(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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."

Biographical Information

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."

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Lawrence Thornton (essay date 1978)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Fairest of Them All: Modes of Vision in Madame Bovary," in PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association, Vol. 93, No. 5, October, 1978, pp. 982-91.

[In the following essay, Thornton examines the sources of Emma Bovary 's fantasies in a conflation of fairy tales and romantic literature. He notes that "Flaubert presents Emma's fantasy life through a series of tableaux in which her imagination is associated with images of mirrors."]

She had a magic looking-glass and when she stood before it and looked at herself she used to say: "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is fairest of us all?" Then the glass replied:...

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Tony Tanner (essay date 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Flaubert's Madame Bovary," in Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979, pp. 233-367.

[In the following excerpt, Tanner links Emma Bovary's vague but persistent mental unease and unhappiness with her male-defined and largely superfluous role in society. He then examines "why Emma's story should start with Charles Bovary 's somewhat inauspicious entry into a schoolroom" and connects this scene with the larger theme of language and meaning in the novel.

The Fog in Emma Bovary's Head

"Ah yes!" returned Félicité. "You're like old Guérin's daughter, the fisherman...

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Diana Festa-McCormick (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Emma Bovary's Masculinization: Convention of Clothes and Morality of Conventions," in Gender and Literary Voice, edited by Janet Todd, Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1980, pp. 223-35.

[In the following essay, Festa-McCormick examines how the motif of clothing illustrates Emma Bovary's conflicted experience of her feminine gender role. She notes that "the encroachment of masculinity on [Emma 's] personality stands as a betrayal of her social role, progressively mirrored in the masculinization of her attire. "]

Emma Bovary has long been a favorite character for critics of fiction, analyzed from all angles, praised and vilified in turn, held as a...

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Dominick LaCapra (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Aspects of the Novel," in Madame Bovary On Trial, Cornell University Press, 1982, pp. 169-208.

[In the following excerpt, LaCapra argues that "Madame Bovary is not simply a 'tragedy of dreams' that places responsibility for Emma's fate' on her reading of romantic novels." He focuses instead on "how modifications in narrative perspective provide a nonlinear subplot" which he relates to the novel's theme of temporality.]

Do not speak to me about modern times, with respect to the grandiose. There is not enough there to satisfy the imagination of a feuilletonist of the lowest order.

Flaubert, June 7, 1844


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Dennis Porter (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Madame Bovary and the Question of Pleasure," in Flaubert and Postmodernism, edited by Naomi Schor and Henry F. Majewski, University of Nebraska Press, 1984, pp. 116-38.

[In the following essay, Porter categorizes Madame Bovary according to the three main types of reading pleasure identified by Roland Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text. Following a Barthian analysis of Madame Bovary, Porter considers the work in relation to its "central theme of the duplicity of language. "]

One of the more interesting developments in narrative theory over the past decade or so has been a renewed interest in pleasure. Subsequent to the structuralist...

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Michal Peled Ginsburg (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Madame Bovary" in Flaubert Writing: A Study in Narrative Strategies, Stanford University Press, 1986, pp. 82-107.

[In the following excerpt, Ginsburg examines how an analysis of Flaubert's early works contributes to an understanding of Madame Bovary. "Instead of beginning a new mode of narration, as most critics claim it does," Ginsburg argues, "Madame Bovary marks a returnwith important modifications—. . . to the early works."]

In the first version of the Tentation, the narrator and his surrogate Antoine disappeared—"died"—and gave their places to a spectacle that faced them as an independent reality. The...

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Nathaniel Wing (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Emma's Stories: Narrative, Repetition and Desire in Madame Bovary" in The Limits of Narrative: Essays on Baudelaire, Flaubert, Rimbaud and Mallarmé, Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 41-77.

[In the following excerpt, Wing argues that "the division between language and experience is a major concern of [Madame Bovary]." He focuses on the problematic nature of the novel's narrative voice and structure, noting ways in which its "authority," or believability, is undermined.]

—Eh bien! reprit Homais, il faudrait en faire une analyse. Car il savait qu'il faut, dans tous les empoisonnements, faire une analyse . . . (295)...

(The entire section is 6878 words.)

Tony Williams (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gender Stereotypes in Madame Bovary," in Forum for Modem Language Studies, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, April, 1992, pp. 130-9.

[In the following essay, Williams discusses Flaubert's belief in the influence of cultural conditioning as a determinant of gender roles, pointing to motifs in Madame Bovary that illustrate the restricted and highly artificial role of women in a patriarchal society.]

Madame Bovary was put on trial when it was first published largely on account of its intense critical interrogation of the assumptions that collectively make up the common-sense outlook on life in nineteenth-century France. The subversive force of the novel is...

(The entire section is 4996 words.)

Anne Green (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Time and History in Madame Bovary" in French Studies: A Quarterly Review, Vol. XLIX, No. 3, July, 1995, pp. 283-91.

[In the following essay, Green explores "the way in which [Flaubert's] value-laden approach to [the concept of] time informs Madame Bovary."]

—Nous ne sommes jamais au Présent qui seul est important dans la vie.1

—Le Présent est tout ce qu'il y a de moins important, car il est très court, insaisissable. Le vrai, c'est le Passé, et l'Avenir.2

These mutually contradictory comments from Flaubert's Correspondance are evidence of his...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ahearn, Edward J. "Using Marx to Read Flaubert: The Case of Madame Bovary." In L'Hénaurme Siècle: A Miscellany of Essays on Nineteenth-Century French Literature, edited by Will L. McLendon, pp. 73-91. Heidelbert: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1984.

Argues that "the relevance of Marx for the study of Flaubert" is "formally as well as historically pertinent."

Cascardi, Anthony J. "The Female Quixote: Aesthetics and Seduction." In The Bounds of Reason: Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, pp. 159-82. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Considers the depiction of irony and...

(The entire section is 923 words.)