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Madame Bovary

When Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1856) was published, it created quite a controversy. In his book, Flaubert depicted extramarital affairs that were deemed obscene, and Flaubert was forced to go to trial for violating public moral codes in 1857. He won the case, which only increased the book's popularity. Today it is considered one of the best examples of Realism to have come out of 19th-century France.

Madame Bovary: Historical Context

The Rise of the Bourgeoisie

Madame Bovary, home of Bourgeoisie, StudySmarterHome of a Bourgeois, pixabay.com

The term bourgeoisie dates back to the 11th century and stems from the word Bourg, which referred to commercially rich cities in Western and Central Europe. By mid 19th century France, bourgeois/bourgeoisie came to refer to a social class that belonged to the upper-middle class, which saw its rise after the fall of the aristocracy. Especially in France, the bourgeoisie were believers and proponents of liberalism, which meant they wanted greater individual rights and protections.

Post-French Revolution (1789-1799), the bourgeoisie gained many civil and political rights, which allowed them to grow economically through commerce. The bourgeoisie was characterized as wealthy and materialistic. Flaubert greatly disliked the bourgeoisie, as he was part of the educated elite, and saw them as too conservative and unsophisticated.

In Madame Bovary, realistic descriptions of country life are contrasted with the protagonist, Emma's, fantasies, dreams, and dislike of the bourgeoisie class, to which she belongs. This yearning drives her to do morally questionable things that reveal Flaubert's disgust with the bourgeoisie.

Literary Realism in 19th-Century France

Literary Realism was a 19th-century literary movement that saw its origins in France with the painter Gustave Courbet. Realism spread to literature, and Flaubert became a prominent leader in the movement. Realism is a literary movement focused on depicting the mundane, everyday life of common people. It was a rejection of Romanticism, another 19th-century literary movement.

Romanticism - a literary movement (approx. 1770-1850) that placed great emphasis on the individual hero, subjectivity, and the imagination. The movement features a devotion to beauty, nature, the power of transcendence, and a focus on the sublime.

Madame Bovary is Flaubert's best example of realism, as it depicts the everyday mundanity of country life. However, Flaubert does include elements of romanticism to create irony.

To learn more about the genre and writing style of Madame Bovary, make sure to read the Madame Bovary Book Analysis section.

Madame Bovary Author: Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert was born in Rouen, France, in 1821 to parents Achille, a chief surgeon, and Anne. He began writing at a very young age and had already written the first version of a novel, Memoirs D'un Fou (1901), by 1838. In the 1840s, Flaubert went to Paris to attend law school, and, after an epileptic attack, dropped out. After his father died in 1846, he moved to Croisset with his mother and recently-orphaned niece.

In 1851, Flaubert began writing Madame Bovary, which would take him 5 years to complete. He was encouraged to write the book after reading a manuscript for his novel The Temptation of St. Anthony (1874) to his friends Maxime du Camp and Louise Bouilhet, both French writers.

The two women told Flaubert it was too fanciful and that he should focus on writing a novel in the realist genre. Flaubert went on to write many novels, including Salammbo (1862) and Sentimental Education (1869). In the 1870s, Flaubert dealt with many health issues caused by venereal diseases, as well as financial issues. He died in 1880 from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Madame Bovary: Summary

Madame Bovary begins with the childhood of Charles Bovary, who as a young boy had difficulty fitting in. By the time Charles is a young man, he is characterized as being quite mediocre, failing to pass a medical exam. He is, however, able to become a country doctor. He is married by his mother to a widow, who dies quickly.

It is not long before Charles meets Emma, a patient's daughter, and they fall in love. The two get married and find a home in Tostes. Emma quickly realizes that Charles and the marriage don't match her romantic dreams about love and marriage, which she believed would be the solution to all of life's problems. Emma lived in a convent before her marriage, where life was dull, and she deeply wished for a more fanciful life.

Madame Bovary, French Countryside, StudySmarterFrench countryside, pixabay.com

At a ball hosted by a wealthy gentleman, Emma begins to daydream about a more interesting life. The mundanity of her current life depresses her, and country life is boring to Emma. She becomes pregnant and ill, so Charles decides that to improve her health they must move to Yonville. In Yonville, Emma meets new people, including the self-absorbed pharmacist, Homais, and the bored law clerk, Leon.

