How are women portrayed in Madame Bovary?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Madame Bovary, Flaubert depicts women as very human and complex characters, and his true-to-life approach to characterizing women reflects his reputation as one of French literature's most important literary realists. Between Emma Bovary, whose misery was recognizable by the many les bovarystes enragées who read Madame Bovary with strong feelings of empathy and the other female characters, whose personalities run the gamut from maternal and nurturing to petty and superficial, Flaubert's women are just as difficult to pigeon-hole as real women are impossible to summarize.

Emma Bovary, more specifically, as the protagonist of Madame Bovary, is a literary marvel, as her personality and being are so vividly depicted by Flaubert, readers often respond to her as if she were a living person. She is flawed and weak at times, just like all men and women, and the difficult sides to her personality make her unappealing in some moments, but her realness is irresistible. Most readers can relate to the deep feelings Flaubert reveals in Emma's innermost secret life. The realism with which Flaubert depicts Emma and other female characters is a defining characteristic of Madame Bovary, the one that makes it an enduring classic.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The character of Emma in Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, is different than any of the female characters depicted in the story. Moreover, it is a character so strong, complex, rich, and unique, that it overshadows any other "female presence" in the story.

This is done purposely: Even though the novel begins and ends with the life and death of Charles Bovary it is his wife, Emma Bovary and her immensely intense character, who suddenly looms over the plot and takes over it, infusing the story with a tour de force of passion, sex, deception, and ambition right until her death. Interestingly, once Emma's life ends in the story, the novel seems to begin to die a slow death as well.  

Aside from Madame, there are only a few females depicted in the story.

Mdme. Homais, a folio of Emme, is the quintessential model of the perfect wife, mother, and neighbor. She is kind to others, maternal to everyone, and an example of puritanism. This is a complete and radical contrast to Emma.

Madame Bovary, Senior (the mother of Charles) is depicted as the meddling mother in law, only too ready to victimize her daughter in law. She criticizes Emma for her spending, and her ways of treating Charles. She says she was raised "the old way" and she is unwilling to change with time. This is another clashing personality to Emma's own.

The other females include the house maid, Felicite, a country simpleton, and Monsieur Bovary's first wife, Heloise, also another woman whose lack of sophistication and consistent whining made Charles a very happy widow when she finally died of a stroke.

In comes Emme: Obsessed with Paris, in touch with her femininity, dainty and well-poised, and always dreaming of a life of aristocrats and castles. On the other hand, she was also apparently beautiful, quiet, intelligent, and well-mannered. On the bad side, she detested her own daughter, was sick of her husband, of the country, of her mother in law, and everyone else. However, she was always forgiven. Why? Perhaps because Emma embodies sophistication and class and everyone around her knows that she is completely out of place in the country, with little to do and not a lot of money to spend.

Emma is a woman of a class of her own. She is the antithesis of the way the rest of the women are described. She is more than a character, she is an catalyst in the story. She is a one-of-a-kind character and there are not many characters like hers in literature.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial