What’s Up With the Ending?
The end of Madame Bovary is classic Flaubert. Seriously, the guy just loooved a good ironic twist. Then again, who doesn’t? Basically, the outlook is grim for basically all of the sympathetic characters of the book – Emma is dead, having succumbed to what is possibly the worst death ever (two words: rat poison!), Charles is also dead (broken heart), and poor little Berthe, the unfortunate daughter of the two, is a child laborer in a cotton mill. The one character that triumphs turns out to be the despicable Monsieur Homais, the social climbing apothecary. The novel ends with a single, infuriating declaration: "He has just been awarded the cross of the Legion of Honor."
Gaah – it doesn’t matter how many times we’ve read it, this ending still just drives us crazy! And we’re meant to be driven crazy by it. By rewarding Homais with this honor, Flaubert cruelly underlines the series of depressingly unromantic points that the novel as a whole drives home: life is not fair; people can be lame; society is, more often then not, just flat-out wrong.
Finally, one more important thing to note is the change in tense here; Flaubert switches from the past tense to the present in the last couple of pages of the book. This brings the book directly into the world of the reader, and thus makes it more real to us, as though Berthe and Monsieur Homais are people out there in the world right now. Of course, the older the book gets, the less likely this is (unless these characters are exceptionally long-lived) – but still, you get the point.