Soon after, Emma gives birth to a daughter named Berthe. She is deeply disappointed, as she had wanted a son and doesn't find motherhood fulfilling. Bored once more, Emma dreams again of a more interesting life. Emma and Leon soon develop romantic feelings for each other, and when Emma realizes that Leon loves her, she tries her best to fulfill the role the loyal, dutiful wife. Leon, bored of waiting around for her, leaves Yonville to study law in Paris, leaving Emma miserable once again.

Not long after, Emma's wealthy neighbor Rodolphe declares to Emma that he is in love with her at an agricultural affair. Attracted to her beauty, he seduces her. The two begin a passionate affair that, despite Emma's discretion, becomes the town gossip.

Charles is completely blind to the affair. His reputation as a doctor suffers when an experimental surgery on a man with a club foot goes wrong and leads Charles to call in another doctor to amputate the leg. Emma is dissatisfied with her husband's stupidity and continues her affair with Rodolphe even more passionately than before. Lavishing him with gifts, Emma suggests they run away together with her daughter, but Rodolphe grows bored of Emma and leaves her.

Emma becomes ill and Charles is left with a lot of debt from Emma's spending and illness. When she recovers, Charles takes her to the opera in Rouen, where they run into Leon. Romantic feelings come back between Emma and Leon and they begin a secret love affair. She continuously sneaks off to Rouen to meet with Leon, digging herself deeper and deeper into debt, as she is borrowing from the moneylender Lheureux, who has very high-interest rates.

Emma grows bored with her affair with Leon and becomes very demanding of him, while at the same time falling deeper into debt. Lheureux eventually comes to seize Emma's property, so she tries her best to raise money by appealing to the townspeople and Leon, for she doesn't want Charles to find out.

Emma becomes so desperate that she returns to Rodolphe and tells him she will prostitute herself for him as long as he gives her money. He refuses to do so, and Emma falls into a deep pit of despair. She doesn't know what to do or how to get out of the debt she has created. She decides to commit suicide by eating arsenic and dies in terrible, painful agony.

Madame Bovary : Characters

Emma Bovary The protagonist whose romantic and idealistic dreams to escape the mundanity of life leads her to extramarital affairs and extraordinary debt. She is married to Charles Bovary.Within the character of Emma, we see where Flaubert criticizes romanticism. Her beauty leads Emma to moral corruption and the dream of a romantic life of love and wealth leads to Emma's ruin. She also represents Flaubert's dislike of the bourgeoisie, as we see her dissatisfaction with characters like Homais, who represent the bourgeoisie. "Yet she was full of covetous desires, anger and hatred. The smooth folds of her dress concealed a tumultuous heart, and her modest lips told nothing of her torment. She was in love with Léon, and she sought solitude because it allowed her to revel in thoughts of him at leisure (Part 2, Chapter 5)."
Charles Bovary Emma's husband. He is a dull country doctor who loves Emma to a fault.Charles is characterized as simple, stupid, and lacking imagination. His character turns Emma away, as he is unable to see the world in idealistic fantasies. Despite his simpleness, he represents morality and good-heartedness. He is Emma's exact opposite. "Charles’s conversation was as flat as any pavement, everyone’s ideas trudging along with it in their weekday clothes, rousing no emotion, no laughter, no reverie (Part 1, Chapter 7)."
HomaisThe Yonville pharmacist who is superficial and self-absorbed. Emma finds his pomposity boring.Homais represents the bourgeois values and characteristics that Flaubert deeply disliked. His superficiality causes direct harm to Charles when he encourages Charles to perform an experimental surgery that goes wrong. Homais represents the harm the bourgeoisie can do to common people. "The pharmacist had meditated every phrase, he had smoothed and polished it and made it flow; it was a masterpiece of deliberation and progression, of elegant style and tactfulness; but anger had obliterated rhetoric (Part 3, Chapter 2)."
LeonA law clerk in Yonville who has a romantic love affair with Emma. Leon believes their love is impossible and goes to Paris. Upon his return to Yonville, he is characterized as a newborn urban sophisticate who grows to dislike Emma. Leon represents the corruption of bourgeoisie society. When Leon returns from Paris he considers himself superior to Emma. Unable to connect with her - for he sees her as unsophisticated - he leaves her. He represents the emptiness and shallowness of the bourgeoisie. "He even tried to force himself to stop loving her, but as soon as he heard her footsteps he would feel helplessly weak, like a drunkard at the sight of liquor (Part 3, Chapter 6)"
Rodolphe BoulangerA wealthy landowner who is selfish and manipulative. He seduces Emma and has a passionate affair with her. He leaves her when he gets bored of her. Rodolphe is another character who shows the immoral characteristics of the bourgeoisie. He is manipulative and seductive, much like how Flaubert saw them. Their lives were glamorous but he believed them to be empty of genuine feelings and refinement, like Rodolphe. "Emma was just like any other mistress; and the charm of novelty, falling down slowly like a dress, exposed only the eternal monotony of passion, always the same forms and the same language. He did not distinguish, this man of such great expertise, the differences of sentiment beneath the sameness of their expression (Part 3, Chapter 12)."
LheureuxA Yonville merchant and moneylender who guides Emma towards financial ruin and debt by feeding into her dreams of luxury. He eventually leads her to suicide.Lheureux plays the archetype of a devil. He is a person who tempts people with promises of luxury only to lead them to financial ruin when he demands payment for loans. He can be seen as representing the dangers of belonging to the bourgeoisie. "It was Monsieur Lheureux, the shopkeeper, who had undertaken the order; this provided him with an excuse for visiting Emma. He chatted with her about the new goods from Paris, about a thousand feminine trifles, made himself very obliging, and never asked for his money. Emma yielded to this lazy mode of satisfying all her caprices (Part 2, Chapter 12)."

