Study Guide

Madame Bovary Analysis

  • Tone

    Intimate Yet Detached

    "Intimate yet detached" sounds paradoxical, but it’s true. Flaubert’s novel manages somehow to be both intimate and detached from its main characters – as though it can peer inside their souls, while still remaining outside ultimately. Flaubert accomplishes this by refusing to manipulate the reader’s emotions; instead of getting us to sympathize with Emma or Charles, we see and understand what’s going on with them, but don’t get totally caught up in it ourselves.

    A very powerful (and famous) example of this tone is Emma’s death scene: we know what she’s thinking and feeling, and we are certainly deeply affected by her torments, but we’re not exactly weeping. When Flaubert describes her horrifying last moments, then ends with the masterfully dramatic, deceptively simple statement, "She had ceased to exist" (III.8.111), we can feel the power of death – the sudden absence of a person we know well. Yet we still remain outside of the scene, observing Charles’ grief, but not feeling it as our own.

  • Genre


    Madame Bovary was actually a big turning point for Flaubert. You see, he, like Emma, really loved the lush beauty of Romanticism, and even wrote his fair share of romantic tales. Even after Madame Bovary, he went back to the Romantic mode occasionally (notably with Salammbô). However, for this novel, the author’s friends actually challenged him to write a Realist novel, hoping to cure him of his Romantic inclinations – and it’s a good thing they did. Madame Bovary is now regarded as one of the most important examples of this genre. The detail and psychological depth with which Flaubert shapes his characters has made this novel one of the most influential books ever written. For a guy who wasn’t really that interested in Realism to begin with, Flaubert did a pretty amazing job.

  • What’s Up With the Title?

    This is pretty straightforward: Madame Bovary is about Madame Bovary. The novel falls in the tradition of books named after their heroes (think David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Emma, Jane Eyre, etc.). However, Flaubert’s novel threw in an inventive and perhaps unsettling twist – the eponymous Madame Bovary isn’t exactly a heroine. Yes, she is our protagonist, and yes, she is the center of the novel. However, she doesn’t awaken our sense of compassion or sympathy in the same way that the other characters listed above do (see more on this in "Character Role Identification"). Furthermore, the novel was condemned at the time of its publication for being too racy, and for not portraying the scandalous life and times of Emma Bovary in terms of morality. Flaubert did a gutsy thing when he decided to simply name his novel after this ambiguous and difficult character – the title places no judgment, and gives us no hint of how we are supposed to perceive her.

  • 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.

  • Setting

    Tostes, Yonville-l’Abbaye, and Rouen, France

    Unlike many of the other famous French novels of the nineteenth century that you might encounter (such as Victor Hugo’s Les Misérablesor Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot), which more often than not take place in the booming, magical, romantic metropolis of Paris, Madame Bovary is planted firmly in the French provinces. This is actually a significant part of the novel; Emma, our heroine, spends much of her time lamenting the fact that she’s stuck in the sleepy little towns of Tostes and Yonville. The biggest city she ever gets to is Rouen, a smallish city famous primarily for its beautiful cathedral.

    Emma’s provincial surroundings make her feel even more trapped and unhappy in her marriage; she feels as though there’s nothing to do but care for her home and child (which, for a woman, was pretty much true at that time). Emma has a feeling that she’s meant for the big city, as though her beauty and charm are wasted in small towns. Rodolphe actually notes a similar thing, saying that she’s as elegant as a fashionable Paris lady.

    In the novel, Paris itself represents the culmination of all of Emma’s dreams – she imagines that life there is everything she longs for it to be, with beautiful things, beautiful people, and beautiful feelings. What she has instead is dull small town life, and her bitterness about its limitations contributes largely to her discontent.

  • What’s Up With the Epigraph?

    [Dedication to Marie-Antoine-Jules Senard]

    Dear and illustrious friend,
    Allow me to inscribe your name at the head of this book and above its dedication, for it is to you, more than anyone else, that I owe its publication. In passing through your magnificent pleas in court, my work has acquired, in my eyes, a kind of unexpected authority. I therefore ask you to accept here the tribute of my gratitude, which, however great it may be, will never reach the height of your eloquence or your devotion.

    – Gustave Flaubert

    OK, you’ve got us – this is not actually an epigraph at all. Rather, it’s a very significant dedication. We just couldn’t figure out where else this very significant explanatory note could go. Anyway, the "illustrious" man to whom Flaubert is so very grateful is Marie-Antoine-Jules Senard (a guy, despite his first name). Senard was a big shot lawyer of the time and, when Flaubert was put on trial in 1857 for Madame Bovary (which was deemed too steamy for public consumption), Senard successfully defended him, saving both the novel and its author from big, big trouble. The novel, which gained notoriety through press coverage of the trial, went on to become a giant bestseller (looks like things haven’t really changed since then).

