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Irony is a prominent device in Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary. One kind of irony Flaubert uses is situational. The supreme example of situational irony is in the ending of the novel. Emma takes poison to end her life because her quest for love has not served her well. As she lays dying, she realizes that her husband, whom she has scorned and whose love she has undervalued, in fact loves her with the deep devotion and passionate love she sought all along.
Another instance of situational irony also relates to the poison she takes. Emma believed that the poison would give a quick and merciful death but, instead, she becomes horribly ill and suffers great pain from the poison. Another instance relates to her quest for love. After the fulfillment of each stage of her quest, a quest she believes will give her fulfillment and happiness, Emma is still unfulfilled and unhappy. Another instance of situational irony relates to Charles. He believes he and Emma are happily married--he believes he has all he desires--and all the while Emma is engaged in adulterous relationships.
How about the ending? I think that the ending is one of the most ironic endings put on paper. The encroaching and dangerous tide of rational thought as seeking to stamp out individual expressions that are deemed "not rational" had been shown throughout the book. In the form of Homais' the pharmacist, the individual pursuits of religion, love, and expressions that lie outside the boundaries of conformity had been denigrated and put aside. In the end of the book, when all the individuals who had clung so tightly to dreams had failed or died, it is Homais, marching on to the beat of rationality and conformity, that triumphs, winning awards and seeing his own social position rising. This is ironic because while dreams and irrational thought like love and sensuousness had dominated the text and the social aspirations of individuals like Charles and Emma have now officially been put aside. Rationality wins, and with it, one has the awkward feeling that this force should not be winning. Perhaps, this becomes the real terror of the novel. I think that's kind of ironic.
Much of the irony of this novel lies in the discrepancy between the real and the ideal. After the Vaubyessard ball, Emma longs for a romantic existence, to become an aristocrat. She is unsatisfied with her bourgeoisie life with Charles. Yet, every attempt to add an element of romance to her life or to better herself ends up backfiring on her.
Take her relationship to Leon, for instance. The two cite poetic lines to each other, and yet Flaubert reveals that their relationship is more silly than romantic, one between an immature young man and a bored housewife.
Her relationship with Rodolph is no better. While Emma thinks she is being wooed and courted by a member of the aristocracy, Rodolph is only playing games with Emma. His seduction of her is cold and calculated. He has no intention of marrying her. Here dramatic irony comes into play. The readers are well aware of Rodolphe's unsavory intentions toward Emma, but Emma is not, and she falls as easily as Rodolphe predicted that she would.
Later when Emma returns to Leon, she becomes more a burden to him than the lover she thinks she is. Her relationship with Leon instead of bringing her happiness and passion results only in tedium and bankruptcy, as Emma goes more and more in debt trying to make herself more appealing to Leon.
Ironically, Charles, after Emma's death, becomes the romantic Emma had wanted. And yet, we know that Emma was unfaithful to Charles and not the wife Charles thought he had long before Charles finds out. Also, ironically their daughter winds up orphaned, working in the mills, in a much lower social position than that of her parents.
By ironically undercutting Emma's romantic notions with reality, Flaubert creates a novel that is quite satirical of the French middle class.
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