This is a partial analysis of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary.
I will be focusing on characterization and the representation of reality.
I have compiled some questions that you may
use to further explore the novel.
Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, published in 1857, is generally identified as the first example of
naturalism. Madame Bovary is the story of a 'naturally corrupt woman' (Flaubert, 'On Realism' 94)
who has no realistic appreciation of life. Driven by the dissatisfaction that her life does not mirror her romantic ideals of what life should be, and
seemingly incapable of reflection and rational judgement, Emma Bovary is denied insight, unto her ruin.
It is a matter of interest to know that the "father" of naturalism, arguably the form of literary realism which is most
opposed to the romantic ideals and focused on objective method,
was at heart a Romantic. Flaubert's intention behind Madame Bovary was that of an aesthetic and artistic experiment.
In his letters, he expresses disgust with 'ignoble reality'; the challenge he set before him was to depict everything (Flaubert, 'On Realism' 94) in the form of an
'analytical narrative' (91).
Flaubert exerts a remarkable economy of style; everything suggests meaning or alludes to something
else; everything is instrumental to verisimilitude and the eviction of the romantic and the sublime. He
uses the symbolic sparingly. He associates his characters with few, but suggestive, and delightful, metaphors, such as the
description of old Madame Bovary, regarding her son's happiness at his new marriage and her increasing redundancy in his life 'like a ruined man gazing through the
windows at people dining in his old home' (Bovary 56). He does not use sweeping, abstract metaphors, but takes them out of an everyday context.
The tone he was trying to achieve was the sweet spot somewhere between 'lyricism and vulgarity' ('On Realism' 91) in order to bring the sense of life across the page.
At all times we feel the presence of Flaubert, in his style, but never does he offer an interpretation or judgement on any characters or events nor offers a meaning or purpose as to his novel. Objectivity was a great concern of Flaubert's, as his letters reveal.
This would be one of the major critiques of the novel when it was first published. At no point does Flaubert suggest a moral judgement of his characters who perpetrate adultery, deception and financial ruin. This was considered morally reprehensible and eventually Flaubert would have to defend himself in court - which he did.
It is, however, in his characterisation that Flaubert truly excels; a characterisation which does not restrict itself to single individuals, but expands the idea of the individual as part of a society and as the result of heritage, milieu and cultural influences.
The depiction of small town goings-on which forms a background tapestry to the story of the Bovaries, the idle gossip, seemingly
Many of Flaubert's physical descriptions of characters and nature are sensual and vivid.
You feel the heat of the summer afternoon in dark parlours and kitchen alcoves that elicit pearls of sweat from both characters and reader;
the tip of Emma's tongue as she seeks the last drops of liqueur from a glass; the cool decline of a stream through the countryside.
The sensuality of description suggests the characters and the scenery in a three-dimensional space, making them almost tangible, and thus, more real. It also suggests the primitive inherent in all the characters, beneath a shallow veneer of civilisation, and their dependency on creature comforts. That civilisation and intellect only runs skin-deep in Yonville is further suggested by allusions to the animalistic and blindness; the town is 'like a cowherd taking his siesta by the water-side' and the roofs of houses are 'like fur caps pulled down over the eyes' (Bovary 83).
Emma is the product of an unwholesome upbringing. She has been educated to a degree that has given her airs about herself,
but hasn't stimulated her critical faculty. She has been exposed to doctrines of which she has only embraced the surface; she has not penetrated their deeper
meaning or value. She may have read works of humanism, but they have not set a mark on her. Romantic literature she has absorbed en masse, however, to the
extent that it she feels she can only truly live if she is the heroine of a romantic adventure. In effect, she fictionalises herself and her life.
She casts herself in different roles, representing ideals or extremes, such as ill-fated lover, virtuous woman,
loving mother, and everyone involved are delegated roles as well. She cannot see Rodolphe, her callous seducer, for who he is, as the idea of him is in
the way. She cannot identify the nature of their relationship, as her
idea of love gets in the way of the reality of it.
