Study Guide

Madame Bovary Wealth

By Gustave Flaubert


It seemed to her that certain parts of the earth must produce happiness like a plant indigenous to that soil and unable to flourish anywhere else. If only she could lean over the balcony of a Swiss chalet, or enclose her melancholy in a Scottish cottage, with a husband wearing a long black velvet cloak, a sugar-loaf hat and fancy cuffs! (I.7.1)

What Emma really means is that love and happiness, in her limited view, only flourish where the soil is, shall we say, richer.

Their clothes, better made, seemed of finer cloth, and their hair, brought forward over the temples in curls, seemed to glisten with more delicate pomades. They had the complexion of wealth, that white complexion that is heightened by the pallor of porcelain, the sheen of satin, the luster of fine furniture, and is kept in perfect condition by a moderate diet of exquisite foods. Their necks turned freely above low cravats; their long side whiskers descended to their turned-down collars; they wiped their lips with scented handkerchiefs bearing embroidered monograms. Those who were beginning to age seemed youthful, while those who were young had a certain look of maturity. Their faces wore that placid expression which comes from the daily gratification of the passions; and beneath their polished manners one could sense the special brutality that comes from half-easy triumphs which test one’s strength and flatter one’s vanity – the handling of thoroughbred horses, the pursuit of loose women. (I.8.21)

Here, Flaubert describes wealthy men as though they are a totally different species, unlike the common folk that Emma is used to.

Her trip to Vaubyessard had made a gap in her life, like one of those great crevasses which a storm will sometimes hollow out on a mountainside in a single night. But she managed to resign herself; she opened her drawer and reverently put away the clothes she had worn to the ball, including even her satin slippers, whose soles were yellowed from the slippery wax of the dance floor. Her heart was like them: contact with wealth something had left something on it which would not wear away. (I.8.51)

Now that Emma has seen what wealth is like, it has become an obsession. The ball plants the seeds of greedy desire in her heart, even though she knows it can never be satisfied in her everyday life.

In her longing she confused the pleasures of luxury with the joys of the heart, elegant customs with refined feelings. Did not love, like Indian plants, require prepared soil and special temperatures? Sighs in the moonlight, long embraces, tears flowing onto yielding hands, all the fevers of the flesh and the languors of love – these things were inseparable from the balcony of a great castle in which life moved at a leisurely pace, from a boudoir with silk curtains, a thick carpet, filled flower stands and a bed mounted on a platform, from the sparkle of precious stones or the aiguillettes of liveried servants. (I.9.8)

Love and romance, in Emma’s mind, are connected to wealth. The impression is that only rich people really know how to love, which is frankly just ridiculous.

Her carnal desires, her longing for money and the melancholy of her unfulfilled passion merged into one vast anguish, and instead of trying to distract herself from it she concentrated her attention on it, stirring up her pain and always looking for a chance to suffer. She complained bitterly about a badly served dish or a door left ajar, she lamented the velvet she did not own, the happiness that eluded her, her too lofty dreams, her too narrow house. (II.5.44)

Emma’s longing for wealth ruins her enjoyment of life completely. Having seen how the other half life, she refuses to settle for anything less than opulence. Interestingly, she has a unique and unshakeable sense of entitlement that makes her believe that she deserves to be rich.

"Still, though," said Emma, "it seems to me you’re scarcely to be pitied."


"Yes, because, after all, you’re free…" She hesitated. "… rich…" (II.8.29)

Freedom is also connected to wealth for Emma. Basically, all the positive things in the world stem from money in her eyes. She can’t understand why Rodolphe, a rich man, would ever be unhappy.

"Everybody can’t be rich! Nobody has so much money that it can’t all be squandered away! I’d be ashamed to pamper myself the way you do, even though I’m old now and need to take care of myself […]" (III.5.81)

Madame Bovary the elder makes an astute point – everyone runs out of money sometime. Emma, however, is never willing to listen to common sense when it comes to finances.

A wide porcelain stove was purring beneath a niche occupied by a cactus plant, and against the oak-colored wallpaper hung two pictures in black wooden frames. Steuben’s Esmerelda and Schopin’s Potiphar. The table, already set, the two silver chafing dishes, the crystal doorknobs, the floor, the furniture – everything gleamed with meticulous English cleanliness; the windows were adorned at each corner with panes of colored glass.

"This is the kind of dining room I ought to have," thought Emma. (III.7.48)

Even though she’s in serious financial trouble, and is, in fact, at the notary’s house to beg for money, Emma still can’t help but long for the wealth she thinks she deserves.

She had begun to drift into madness; she suddenly felt afraid and managed to regain control of herself, although her thoughts were still in disorder, for she no longer remembered the cause of her horrible state: the question of money. She was now suffering only through her love, and she felt her soul slipping away in the memory of it, just as a wounded man, as he lies dying, feels his life flowing out through the bleeding gash. (III.8.22)

Again, we see wealth and love blend together in Emma’s mind – in her desperation, she can’t keep them straight. Was she at Rodolphe’s for love or money? She can’t tell.