma's position in a patriarchal society, interpreting her existential malaise and obsession with fantasy as a product of her limited role in bourgeois society. Tony Tanner, for example, has argued that "[Emma's] sickness must be connected to the vagueness of her position in society: after being a daughter (and thus entirely defined by the father . . . ), she exists on the threshold in a sort of pronominal limbo." Also examining the novel's portrayal of gender roles, Janet Todd has perceived a conflict between Emma Bovary's conventional feminine role and increasingly powerful "masculine" urges which ultimately undermine her social position and contribute to her suicide. Reading Madame Bovary through a historical perspective, Rosemary Lloyd has argued that "the novel draws largely on three main currents of thought: the sentimentalism prevalent in the eighteenth century, which leads into the Romanticism of the 1820s to 1840s; the analytical explorations of love that develop, in part, from other eighteenth-century writers; and the pragmatism of bourgeois thought, which had grown increasingly dominant since the 1830 revolution." Another major focus of critical interest has been the problematic relationship, suggested by Flaubert's narrative techniques, between language, meaning, and reality. "The division between language and experience is a major concern of the novel," Nathaniel Wing has remarked. Exploring the juxtaposition of imagination and reality, Lawrence Thornton has emphasized Emma Bovary's subjective responses to "two equally counterfeit versions of reality": the "marvelous," derived from romantic stories, and the conventional cultural codes of behavior that are defined by her middle-class society.

Gustave Flaubert’s genius lay in his infinite capacity for taking pains, and Madame Bovary—so true in its characterizations, so vivid in its setting, so convincing in its plot—is ample testimony to the realism of his work. This novel was one of the first of its type to come out of France, and its truth shocked contemporary readers. Condemned on one hand for picturing the life of a romantic adulterer, Flaubert was acclaimed on the other hand for the honesty and skill with which he handled his subject. Flaubert does not permit Emma Bovary to escape the tragedy she brings on herself. Emma finds diversion from the monotony of her life, but she finds it at the loss of her own self-respect. The truth of Emma’s struggle is universal and challenging.

Since the time of Charles Baudelaire, many critics have noted, either approvingly or disapprovingly, Flaubert’s application of an accomplished and beautifully sustained style to a banal subject matter in Madame Bovary. In Flaubert’s own time, many readers objected to an adulterous heroine not only as banal but also as vulgar. Baudelaire, however, offered the telling defense against this criticism in his acknowledgment that the logic of the work as a whole provides an indictment of the immoral behavior.

Flaubert himself viewed his book as “all cunning and stylistic ruse.” His intention was to write “a book about nothing, a book with no exterior attachment . . . a book that would have almost no subject.” Flaubert’s goals, however, were not as purely aesthetic as they might initially seem, for he did not mean to eschew significance entirely. Rather, he meant that any subject matter, no matter how trivial, could be raised to art by language and pattern. Like Stendhal and Honoré de Balzac, Flaubert believed that quotidian matters could be treated seriously, but he goes further than his predecessors in refusing to provide narrative guidance and interpretation.

Literary critic Erich Auerbach observed that Flaubert seems simply to pick scenes that are significant and endow them with a language that allows them to be interpreted. As a result, many commentators have seen Flaubert as the first modern novelist, even a precursor of the antinovelist, because of his unwillingness to deal with subject matter in the traditional, narrative manner. Certainly, he represents a break with the past, for although he retains the story, he makes the novel, in his own words, into “a coloration, a nuance.”

At the heart of the novel is a provincial dreamer, a romantic who distorts her environment and ultimately destroys herself with wish fulfillment born of the desperate boredom of her circumscribed situation. Her romantic illusions are, however, not so much the theme of the novel as they are the prime example of human stupidity, which is reflected by all the characters. Charles is trapped by his complacency as much as Emma is by her vain imaginings. The surrounding figures, more types than fully developed characters, represent contemporary failures—the irresponsible seducer, the usurer, the inadequate priest, the town rationalist. All are isolated from those around them by their personal obsessions or deficiencies, and all contribute to the overwhelming stagnation that smothers Emma.

The novel can be divided into three parts, each of which is controlled by an action and a dominant image. In the first part, Emma marries Charles; here the dominant image is in her visit to Le Vaubyessard. The marriage is the central fact of her discontent, while the visit ostensibly provides her with a view of the opulent life she so desperately craves. In the second part of the novel, where she is seduced by the conscienceless landowner Rodolphe, the dominant image is the Comices Agricoles, the elaborate fair with its rustic and vulgar trappings. To Emma, as she is succumbing to Rodolphe, the Comices Agricoles is the very symbol of the limitations of her life. She is not capable of consciously making such an interpretation. If she were, her perception might save her. What she does not realize is that her affair is as banal as the fair. The third part of the novel, which describes her seduction by Léon, has as its dominant image the meeting in Rouen Cathedral. The cathedral becomes both church and boudoir, populated not only by images of saints but also by a statue of Diane de Poitiers, a notable adulterer. Once again, Emma reaches out to the grand but is compromised by her own limitations and those of her situation.

The dominant images, which reveal the ambiguity as well as the frustration of Emma’s predicament, are reinforced and refined by a series of recurrent, minor images. A striking example is the plaster statue of a curé that deteriorates as Emma is progressively debased. The image is extended by a contrast of the curé’s statue with a statue of Cupid: Love and sexuality rise as the holy man disintegrates. Later, the damage to the curé’s foot reminds the reader of Charles’s peasant boots, which resemble a clubfoot, and of the amputation of Hippolyte’s leg as a result of Charles’s desperate desire to please Emma. As these complex images recur, they bind together the varieties of stupidity and vanity.

Even more revolutionary than the use of imagery is the point of view, the series of perspectives from which Flaubert narrates the story. He does not assume the stance of the distanced observer but repeatedly shifts the point of view to avail himself of multiple angles of vision. The narrative begins and ends with scenes focused on Charles. Although Flaubert never allows Charles a first-person presentation, readers see the beginning of the novel and, indeed, are introduced to Emma from Charles’s perspective. The readers finally return to view the debris of the conclusion from the vantage point of this uncomprehending victim.

Most of the novel is seen from Emma’s perspective, but there is such a deft playing off of Emma’s perceptions against the narrator’s control that the reader is able to analyze her perceptions in a broader context rather than simply accept them as fact. The details of Charles’s eating habits, for example, become to Emma and the reader a sign of his bovinity, or dullness, while at the same time, to the reader only, they are a sign of Emma’s discontent. Looking out from Emma’s or Charles’s eyes, interpretations emerge that are beyond the mental capacity of either character. Flaubert presents what they perceive as a means of representing what they fail to perceive. An advantage of this method is that, while the reader becomes aware of Emma’s shortcomings, a sympathy develops. The reader recognizes the oppressiveness of Emma’s circumstances, the triviality of her evil, and the relative sensitivity of her kind of stupidity.

Apparently subjective presentations, controlled and ordered by Flaubert’s selection of image and detail, reveal what the characters themselves do not understand. Emma’s romantic idealism is the prime example. If Flaubert cannot make tragedy out of these ingredients, he can quite powerfully describe, in his minuscule characters, personal and social frustration on a grand scale.


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