Study Guide

Madame Bovary Tone

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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.

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