Madame Bovary: Book Analysis with Quotes

Genre and Writing Style

Madame Bovary is a work of the Realism genre of literature, with a hint of Romanticism. The book focuses largely on describing realistic settings, people, and events. To emphasize Emma's boredom with her life, Realism is used to show how mundane everyday life can be.

"Every day, at the same time, the schoolmaster in his black silk cap would throw open his shutters, and the village policeman would pass, his sword buckled over his smock. Morning and evening, the post-horses would be led across the street, three by three, to drink at the pond. Now and then a bell would tinkle on a cafe door, and if it were windy, one could hear the little copper basins which the hairdresser used as his shop sign, clanking on their two iron rods (Part 1, Chapter 9)."

In this passage taken from Madame Bovary, we can see an example of Realism. We get a detailed description of the everyday that goes on in the town. It depicts a normal, mundane routine without any extravagant or romanticized adjectives. The mundane depictions of life are a key characteristic of a Realist piece of literature.

Romanticism is used by Flaubert to display irony in Madame Bovary.

Literary irony- When something happens in a written work that is different from the expectation.

Emma is characterized as being a romantic character. She has idealistic dreams and fantasies about a luxurious, beautiful, and elegant life that is far beyond her reach as a country doctor's wife. It is her romanticism that leads to her ruin. As she dies from her suicide, she imagines herself dying the death of a tragic hero, a common character type in romantic literature.

The irony can be seen in how romanticism provides Emma with beautiful visions, but cannot make them materialize in her actual life. Rather than live the luxurious life she wanted, she dies a horrible death. In this way, Flaubert is making a statement about romanticism as a literary genre.

Everything, including herself, seemed unbearable to her. She wished she could fly away like a bird and make herself young again somewhere in the vast purity of space (Part 3, Chapter 6)."

In this excerpt, we can see that the dissatisfaction Emma has with her own life leads her to have romantic fantasies. However, they are impossible and unattainable. Can you think of more examples from the novel that show how romanticism is used to highlight irony?

To emphasize the difference between the reality of Emma's life and Emma's romantic fantasies, Flaubert strategically switches between Realist and Romantic descriptions. Flaubert's realist descriptions are straightforward, unadorned, and direct. The sentences don't run too long and they describe what is actually there. Here is an example:

A cat was stalking about the rooftops, arching its back in the last pale rays of sunshine. The wind blew trails of dust along the high road. In the distance, a dog howled now and then, and the bell kept up its tolling, each monotonous note dying out over the countryside (Part 1, Chapter 9).

Flaubert describes exactly what Emma sees and hears. A cat, a setting sun, dust blown by the end, a howling dog, and a bell toll. It is an ordinary and mundane scene. Realist literature did not go into too much detail and simply described objectively what was happening. There is no emotion in this scene.

In contrast to the above excerpt, here is an example where Flaubert uses romanticism to intimately show the reader the imaginative and idealistic mind of Emma. In this scene, she romanticizes what Paris might be like:

She confused in her desire the sensualities of luxury with the delights of the heart, elegance of manners with delicacy of sentiment. Did not love, like Indian plants, need a special soil, a particular temperature? Signs by moonlight, long embraces, tears flowing over yielded hands, all the fevers of the flesh and the languors of tenderness could not be separated from the balconies of great castles full of indolence, from boudoirs with silken curtains and thick carpets, well-filled flower-stands, a bed on a raised dias, nor from the flashing of precious stones and the shoulder-knots of liveries (Part 1, Chapter 9).

