Study Guide

Madame Bovary

by Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

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.