  • Writing Style

    Alternately Ironic and Descriptive

    Flaubert’s style in this book is an interesting mish-mash of different elements. He’s somehow able to combine straightforward, un-decorative irony with gorgeous, evocative description, and emerge with a text that’s cohesive and totally unique – mad props to him.

    We see killer one-liners that are devastating in their simplicity, in which the true ridiculousness of humanity is made glaringly obvious. (The most notable example is the last line: "He has just been awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor.")

    On the other hand, we also indulge in evocative moments of intimate detail, particularly relating to Emma’s various states of being. For example, after her first physical experience with Rodolphe, we can almost feel "her heart beating again, and the blood flowing through her flesh like a river of milk" (II.9.49). Taken all together, the style of this book is both a reminder that we’re human, and that, as humans, we’re incredibly flawed.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    Emma’s appearance

    The more Emma transgresses, the more beautiful she grows – as though her body responds to the corruption of her soul. Emma’s beauty reaches its greatest height at the end of the novel, as she commits her worst crime, suicide.

    Why should this happen, though? What does Emma’s appearance signify? There’s no absolute answer to that, but we think it has to do with her intense connection to her physicality. As Emma delves deeper into her desires, indulging more and more in sensuality, her body becomes far more present, both to us, the readers, and to Emma herself. As she gives in to her long-repressed physical desires, her body flourishes and her beauty exerts more power.

    The Blind Man

    The image of the blind beggar occurs several times as the novel nears its end. Emma first feels something akin to pity towards him, but her feelings are always tinged with disgust. His appearance represents the intensifying corruption of Emma’s soul, and as her situation worsens, he shows up more and more frequently. It’s notable that his horrifying physical appearance is described with the same kind of obsessive detail usually reserved to describe Emma’s beauty; we have distinct mental images of both Emma and the beggar, but really not of anyone else. This sets the two of them and links them in our minds.

    The presence of the blind man at the scene of Emma’s death is particularly disturbing. Emma is profoundly upset by the sound of his harsh voice outside her window as she lies dying, and the end of his song comes at the same moment that Emma dies. Fittingly, the last line of the song tells us that the woman in it was no innocent young lady, but was instead a strumpet who lost her petticoat. This rude ending aligns to Emma’s own unfortunate end; while the song’s closing line is comical, it comments grimly upon the very un-funny closing of Emma’s life.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Supposedly First Person; Actually Third Person Omniscient

    This sounds quite odd and complicated, and it kind of is. In the first chapter, we have a mysterious, nameless, faceless first person narrator (supposedly a former classmate of Charles Bovary) who recounts the first time Charles appeared in boarding school. However, this is not your average first person narrator. We don’t know anything about the guy, and he doesn’t make a single appearance in the book. Furthermore, he knows everything about Charles. This makes for a natural transition into the narrative voice of the rest of the book; from Chapter Two on out, we see things through the perspective of a third person omniscient point of view. But again, this is not simply an average outside observer…we get a deeply personal, intensely internalized view of the characters.

    The point of view of Madame Bovary was pretty radical when the novel came out. Flaubert delves way down into the psychological depths of his main character, and we emerge with a portrait of Emma that is unflinching in its directness. We can look at her objectively and be like, "You brought this all upon herself," but at the same time, we feel her pain; we experience what she experiences and understand why she makes the decisions that she does. We can see why Flaubert himself famously claimed, "Madame Bovary, c’est moi" (I am Madame Bovary). By the end of the book, we readers might also say, "We are Madame Bovary."

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Anticipation Stage

      Emma and Charles set up their married household, first in Tostes, then in Yonville.

      Things are nice and smooth on the surface of this marriage, but we can see that Emma’s frustrations are reaching a peak. It seems as though it’s only a matter of time before she busts out and does something to shake things up. However, at this point, it could go either way – we’re not sure this story is going to end in tragedy.

      Dream Stage

      Emma and Charles set up their married household, first in Tostes, then in Yonville.

      Things are nice and smooth on the surface of this marriage, but we can see that Emma’s frustrations are reaching a peak. It seems as though it’s only a matter of time before she busts out and does something to shake things up. However, at this point, it could go either way – we’re not sure this story is going to end in tragedy.

      Dream Stage

      Emma embarks upon her affairs with Rodolphe and Léon.

      Emma’s Dream Stage is kind of a bumpy one; she goes through ups and downs based on how her affairs are going. However, when they’re good, they’re very good, and she’s flying high. When she’s really smitten with both Rodolphe and Léon, she’s incredibly happy, and she maintains the illusion that this stage can last forever. Unfortunately, we see her come down from both of these relationships fairly soon – clearly, Emma is only interested in that honeymoon period of swoony, over-the-top romance, and not in actual relationships.

      Frustration Stage

      Emma realizes that her affairs can never stay sufficiently exciting – she and Léon begin to lose interest in each other.

