Analysis of Madame Bovary
Analysis of Madame Bovary - Madame Bovary, which came out in 1856, was Gustave Flaubert’s first published novel. It focuses on the life of a provincial doctor’s wife who gets into affairs and lives beyond her means in order to escape from the boredom of an imperfect life in a small provincial French town. The plot is very simple but we need to go beyond that to see the true merit that lies in the details and the style. Flaubert was a master craftsman who would spend hours searching for the “perfect word”.
When the novel was serialized, it brought more scandal than admiration for the author. The details of extra marital sex that had been woven into the text were unprecedented in French literature and both author and publisher were tried under immorality laws. They were acquitted but critical acclaim came to the author much later when he was feted as the master of realism.
Flaubert identified himself with Madame Bovary declaring “Madame Bovary is me”. On the face of it they seem to be direct opposites; she with her passion for romantic excesses and Flaubert with his critical eye for realism. But there are striking parallels too. Both of them hated their small time provincial life and were happiest when they moved in high society. As a successful writer, he was the toast of the Parisian society but for Emma Bovary, it remained out of reach but that did not prevent her from longing for it.
Summary - Analysis of Madame Bovary
Madame Bovary begins and ends with Charles Bovary. As a child he is a misfit and passes out of college as a second grade country doctor. His first marriage to a supposedly wealthy widow goes wrong, as when she dies, he finds that she never had much money. Even when his wife was alive, Charles Bovary had been attracted to Emma, a patient’s daughter who was young, pretty and daintily dressed.
Now he courts her earnestly and she returns his love as she hopes marriage will take her away from the humdrum life she has had till now, to some big bustling city where she can experience the kind of sophisticated life she has read about. Reality is far removed from the fiction that had been her staple in the convent and she is bored with life already when she falls pregnant. Charles is concerned for Emma’s health and they move to Yonville, a larger community.
In Yonville, Emma meets Leon a law clerk who like her, has visions of living in a city and being part of its sophisticated crowd. The birth of Emma’s daughter is also a disappointment to her as she had wanted a son. Romance blossoms between Leon and Emma but she is not as yet ready to commit herself. In fact she feels guilty and involves herself in being a good mother and a dutiful wife with passion. Leon waits for a while, hoping Emma will be his soon but then he grows tired of waiting and leaves for Paris, to study law. Emma is left bereft.
Soon Emma meets Rodolphe, a wealthy philandering farmer who senses she is fair game for a dalliance. He seduces her and they begin a passionate affair. Emma throws caution to the winds and the whole town is agog with the goings on between them. Only Charles remains unaware of what is taking place right under his nose because he is too in love with his wife and he is stupid too. Charles’ lack of medical expertise becomes public as he makes several errors of judgment while treating patients.
This loss of reputation affects Emma strangely and she gets more involved with Rodolphe. She borrows money to buy him extravagant gifts that she cannot afford. Emma wants to elope with him taking little Berthe along. He has no intentions of being burdened with a demanding Emma and a little infant. The excitement has worn off and he is frankly bored with Emma now. When he breaks off, she is left heartbroken. This disappointment makes Emma ill and she nearly dies.
When she recovers, things are at a worse state. Charles has had to borrow money to treat Emma. In order to cheer her up, he takes her to Rouen to the opera. They run into Leon there and the chance meeting rekindles the passion between Emma and Leon. Emma uses the ruse of piano classes to go Rouen regularly and meet Leon. This affair too is conducted in full view of the townspeople and there is much gossip.
Now it is Emma’s turn to be bored with her lover but she does not know how to cast him aside. She makes extravagant demands and all the while lives beyond her means. The moneylender takes legal measures to recover the money she owes him. She is desperate for money and appeals to Leon and some others for money. As the last desperate measure, she offers Rodolphe sexual favors in return for money but he is not interested. Pushed to the wall, she consumes arsenic and dies in horrible agony. Still Charles does not see light. Once when sorting through Emma’s papers, he comes across the correspondence between her and Rodolphe and realizes that much of the gossip had been true. When he dies, poor Berthe is sent off to work in a cotton mill.
Charles Bovary is not very bright and he starts life as a second grade doctor in a rural community. His mother arranges his marriage to a widow thinking she is rich. But it is only when she dies that he realizes that she never had much money. Meanwhile, he is interested in Emma, the pretty daughter of a patient. He woos and marries her. Her head is full of unreal notions of a life in some big city surrounded by luxury. Marriage to a rural doctor is a far cry from that. She is soon bored with life and marriage. Pregnancy brings along ill health and her husband wanting to be good to his young wife, moves her to a small rural town, Yonville.
There she meets Leon who like her yearns for the bright city lights. They are one of a kind and are attracted to each other. Meanwhile, Emma has a daughter, which is another disappointment for her as she had longed for a son. When she realizes that Leon is in love with her, she feels guilty and flings herself into domestic matters trying to be a good mother and a dutiful wife. Leon waits for some time and then disappointed, leaves for Paris to study law.
Emma misses his attention and the time is ripe when she meets Rodolphe a jaded wealthy farmer who is looking for some diversion. The two plunge into a steamy affair that causes a lot of gossip in the small community in which they live. Emma is far from discreet but Charles is blind to what is going right under his nose. He has had trouble with some bad medical judgments that have led to the loss of reputation. Emma likes to portray herself as wealthy and borrows heavily to get Rodolphe expensive gifts.