Emma's fictions are as vital to her, it seems, as the air she breathes. She would rather die, than face a life that did not conform to them. She cannot function without them. These fictions are costly to maintain, financially and in a human sense. She all but rejects her child in that she is denied the process of preparing for motherhood and building up affection, as it were, by being unable to purchase the necessary items required to stage herself as mother.
Emma prides herself of a sensitive and artistic temperament, but we never see much evidence of this. She lives up to what the locals deem is refined (which doesn't afford much scrutiny). She stages herself and spends money like the best of any of the petty bourgeois around her. Is she sublimating her dissatisfaction and unrequited desires? Is she being strangled by her dull surroundings, under-stimulated and isolated? It is hard to tell. Her perceptions are so riddled with illusions of romance that she can scarcely be expected to differentiate between she needs and what she thinks she needs, between reality and fiction.
When her romantic perception of the world is challenged and the depth of her folly is revealed, she kills herself. The expression of her profound disappointment with life, the realisation of the impossibility of her ideals and what she and it should've been or might've been? Or a last enactment, an attempt to exit in a sublime, picturesque fashion? If the last case, she fails miserably in that she dies badly, painfully, and with no grace or pathos.
Georg Lukács argues that naturalism moved away from its literary parent, in that it is too
abstract and makes a fetish of the relationships of milieu and heritage ('Realism' 39). He complains that the naturalists do not penetrate the surface of
existence, but rather produce 'the direct, mechanical mirroring of the humdrum reality of capitalism' (Studies 93). In effect, they represent existence as
mechanical and superficial, serving the greater good of capitalism (149). They present no new perception or angle on existence, but simply confirm the
Auerbach, on the other hand, observes that Flaubert, like Stendhal and Balzac, some of the Marxist favourites, criticises the hollowness of bourgeois society, but manages to do so without expressing his own opinion (Auerbach 490). Flaubert also exposes the hollowness of the value of education, religion and art in the absence of a critical or aesthetic faculty.
Madame Bovary is in effect the realistic portrayal of unrealistic people; M. and Madame Bovary exist in 'a silly, false world, which cannot be reconciled with the reality of his situation, and so they both miss the possibilities life offers them' (Auerbach 489). It is a pessimistic portrayal of provincial life. No one, save perhaps the old Madame Bovary, seem capable of seeing beyond their own little world. Everyone seems wrapped up in ideas of things, of themselves, of life, seemingly one world apart from the real world.
The depiction of bourgeois society might have been a subject of fun, but, as Auerbach observes, there is nothing comic about it. Nor is the tale truly tragic (489), just sad and superbly human. Flaubert mixes the styles and expands the field of what is the focus of art.
Flaubert shows how dangerous fictions can be; how needful it is that we appropriate an understanding of reality for
ourselves, rather than be dictated one; how important it is to reflect on and understand a deeper meaning, rather than assume,
accept and rely on the appearance of things, and to be prepared to relinquish our hold on the toys and conventions which
bind us to that appearance.
If Madame Bovary had been able to do so, she might have saved herself, but she does not. The story would have been different; a story of realisation and growth
(Auerbach 484), but perhaps this was Flaubert's point. To present us with realisation, not through the portrait of one who
succeeds, but through one who fails, avoiding the obvious and forcing us to relate to and rethink our own perception of
reality. Madame Bovary is, in effect, an adaptation of the Bildungsroman, which makes us review our own existence and
growth, but also one that makes us look outward and review society.
At the end of day, Madame Bovary is a work with a soul that is Romantic and Realist, at the same time.
It is painstakingly realist and naturalist in its style, but the attitudes it
expresses reflect both realist and romantic views.
True Romanticism is by no means incompatible with a critical, realistic, or even cynical outlook.
Something Emma never realises. The story of
Emma Bovary is the story of how NOT to be a Romantic. Without a honed critical, aesthetic faculty there can be only fiction, no hope of growth.
For all her Romantic aspirations, she is no Romantic. Her world is not Romantic; it is vulgar, superficial, riddled with fictions.
Flaubert's assessment of the modern world? A harsh critique, and a warning?