The language here departs from realism. The embellished and sensory descriptions such as "fevers of the flesh" and "languors of tenderness" inspire in the reader imaginative and subjective feelings closely tied to emotion and imagination. In this way, the reader can connect to Emma's emotional world and her deepest desires for luxury and extravagance that she is unable to get from her current life.

Flaubert uses two different writing styles to signal to the reader the difference between Emma's inner world and the reality of the world she lives in.

Madame Bovary: Major Themes

A theme is a central idea, topic, or message present throughout a written work. Flaubert explores a few major themes in Madame Bovary, namely the faults of the bourgeoisie, the limitations of women, and confinement and dissatisfaction. The theme helps inform the main meaning or message of the text, which in this case is that people are unable to accept their reality in the face of fanciful illusions, and this inability to accept life for what it is, leads to ruin.

Faults of the Bourgeoisie

Her carnal desires, her longing for money, and the melancholy of her unfulfilled passion merged into one vast anguish, and instead of trying to distract herself from it she concentrated her attention on it, stirring up her pain and always looking for a chance to suffer (Part 2, Chapter 5).

Flaubert disliked the materialistic and unrefined tastes of the bourgeoisie. In Madame Bovary, Emma is deeply dissatisfied and disgusted by it, while also falling prey to its indulgences and luxuries. Several characters represent the flaws of the bourgeoisie, and that leads to Emma's tragic end.

Homais, the town pharmacist who loves to hear himself speak, is superficial and proud. He even causes Charles's reputation to suffer when he encourages Charles to do an experimental surgery on a man with a club foot. Homais is arrogant and self-absorbed, and Emma deeply dislikes him.

Rodolphe also represents the emptiness and shallowness of the bourgeoisie. He seduces Emma and begins an affair with her, manipulating her dreams of a more exciting, fulfilling love to his advantage. He does not love her, and as soon as he grows bored of her, he abandons her.

In this way, he shows the materialism of the bourgeoisie, who would spend exorbitant amounts of money on items, only to quickly grow bored of them and find something new, just as Rodolphe does with women.

Finally, the character of Lheureux represents the dangers of the aspirations of the bourgeoisie. He constantly encourages Emma to purchase items she cannot afford and take out loans, leaving her in deep debt that she is unable to get out of. Eventually she kills herself, leaving her daughter to suffer the consequences. Therefore, Emma's dislike of the bourgeoisie qualities in many of the key characters is a reflection of Flaubert's sentiments toward them.

Limitations of Women

In mid 19th century France, women were limited in their freedoms. Women, especially in the middle classes, were reliant on their husbands, who had the financial power and ability to own property. Emma dreams of a luxurious and extravagant lifestyle that would excite her and help her escape the mundane country life. However, she is unable to manifest those dreams into a reality.

She becomes frustrated when Charles, who lacks ambition, doesn't try to raise their social status. She tries to fulfill her duties as a faithful wife, even leaving her affair with Leon when she realizes he loves her. She also has a baby, which she laments is a daughter who will have to live under the same limitations as Emma.

She remembered the heroines of novels she had read, and the lyrical legion of those adulterous women began to sing in her memory with sisterly voices that enchanted her. It was as though she herself were becoming part of that imaginary world, as though she were making the long dream of her youth come true by placing herself in the category of those amorous women she had envied so much (Part 2, Chapter 9).

The limitations Emma faces as a woman and her dreams of a more romantic life push her to make questionable decisions, such as engaging in extramarital affairs and spending money beyond her means. It is in these situations that Emma finds her power.

Emma can use her beauty and sexuality to get what she wants. Yet, by the end of the book, when she tries to get out of her financial debt, she offers to prostitute herself. Driven to such moral corruption, she sees no way out other than suicide - an extension of the autonomy she tries to have over her life.

In the 19th century, French women were considered permanent minors under the legal system. Women in France, beginning in the late 18th century, began to organize themselves at salons to talk about the rights of women, particularly the desire for political and civil rights. In the book Madame Bovary, Emma's desire to free herself from her dependence on her husband parallels feminist sentiments in France at the time of the book's publication.

