Study Guide

Madame Bovary Art and Culture

By Gustave Flaubert

Art and Culture

Endless sarabands ran through her head and, like dancing girls on a flowered carpet, her thoughts skipped with the notes, moving from dream to dream, sorrow to sorrow. (I.9.31)

Emma comforts herself with whatever artistic outlets she can find – even when the best she can do is the beggar with the hurdy-gurdy. She doesn’t distinguish between highbrow and lowbrow.

Emma went on: "And what kind of music do you prefer?"

"Oh, German music, the kind that makes you dream." (II.2.10)

With this statement, Léon establishes himself as Emma’s equal – someone who experiences art the same personal (and super-romantic) way that she does.

"What could be better than to sit beside the fire at night with a book and a glowing lamp while the wind beats against the windows […] Your mind is free then," [Léon] went on. "The hours pass, and, without leaving your chair, you wander through countries that are clearly visible to you. Your imagination is caught up in the story and you see all the details, experience all the adventures; it seizes the characters and you have the feeling that you are living in their costumes." (II.2.10)

Again, Léon unknowingly emphasizes their similarities by describing precisely the way that Emma reads books.

"I hate commonplace heroes and lukewarm emotions, the kind you find in real life." (II.2.10)

Emma boldly states her view of art and literature: she’s only interested in it as an escapist endeavor.

"Do you know what your wife needs?" said the elder Madame Bovary. "She needs hard work, with her hands! If she had to work for a living, like so many other people, she wouldn’t have those vapors; they come from the silly ideas she fills her head with, and the idle life she leads."

"But she’s busy a good part of the time already," said Charles.

"Oh, busy! Busy doing what? Reading novels and other bad books that are against religion and make fun of priests with quotations from Voltaire! It can lead to all kinds of things, my son – a person who isn’t religious always comes to a bad end."

It was therefore decided to keep Emma from reading novels. (II.7.14)

Mama Bovary and Charles decide that it’s the books that have ruined Emma – thus openly expressing an anti-intellectual, anti-artistic undercurrent that Flaubert depicts in this middle-class society all the way through the novel.

"I know very well," objected the priest, "that there are good literary works and good authors. But all those people of different sex gathered in a luxurious room decorated with all sorts of worldly splendor, and the pagan disguises, the make-up, the bright lights, the effeminate voices – those things alone are enough to create a licentious frame of mind and give rise to evil thoughts and impure temptations. At least that’s the opinion of all the Fathers of the Church… And if the Church condemned the theater," he added […] "she must have had good reasons for it." (II.14.19)

Father Bournisien attempts to paint a malicious picture of the theatre as a den of sin, but he just comes off as being rather ridiculous.

[…] the elusive thoughts that came back into her mind were quickly dispersed by the overwhelming flow of the music. She abandoned herself to the soaring melodies and felt herself migrating to the depths of her being, as though the violin bows were being drawn across her nerves. (II.15.6)

Emma feels the music much more than the average listener – she feels as though she is a part of it. This is analogous to the intensely personally way in which she reads books and looks at paintings.

She filled her heart with the melodious laments as they slowly floated up to her accompanied by the strains of the double basses, like the cries of a castaway in the tumult of a storm. She recognized all the ecstasy and anguish that had once nearly brought on her death. Lucia’s voice seemed only the echo of her own heart, and the illusion that was now holding her in its spell seemed a part of her own life. (II.15.8)

Emma surrenders herself totally to the opera, and over-identifies with Lucia. Rather than being able to appreciate the music for what it is, she inserts herself completely into it, losing her hold on reality.

She was the amorous heroine of all novels and plays, the vague "she" of all poetry. He saw in her shoulders the amber skin of the "Bathing Odalisque"; she had the long-waisted figure of a feudal chatelaine; she also resembled the "Pale woman of Barcelona," but above all she was an angel! (III.5.20)

Léon’s visions of the ideal woman are based on works of art; to make Emma fit his mold of the perfect woman, he superimposes them onto her.

[Léon] was about to be promoted to head clerk; it was time to settle down and work hard. He therefore gave up the flute, exalted sentiments and flights of fancy – for every bourgeois, in the heat of his youth, if only for a day or a minute, has believed himself capable of stormy passions and lofty enterprises. (III.6.70)

In the end, even good ol’ Léon is forced to give up his artistic aspirations in the name of real-life practicality…only Emma holds on to her extravagant romantic fantasies.