Madame Bovary | Study Guide

Gustave Flaubert

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Course Hero. "Madame Bovary Study Guide." December 12, 2016. Accessed September 29, 2023.


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Madame Bovary | Context


Realism and Romanticism

Many critics consider Madame Bovary one of the finest examples of a realist novel because of Flaubert's frank, thorough, and unyielding descriptions of life in a small town and the dissatisfactions of members of the middle class. The "bourgeois" middle-class lifestyle had developed in France after the French Revolution as the old feudal system collapsed and a merchant society developed; Flaubert disdained the superficial values of the bourgeoisie.

Flaubert's realism focuses on depicting everyday people in their everyday lives, though it is not entirely objective. He goes to great lengths to depict the mundane elements of day-to-day existence, even at the risk of boring his readers with his lengthy descriptions of rooms and events. His aim is to show these "slices of life" as they really are so as to immerse the reader in the characters' realities. Flaubert insinuates that life is made up of dull moments, which throws his depiction of Emma Bovary's frustration with her life into sharp relief. Realism was in many ways a reaction against romanticism, and so it is fitting that the protagonist of the novel, Emma Bovary, is punished for her romantic ideals, which prove false and delusional.

Romanticism was the most popular genre of literature through much of Flaubert's life, and the works of writers creating in this genre focused on emotions and feelings over reason and reality. Flaubert belonged to a new generation that prized realism over romanticism, yet Madame Bovary seems to straddle the line, as it depicts a character who is ruled by romantic ideas and notions, though the brutal realities of her life confront her in the end. Flaubert depicts romanticism as an affliction that is suffered as a delusion. His style of narration mirrors the emotions of his characters as the action speeds up when emotions are high and slows down when emotions are dulled. This straddling of styles makes Madame Bovary a singular work that melds two of the distinct literary movements of the 19th century.

Social Commentary

Flaubert aimed at depicting middle-class society as realistically as possible, but he also offers a great deal of social commentary on its flaws as he perceived them. In France of the mid-19th century, the middle class was made up of a group of people who made their money through business, rather than inheritance, as depicted by characters such as Monsieur Lheureux or Monsieur Homais in Madame Bovary. At times the novel is a thorough analysis of the different types of people who inhabited this world, in all their flaws and strengths, and Flaubert is careful not to reward winners and punish losers. His commentary reveals that sometimes the worst people "win" while the best people "lose," and sometimes, winning is a matter of perseverance or manipulation. In some ways Flaubert also comments on the plight of women such as Emma, who had no outlet from the married lives they found themselves thrust into. Though, at times, the narrator seems to condemn Emma for her choices, there is also sympathy for her unhappiness and oppression.

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