Study Guide

Madame Bovary Themes

  • Dissatisfaction

    Sometimes life just sucks. Hey, we didn’t write the rules – it’s true. However, in most of our lives, things are a series of ups and downs. Emma Bovary's life (of Madame Bovary fame) is no different. However, most of the time, she’s stuck in "down" mode, and is never happy with what she has. Life always seems unfair to her, and she spends a good deal of her time thinking about how it really ought to be better. She’s not the only one; most of the book’s exciting characters aren’t content with simply going with the flow and accepting life as it is.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. Do you think Emma could ever be completely happy? If so, under what circumstances?
    2. Are any of the novel’s characters totally satisfied with their lives?
    3. How do men and women in the novel deal with their frustrations differently? How does society affect these coping mechanisms?

    Chew on This

    Dissatisfaction is an essential element of ambition in the world that Flaubert creates.

    Total satisfaction is available only to characters perceived as dull or unquestioning in Madame Bovary.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    You all know the feeling of being trapped inside your own life. Well, take that to an extreme, and you’ve got Madame Bovary. The novel’s protagonist feels stuck inside an unhappy marriage, a restrictive society, and a monotonous everyday routine, and she’s willing do to almost anything to escape. She dreams of fleeing her old life and finding a new one that’s more exciting and full of exotic possibility. However, every time she tries to change her life, it cycles back somehow into the same old, same old. Can she ever escape? Is escape even possible? The novel isn’t very optimistic on that front.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. Is Emma ever really "free?"
    2. Emma perceives marriage as a prison. Does Flaubert offer any alternate models for marriage?
    3. Does Emma’s sense of confinement relate to her gender?
    4. What role does money play in the theme of freedom and confinement in this novel?

    Chew on This

    Emma creates her prison through her own thoughts and actions.

    The rigid expectations of the society that Flaubert depicts puts all of the characters under an equal amount of pressure; all of the characters are therefore just as confined by their circumstances as Emma is.

  • Foolishness and Folly

    There are many, many poor decisions made in Madame Bovary. Really, it’s so full of textbook BAD, BAD CHOICES that it could double as a manual of warning signs in a high school health class. We’ve got a whole range of folly here, from financial to emotional. The novel, however, makes no real moral judgments – instead, we just watch objectively as the characters get themselves deeper and deeper into trouble. The implication is that folly is a natural state of the human condition.

    Questions About Foolishness and Folly

    1. Is folly always a matter of action, or can not acting (like Charles) also be considered foolish?
    2. Is it folly to simply indulge in one’s imagination?
    3. Does Emma ever realize when she makes a foolish decision?
    4. Are all of Flaubert’s characters in this novel fools? Are there any that can avoid this label?

    Chew on This

    Emma’s greatest folly is her unshakeable belief in her own fantasies.

    While Emma’s actions in the novel are often perceived clearly as foolish, the novel does not judge them morally as right or wrong.

  • Love

    Love encapsulates a whole lot of things in Madame Bovary. Seriously, just about everything relates to love: lust, beauty, power, money, fantasy – you name it. The thing is, nobody quite knows exactly what love is, which is why all these complications get tangled up in it. Our protagonist spends the whole novel going back and forth about whether she’s in love, out of love, thinking about love, dreaming about love, worrying about love. In other words, it’s a lot like modern day life.

    Questions About Love

    1. Can love be cultivated, or is it simply an inexplicable phenomenon?
    2. Does Emma truly love either Rodolphe or Léon? Do they love her?
    3. Is Emma capable of non-romantic love?
    4. Do we see any examples of genuine love in this novel?

    Chew on This

    In Madame Bovary, love and romance are incorrectly but inextricably identified with each other.

    Emma is infatuated with the abstract idea of being in love, rather than the objects of her affections (Rodolphe and Léon).

  • Women and Femininity

    Madame Bovary deconstructs the prim, idealized vision of the perfect nineteenth century woman, simply by giving her thoughts, feelings, and desires. Our protagonist is simultaneously the perfect woman and the nightmare woman of this period. She’s beautiful, a good housekeeper, and on the outside seems like an obedient wife, but she’s actually an adulteress, a spendthrift, and, to be honest, frivolous. Through the life of Emma Bovary, Flaubert attempts to show us an objective, intimate perspective on the difficulties of womanhood during a restrictive and judgmental time period.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Emma’s concept of the ideal woman (which she strives to be) differs from that of the society around her. What do each of these images of womanhood look like?
    2. Emma is continuously frustrated by her powerless position as a married woman, and wishes for a son. Do you think she would have loved a son more than she loves her daughter? Why?
    3. How does Emma’s view of womanhood and femininity relate to her upbringing? Do you think her ideas would be different if she had grown up with a mother?
    4. How do the other women in the novel (Madame Homais, the elder Madame Bovary, etc.) reflect upon Flaubert’s view of women in general?

