Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert
The following entry covers criticism of Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary from the late 1970s to the present. See also, Salammbô Criticism.
Madame Bovary, first published in 1857, is considered Flaubert's masterpiece and one of the most influential French novels of the nineteenth century. Through painstaking attention to detail and constant revision, Flaubert created a highly accurate rendering of his characters' motivations and personalities, achieving an exquisite prose style that has served as a model for numerous writers. A meticulous craftsman, Flaubert attempted to create a narrative "as rhythmical as verse and as precise as the language of science." The novel has significantly influenced literary criticism; since its publication, Madame Bovary has been one of the most frequently discussed books in the history of world literature. Many scholars have concurred with Paul de Man's assertion that "contemporary criticism of fiction owes more to this novel than to any other nineteenth-century work."
In 1849, Flaubert completed the first version of his novel La tentation de Saint Antoine (1874; The Temptation of Saint Antony). Flaubert's friends Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet declared the work a failure and persuaded him to abandon historical subjects in favor of a novel that would be contemporary in content and realistic in intent. Flaubert subsequently began Madame Bovary. Although he had contempt for his bourgeois subject, he nevertheless strove to achieve stylistic perfection in the novel by working slowly and carefully for more than five years, often producing only one page in several days. Various sources have been cited as possible inspirations for the novel's plot, among them an anecdote related by Maxime Du Camp, and the autobiography of Flaubert's friend Louise Pradier, wife of the painter James Pradier. Other critics have concluded that Flaubert's imagination was in fact the primary source for the novel, pointing to the author's famous declaration: "Madame Bovary, c'est moi." Madame Bovary—Flaubert's first published novel, despite having previously completed several other manuscripts—initially appeared in installments in La Revue de Paris from October 1 through December 15, 1856. Although critics recognized the novel as a work of immense significance, the French government was of a different opinion: Flaubert, his printer, and his publisher were all tried for blasphemy and offense against public morals. All were eventually acquitted, however, and Madame Bovary acquired an elevated notoriety as a result of the publicity generated by the trial. Despite the novel's success, biographers have noted that Flaubert came to resent the fame of Madame Bovary, which greatly overshadowed his subsequent works.
Plot and Major Characters
Madame Bovary is often described as a satire on romantic beliefs and the ineffectual lives of the provincial bourgeoisie of nineteenth-century France. The novel relates the story of Emma Bovary, a bored, frustrated housewife whose dreams of romantic love—primarily inspired by popular novels of her time—are unfulfilled through her marriage to a simple country doctor, Charles Bovary. She attempts to realize her fantasies through love affairs with a local landowner and a law clerk and, later, through extravagant purchases. Unable to pay her debts and unwilling to tolerate or to conform to bourgeois values, she ultimately commits suicide by poisoning herself. Charles is comfortable with his bourgeois simplicity, in contrast with his wife's rage and frustration at the limitations of her life. Throughout the story, Charles becomes increasingly happy and content with his married life, as Emma secretly grows to hate him. Although affectionate and loyal, Charles is portrayed as an obtuse character, oblivious to the sources of his wife's unhappiness and completely naive concerning her affairs. Even the revelation of financial ruin and his wife's infidelity does not alter his adulation for Emma. Her suicide sends him into a devastating episode of grief and seems to contribute to his death at the novel's conclusion. The character Homais, the village pharmacist and champion of scientific progress and traditional patriarchal values, has been viewed by some critics as the novel's most prominent symbol of bourgeois conventionality. While depicted as the focus of satire due to his frequent use of platitudes, Homais also proves to be the most successful figure at the culmination of the plot. Geoffrey Wall has remarked: "Homais becomes ever more powerful in the final chapters, now that .. . the wifeless Charles is fading away with grief. He is enthroned as 'the happiest of fathers, the most fortunate of men'. His public apotheosis comes in the book's closing sentence, as he is awarded the Legion of Honour."
Social and historical themes are among the most frequently discussed motifs of Madame Bovary. Read as a social commentary, the novel depicts Flaubert's view of the conventionality and banality of the French middle class during the nineteenth century. Rosemary Lloyd has stated: "From the opening pages, with their depiction of the way in which both children and teachers impose on individuals patterns of behaviour they are obliged to copy slavishly, to the concluding lines, which record Homais's reward for conforming to the image of the successful man, Madame Bovary reveals the mechanisms of middle-class society, the way in which it creates a form of fatality." The portrayal of gender roles has also received attention in recent years. Several critics have emphasized the novel's depiction of a society in which women received a relatively useless, "ornamental" education, with Emma Bovary's largely superfluous social position being viewed as one of the sources of her malaise and unhappiness. Tony Williams has commented: "The fictional world of Madame Bovary is marked by the over-differentiation of the sexes which characterizes patriarchal society." Other important themes in the novel include the blurred relationship between fantasy and reality and the duplicitous nature of language and meaning. Emma's fruitless search for the heightened passion that she has read about in novels illustrates a dichotomy between language and real-life experience. Many critics have therefore interpreted the novel as a skeptical commentary on the escapist Romantic literature of the era, emphasizing Flaubert's demystification of Romantic and sentimental stereotypes. Others, however, have offered a more ambiguous reading of Flaubert's commentary on the Romantic imagination. A product of the Romantic temperament in conflict with practical, conventional bourgeois society, Emma Bovary can be interpreted as a victim both of her banal circumstances and of her own impressionability.
Much recent criticism of Madame Bovary has evidenced a feminist or historicist perspective. Several critics have taken a feminist interest in Emma's position in a patriarchal society, interpreting her existential malaise and obsession with fantasy as a product of her limited role in bourgeois society. Tony Tanner, for example, has argued that "[Emma's] sickness must be connected to the vagueness of her position in society: after being a daughter (and thus entirely defined by the father . . . ), she exists on the threshold in a sort of pronominal limbo." Also examining the novel's portrayal of gender roles, Janet Todd has perceived a conflict between Emma Bovary's conventional feminine role and increasingly powerful "masculine" urges which ultimately undermine her social position and contribute to her suicide. Reading Madame Bovary through a historical perspective, Rosemary Lloyd has argued that "the novel draws largely on three main currents of thought: the sentimentalism prevalent in the eighteenth century, which leads into the Romanticism of the 1820s to 1840s; the analytical explorations of love that develop, in part, from other eighteenth-century writers; and the pragmatism of bourgeois thought, which had grown increasingly dominant since the 1830 revolution." Another major focus of critical interest has been the problematic relationship, suggested by Flaubert's narrative techniques, between language, meaning, and reality. "The division between language and experience is a major concern of the novel," Nathaniel Wing has remarked. Exploring the juxtaposition of imagination and reality, Lawrence Thornton has emphasized Emma Bovary's subjective responses to "two equally counterfeit versions of reality": the "marvelous," derived from romantic stories, and the conventional cultural codes of behavior that are defined by her middle-class society.