      Emma comes to realize what we’ve seen all along: she really isn’t good at sustaining relationships. She and Léon start to get bored with one another, and despite the fact that she’s still trying to make things work out with him, she constructs another dream man in her imagination, hoping that someday he’ll come along and make everything right. Meanwhile, Emma starts to feel worse and worse about her real-life entanglement with Léon, culminating in a horrible experience she has at an all night party (when she realizes that she’s the only woman there who’s not a prostitute).

      Nightmare Stage

      Returning home from Rouen one day, Emma receives notice that she owes Monsieur Lheureux 8,000 francs. She desperately tries to get the money from everyone she knows, to no avail.

      All of Emma’s previous mistakes have come back to bite her in the butt. This really is like a terrible nightmare – she’s forced to prostrate herself before all of the men in her life and beg for money. Suddenly, it seems as though that fantasy life that she’d been living has just been a cover for the disaster that’s her real life. Bad thing upon bad thing pile up, and Emma doesn’t know what she can possibly do to pay Lheureux back in time. There is something truly horrifying about the speed with which Emma’s whole life unravels.

      Death Wish Stage

      After failing to get any of her payback money, Emma eats arsenic and dies in agony. In the aftermath of the suicide, her family falls apart.

      Left with nobody else to turn to (except Charles, who she can’t face), Emma decides to commit suicide. She doesn’t realize that consuming rat poison will put her through unspeakable torments – she thinks she’ll just fall asleep and not wake up. We can’t tell how clearly Emma makes this decision; it all happens so fast that we almost can’t believe it. Abandoned by her lovers and pursued by creditors, she is sure that nothing else can possibly help her resolve her troubles. However, this is a totally selfish move on her part, since she doesn’t consider the fact that she’s leaving Charles saddled with her debts, as well as with their child.

    • Plot Analysis

      Initial Situation

      Emma and Charles Bovary establish their married life

      We meet Charles, then Emma and, soon enough, we see them set up their first household in Tostes. Everything may seem peachy from the outside, but we can sense trouble coming. Charles is all like, "Whoohoo! Marriage is awesome!" while Emma’s feelings are more along the lines of "Meh." This is never a good sign for a relationship.


      Emma gets her first taste of the good life at the Comte d’Andervilliers’ ball

      Uh oh. Just as we’d feared, Emma is not going to give in and settle with her small-town life – at least, not without a fight. She’s encouraged by a visit to the palatial home of the Comte d’Andervilliers, where she learns that some people do live the opulent life she dreams of.


      Léon enters the picture; Emma begins to wonder about having an affair

      With the appearance of an eligible, romantic, adequately handsome young man, Emma suddenly has something to be excited about. We’ve already seen how easily encouraged she is – and this new development leads her to believe that her fantasy life is actually closer than she’d previously thought. She ponders taking action, like running away with Léon, but doesn’t actually do anything about it.


      Emma gives in to her desires and starts her affair with Rodolphe

      Léon is out of the picture, but Rodolphe shows up soon enough – and it doesn’t take him long to convince Emma to become his mistress. This is an important tipping-point; after she gives in to Rodolphe’s advances, Emma’s character changes. Instead of just wishing that things would happen, she begins to make them happen, by whatever means possible.


      Léon and Emma’s affair resumes and gets riskier and riskier…

      After their awkward reunion at the opera, Emma and Léon finally get their feelings out in the open. Emma, whose tendency towards recklessness we already witnessed in her affair with Rodolphe, becomes truly foolhardy, taking risks that make our blood pressure rise. Her lack of caution is notable, not only in her relationship with Léon, but in her financial decisions. The novel is clearly building to some kind of fever pitch here.


      Monsieur Lheureux demands his money; Emma despairs

      That fever pitch we mentioned? This is it. Everything in Emma’s life comes crashing down around her when Monsieur Lheureux sends a collection agency after her. Her shock and desperation mount as she attempts to find the payback money – suddenly, all the mistakes she made earlier are back with a vengeance. Instead of everything working out, as it usually does in a novel’s denouement, all of Emma’s problems present themselves with renewed strength.


      Emma commits suicide; Charles consequently dies

      You can’t get any more conclusive than this resolution: practically everyone is dead. Though it’s final, it’s certainly not clear-cut; though Emma dies due to her own foolish actions, we don’t necessarily condemn her, and even though Charles’s neglect of Berthe verges on criminal, we don’t judge him, either. Righteous morality would have been the easy way out for this novel – but Flaubert doesn’t take that route. Instead, he allows us, the readers, to see the impact that the actions of a single person can have on the lives of others, and make our own decisions about it.

    • Three Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Part I: Flaubert has actually divided his novel into three appropriate sections for us. This first one ends as Emma’s depression and discontentment motivates the move from Tostes.

      Act II

      Part II: Emma begins to wonder about experimenting with life outside marriage; she falls in love with Léon, but actually embarks upon an adulterous affair with Rodolphe. This "act" finishes with her reunion with Léon.

      Act III

      Part III: Emma starts her affair with Léon, but things quickly spin out of control, both emotionally and financially, and end in ruin.