Madame Bovary | Study Guide

Gustave Flaubert

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Madame Bovary | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Madame Bovary how does Flaubert depict women's power or the lack of it?

Flaubert uses the character of Emma Bovary to depict the frustrations that women in her position might have felt. Though Emma has her flaws, she is trapped with little recourse in a marriage she finds loveless. She dreams of something more in her life and refuses to settle for anything less, which leads her down an adulterous path. Though many readers are critical of her actions, some see her as rebelling against her lack of power. In Part 2, Chapter 3, Emma even wishes to give birth to a boy since it would "be a revenge for the powerlessness of her past." She has spent her whole life feeling powerless, and she would hate to give birth to a girl who would experience that same fate. Flaubert highlights Emma's lack of power in order to give the reader some sympathy for her plight as a woman in the 19th century. Even though Emma makes mistakes of her own, she is still trapped in a life she finds miserable due to her inability to create a life on her own.

In Madame Bovary in what ways is Charles Bovary a sympathetic character?

Charles Bovary can be considered a sympathetic character because of his undying devotion to Emma Bovary. He dotes on her and loves her, though he ignorantly also assumes the best of her. He is a good parent to their daughter, Berthe Bovary, and he provides for them as best he can, always hoping to make Emma happy. Though he does not necessarily understand Emma on a deep level, he does his best to please her, and the reader's sympathy for him grows in proportion to how little he knows about Emma's affairs. When he discovers their evidence after her death, he is heartbroken, and it is hard not to be sympathetic to his pain even if he ignored all the signs.

In Madame Bovary in what ways is Emma Bovary a tragic heroine?

Emma can be considered a tragic heroine in two different ways. One argument is that Emma's inability to confront reality contributes to her ultimate tragic downfall. This certainly qualifies as a type of hubris, or error in judgment, to which she is born and from which she cannot escape. A different argument is that the tragedy of Emma's life is beyond her capacity to control, as a woman in 19th-century France. She had little recourse for getting out of a loveless marriage and no way to support herself or find freedom on her own. In this light, society turns her into a tragic heroine.

In Madame Bovary in what ways does Flaubert challenge the feminine stereotypes of his era?

Flaubert so deeply challenges the feminine stereotypes of his era that the book was initially banned and he stood trial for indecency. Never before had a book been written that portrayed the discontent of an unhappy marriage from the feminine point of view, and Emma Bovary's brazen adultery and lack of interest in motherhood shocked French society. Flaubert is careful never to overtly condemn or praise Emma's behavior, but to merely provide a realistic portrayal of marital unhappiness and confinement. Women were expected to be wives and mothers before all else, and Emma's decision to put her happiness first deeply challenged that stereotype.

In Madame Bovary in what ways does Flaubert approach the ideas of fate and destiny?

Flaubert approaches the concept of fate and destiny in different ways throughout the novel. Emma Bovary seems to believe in the romantic notion of fate when it comes to love, and therefore she is susceptible when her lovers claim that fate brought them together in this way. But sadly, she is also an illusion for Rodolphe Boulanger and Léon Dupuis, since they never get to know the real Emma beyond the fantastical and the physical. This fact makes their speeches about fate seem hollow. At the same time, Flaubert comments on a larger and more tragic fate that seems attached to Emma—that her perpetual unhappiness will lead to her death. It seems to be Emma's unfortunate fate that she is doomed to this dissatisfaction.

In Madame Bovary how do Charles and Emma compare and contrast in their attitudes toward love?

Emma Bovary and Charles Bovary have differing attitudes toward love that are at the heart of their problems. Emma was educated in a convent, where she gorged herself on romance novels and fantasies that were impossible to duplicate in real life. As a result, she harbors unrealistic attitudes about what love must look and feel like, and is quick to dismiss anything that does not measure up to the unattainable fantasy in her head. Eventually Emma becomes bored and disillusioned with every relationship she has, once reality sets in. Charles, on the other hand, is simple, steadfast, and devoted. His head is not in the clouds, and he does not offer grand gestures, but his love for Emma is expressed in his unwavering devotion to and belief in her.

In Madame Bovary how does Flaubert portray Emma Bovary's attitude toward motherhood?

Flaubert portrays Emma's attitude toward motherhood as ambivalent at best. Though initially she is excited at the possibility of buying expensive things for the nursery, she quickly loses interest once she realizes that it is not an option. Emma is once again interested in the appearance of something rather than its reality. She does have the surprisingly astute observation that giving birth to a boy would be better, since "a man, at least, is free." When she gives birth to Berthe, a girl, she is once again disappointed, and continuously neglects her from that point on. There are times when she makes an attempt to be a "good mother," but motherhood is not something that comes naturally to her. Flaubert seems to be making a point that motherhood is not the only aspiration of women, and that not all women feel a natural inclination toward it.

In Madame Bovary what is the role of social class and its influence on the characters' actions?

Social class plays a prominent role in the novel and on the actions of its characters. The middle-class as a group of workers who earned money and social status without working with their hands or bodies was a relatively recent development in 19th-century France, and Flaubert harbored some disdain for their upward-climbing, material focus. Characters such as Emma Bovary are fixated on becoming wealthier and gaining access to finer things, such as balls and expensive furniture. Flaubert uses the incident of Charles's botched operation to show the risk that comes at the expense of Emma's hope that it will lead to fame and wealth for Charles—the only way she thinks she might be able to love him. Other characters, such as Monsieur Homais and Rodolphe Boulanger also show the ways in which men were able to have much more freedom in their social class abilities than women, who could only attain such status through marriage.

In what ways is Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary a work of realism?

Madame Bovary is widely considered by many critics to be one of the finest examples of a realist novel in the 19th century. Flaubert's use of simple, straightforward descriptions of his characters and their actions is one of the hallmarks of realist writing, which aims to plainly show the lives of ordinary people without offering any judgment. Flaubert also uses the structure of the novel to mirror the internal world of his characters—when life is boring and mundane, the details of it drone on, but when their emotions speed up, so do the actions. This is a technique highlighted during the scene between Rodolphe Boulanger and Emma during the town fair. The speeches award seem endless, but as as Rodolphe's declarations of love grow more urgent, so does the switching back and forth between the fair and their conversation, becoming shorter and shorter as the reader's attention must shift back and forth.

In Part 1, Chapter 1 of Madame Bovary, how is Charles Bovary characterized as a young man?

Flaubert takes great care to introduce the reader to Charles Bovary at length first, despite the fact that the focus shifts to Emma Bovary for much of the novel. He establishes Charles from the beginning as obedient, loyal, and "naturally peaceful," in contrast to his brutish father. And yet the narrator notes in Part 1, Chapter 1, that he "grew up like an oak," strong and solid in both body and temperament. Flaubert contrasts him against his parents to show the ways in which they influenced his views on life. He also foreshadows the fact that Charles is not destined to be the brightest or most acclaimed man, given that he failed his medical exams the first time around. Yet he also establishes that even though he may not turn out wealthy and famous, he is loving and steadfast from the beginning, never waivering in his love for Emma.

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