    Chew on This

    Madame Bovary deconstructs the nineteenth century notion that women should have fewer desires and ambitions than men, and suggests instead that women’s subordinate role in society creates greater tensions between their internal and external lives.

    Instead of focusing on differences between the sexes, Flaubert comments upon the ways in which women and men are similar.

  • Wealth

    Money, money, money – cold hard cash is certainly what makes this world go ‘round in this novel. Underneath Madame Bovary’s concern for human emotion and feeling, the cruel truth is that money can make or break people. Even the most romantic characters are still driven by the desire for cash or luxury goods. The lust for wealth is like the pink elephant in the room; even when we think we’re talking about love, joy, sadness or whatever else, money is always there in the background. In the end, it’s also what drives the novel to its tragic conclusion.

    Questions About Wealth

    1. Does money equal happiness for Emma?
    2. Do you think the wealthy people Emma encounters at the ball (and later Rodolphe) are actually happier than she is?
    3. Emma is a big advocate of retail therapy. Do her purchases actually make her feel better?
    4. Would Emma be content if she were married to a rich man?

    Chew on This

    While Emma perceives wealth as the gateway to freedom, Rodolphe’s character demonstrates that money doesn’t necessarily buy true happiness.

    In Emma’s mind, wealth and luxury are necessary conditions for love.

  • Appearances

    Appearance – and particular beauty – is always linked to power in Madame Bovary. People can have the appearance of wealth or refinement or sensitivity…and regardless of how false these appearances are, they are what get people places in this world. Our protagonist, Emma Bovary, is a beautiful woman, and her beauty has a profound effect over almost everyone she encounters. Because of it, she is able to change her life – and ultimately, ruin it. In the end, we discover what we should all know well already: people are definitely not always what they seem to be.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Emma grows more beautiful as she gets deeper and deeper into trouble. Why do you think this happens?
    2. Do we have clear pictures of the characters in the novel, other than Emma? Why or why not?
    3. Does everyone in this society value appearance as much as Emma does?

    Chew on This

    Emma’s beauty is her greatest asset; it allows her to exert a degree of power over the men in the novel.

    The greatest mistake that both Emma and Charles make in the novel is believing the people are exactly what they appear to be.

  • Repression

    Madame Bovary is all about desire – and its consequences. The protagonist is tormented by her inexplicable, sensual yearnings, and her longing to escape from her small-town life. Her town is not exactly a forgiving place…nor was the nineteenth century exactly a very forgiving time. Social constraints impose a constant sense of tension upon the novel as a whole. This doesn’t just apply to Emma Bovary herself; the whole society is so tightly wound that practically everyone is always hiding some secret desire. Once the façade of social boundaries cracks, though, look out.

    Questions About Repression

    1. Do you think the other townspeople have desires as wild as Emma’s that they simply keep better hidden?
    2. How much of Emma’s desire is motivated by the temptation of the forbidden fruit?
    3. What impact, if any, does society’s rigid set of standards and demands have on Emma’s decisions?

    Chew on This

    The intensity of social pressure increases Emma’s enjoyment of her transgressions.

    The romantic novels that Emma reads play upon the repressed desires of the society she lives in by glorifying adultery and other illicit activities.

  • Art and Culture

    This may sound unusual, but art and culture are cause for worry in Madame Bovary. Emma Bovary, the novel’s protagonist, is infatuated by the romantic novels she reads, and believes wholeheartedly in the vision of life she finds there. Similarly, she indulges emotionally in the other arts, such as music and painting. Some of the other characters worry that the dramatic emotions stirred in Emma are unhealthy; the blame mostly falls on the novels she reads. In the provincial world these characters inhabit, art and culture are seen as dangerous distractions, rather than necessities of life.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Do you think the romantic novels that Emma reads actually have the adverse effect on her that Charles’s mother claims?
    2. Emma responds to art, literature, and music in an intensely personal, emotional fashion. Is there a right or wrong way to appreciate art?
    3. How do the other characters’ views on the arts reflect their personalities? Consider Charles, Léon, and Homais in particular.

    Chew on This

    Emma is not corrupted by bad books; instead, she is corrupted because she is a bad reader.

    The novel’s distance from Paris, the center of culture, both fosters Emma’s discontent and encourages her to create her own imaginary version of cosmopolitan life.