Confinement and Dissatisfaction

Madame Bovary, Birds in confinement, StudySmarterBirds in confinement, pixabay.com

Emma feels stuck in the life she has. She quickly grows bored, unhappy, and dissatisfied with the monotonous routine of her life and longs to be free from the cycle. No matter what she does, though, she always finds herself back where she was.

Her extramarital affairs always end, such as when Leon leaves for Paris and Rodolphe abandons her, once again leaving her feeling dissatisfied with her life. This is in great contrast to her husband, Charles, who is content with his life and routine. He is oblivious to Emma's dissatisfaction, which further confines her to her own.

So they were going to continue like this, one after the other, always the same, innumerable, bringing nothing! In other people’s lives, dull as they might be, there was at least a chance that something might happen. One event sometimes had infinite ramifications and could change the whole setting of a person’s life. But God had willed that nothing should ever happen to her. The future was a long, dark corridor with only a locked door at the end (Part I, Chapter 9).

Here it is easy to see Emma's dissatisfaction. She truly believes that she is stuck in the boring routine of life without a way out. The stark imagery of her future as a "long, dark corridor with only a locked door at the end" reveals that despite Emma's romantic fantasies, she does not have hope that her life will get better or go anywhere. This excerpt may also be a foreshadowing of the only way Emma sees she can escape her mundane life, by taking it.

Significance in Literature

Madame Bovary is considered to be a French realist masterpiece and Flaubert's most famous work of literature. The book helped cement Realism as a literary movement, which would eventually become popular in both Britain and the United States. Flaubert's book also influenced many later writers such as Guy de Maupassant and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Madame Bovary - Key takeaways

  • Madame Bovary was published in 1856 and was written by Gustave Flaubert.
  • The book is considered to be the finest example of Realism in literature, and Flaubert was considered a leader in the Realism movement.
  • The book contains elements of romanticism to distinguish the inner world of the protagonist, Emma, from her reality.
  • Madame Bovary is a story about a woman named Emma married to a country doctor. She is incredibly unhappy and dissatisfied with her mundane life and desires a luxurious and extravagant lifestyle. Her inability to achieve her dreams leads Emma to spend beyond her means and engage in extramarital affairs.
  • The book covers many themes, including the faults of the bourgeoisie the limitations of women, and confinement and dissatisfaction.
  • The book helped popularize Realism in France and helped spread the movement to Britain and the USA.

Frequently Asked Questions about Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary is the book considered to have popularized and helped cement the Realist literary movement in France. 

People are unable to accept their reality in the face of fanciful illusions and this inability to accept life for what it is, leads to ruin.  

Madame Bovary is about Emma Bovary who tries to escape the mundanity and boredom of life by engaging in extramarital affairs and spending beyond her means. 

The point of Madame Bovary is to provide an intimate and psychological exploration of an individual's difficulty with dealing with reality. 

Madame Bovary, or Emma Bovary, is a fictional character and the protagonist in Gustave Flaubert's book Madame Bovary.

Final Madame Bovary Quiz


When was Madame Bovary published?

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Who wrote Madame Bovary?

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Gustave Flaubert

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Why did Flaubert go to trial for Madame Bovary?

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The book violated moral codes because it depicted graphic descriptions of extramarital affairs. 

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Who were the bourgeoisie?

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a social class in France that belonged to the upper-middle class that saw its rise after the fall of the aristocracy 

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What is realism?

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a literary movement that focused on depicting the mundane, everyday life of common people. It focused on realistic depictions of people, places, and events 

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What is Romanticism?

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 a 19th-century literary movement that placed great emphasis on the individual hero, subjectivity, and the imagination. There is a devotion to beauty, nature, the power of transcendence, and a focus on the sublime 

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What genre is Madame Bovary?

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When was Gustave Flaubert born?

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Who is Emma Bovary?

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The protagonist of the book. She often has romantic dreams in order to escape the mudanity of her life. 

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Who is Charles Bovary?

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Emma's husband. He is a boring and dull country doctor who loves Emma to a fault. 

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Who is Homais?

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The Yonville pharmacist who is superficial and self-absorbed. Emma finds his pomposity boring. 

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What are the names of the men Emma has affairs with?

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Leon and Rodolophe

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What happens to Emma Bovary at the end of the book?

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She commits suicide by ingesting arsenic. 

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What is a theme?

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a central idea, topic, or message present throughout a written work 

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What are the main themes found in Madame Bovary?

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the Faults of the Bourgeoisie, the limitations of women, and confinement and dissatisfication. 

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