Emma is disgusted with Charles’ bumbling and dull ways and she gets wants to run away with Rodolphe taking little Berthe along with her. Meanwhile the temporary dalliance with Emma has been palling for Rodolphe. He does not want to be burdened with her and Berthe. He drops Emma, breaking her heart. She takes it badly and is very sick.
Charles plans to take Emma to the opera in Rouen to cheer her up. There, they meet Leon once again. This time things move fast and Emma and Leon start an affair. She uses the subterfuge of piano classes to meet Leon regularly. After a while Emma finds her interest in Leon waning but she does not know how to shake him off. She becomes very demanding as the money lender is demanding repayment.
When the moneylender gets appropriation orders against her, she tries desperately to raise money. She appeals to Leon and sundry other to give her money. When she fails, she turns to Rodolphe. She offers him sexual favors in return for money. But he will have none of it. She consumes arsenic and dies a horrible death. Even now, Charles thinks his wife was innocent. While sorting through some papers, he comes across her correspondence with Rodolphe. When he dies, Berthe is left an orphan and has to work in a cotton mill for her livelihood.
Through the character of Emma Bovary, Flaubert probes the relationship of beauty with corruption and moral degradation. Emma is very beautiful and all the men who come across are affected by it to some extent. Though she is physically beautiful, she is not intelligent or even worldly wise. She fills her head with romantic ideas of pure love and great wealth that she has gleaned from romantic novels while studying in a convent. Emma Bovary and Flaubert had some common characteristics. These are, a penchant for romance, melancholic longing and melodramatic flights of fancy. This is probably the reason why Flaubert declared “Madame Bovary is me”. But while Flaubert recognizes the flaws in this outlook and tempers it with realism, she remains blind to it.
To some extent, Emma is a victim of circumstances. If she had been from a wealthy family, she would not have been dissatisfied with life all the time. Now she is a prisoner of the bourgeoisie society that traps and passes judgment on her. She likes refinement in life and finds her husband to be boorish in behavior with deplorable table manners. Her downfall is that she does not accept her situation or use better moral judgment. Though she has a daughter she takes no joy in her because she had wanted a son. She wants to be fabulously wealthy though she has no independent means.
She resorts to taking loans though she has no means to repay the money lender. In many ways, Emma’s character is a commentary on the position of women in the French society of the 18th century. They had no independent sources of income if they did not come from aristocratic families. Emma is driven to prostituting herself to secure money from Rodolphe.
It is surprising why Emma chose to marry Charles Bovary because he represents personal and societal characteristics that Emma so detests. As a doctor serving a rural community she could not have expected him to be rich. And as a person, he was dull, incompetent and unimaginative. In a moment that reveals much, Charles sees himself reflected in miniature in Emma’s eyes. He does not see her soul but only his own image. He views it, not in a narcissistic way but directly without it being tempered by any romantic notion.
Charles is in no way romantic; he views life in a one-dimensional, literal way, missing all mystical imports that it may have. It is Emma’s beauty that delights him, all else he misses. He knows every detail of her skin, her dress and her hair. But he knows nothing of her aspirations or her moods. This is also the reason he misses what is happening right before him. The whole community talks about Emma’s affairs but it misses him completely. Emma talks to him as she would do with her dog.
responses are also the same as the animal would make. He would nod, smile and acquiesce. Charles is so dense in all that he does; there is nothing that he does well. He is frighteningly bad as a doctor and he cannot see through her lies. However, among all the male characters who are attracted to Emma, he is the one who loves her sincerely. He is stupid and clumsy but true in his love.
The Status of Women in Society
Emma Bovary is keenly aware of the inferior status of women in the French bourgeois society. So she wishes that her baby will be a boy because she feels that “a woman is always hampered” by the many restrictions that are laid on her. Throughout the novel we see that Emma’s male companions have a range of freedom that is denied to her. They have the power to influence and change her life.
Emma and Rodolphe have an affair but it only he who can dictate the terms of that affair or decide its final outcome. He promises to take her away and then abandons her. She has no independent source of income like most women in middle class families. Emma has expensive tastes and she wants to be viewed as a wealthy woman but has to borrow from the moneylender. Leon and she are kindred souls who are stuck in the small rural community but he is able to get out whereas Emma is stuck in the village with her daughter and bumbling husband.
Ultimately, of course, Emma has to take the responsibility for the way she conducts her life. Time and again she is unfaithful to her husband. He so trusts her that in spite of the whole town talking, he refuses to believe that she is unfaithful. Emma has no power over her existence; the only way she can control her life is by committing adultery because she chooses her man and decides how far she goes. She has no money of her own and she uses sexual favors as currency.
The World of French Bourgeoisie
France in the 19th century was a difficult place for a woman of small means to be. There was constant pressure to marry and often pressure to marry the first man who offered. At the same time many of the romantic novels that were of dubious worth filled the heads of young girls with romantic notions of pure love and great wealth and luxurious lifestyles. Emma’s disappointments stem from the mismatch between her immediate conditions and those that she aspired to. She is frustrated when she cannot get what she wants.
Such frustrations were more common among women who had little control over their lives. The “bourgeois” of Flaubert’s time was the actual middle class who were sandwiched between the aristocracy who had independent means to pander to refined tastes and the laboring classes who did physical work to earn a living. The bourgeois were materialistic, gaudy and unrefined. It is not surprising that Emma felt hemmed in by them but the means she adopted to break loose were dubious.