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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.