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Madame Bovary | Study Guide

Gustave Flaubert

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Madame Bovary | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In Madame Bovary to what degree is Emma Bovary in control of her own fate?

Ultimately, Emma Bovary takes her own life, which one could argue is a very final way of taking control of her own fate. Life did not turn out as she had hoped, and she sees suicide as the only possible ending. Many characters blame fate for their actions in the novel: Rodolphe Boulanger blames their breakup on it, and Charles Bovary blames her affairs on it. It could be argued that within Emma's limited power, she did control her own fate much of the time: she had affairs, spent money, and decided how she would die. Yet a more skeptical view would be that, since Emma was a woman born into middle-class society in 19th-century France, she had very little control of her fate. She could not leave her marriage and live independently, she could not love whom she chose without consequence, and in this way society determined her fate.

In Part 2, Chapter 12 of Madame Bovary, what does the narrator mean by "human speech is liked a cracked cauldron"?

The narrator makes this observation while discussing Rodolphe Boulanger's reaction to hearing Emma Bovary's ministrations of love. Emma's words fall flat on Rodolphe's ears, because he has heard them a thousand times from other lovers. "No one can ever give the exact measure of their needs, their ideas, their afflictions," he notes, and by this rubric words are therefore meaningless. When he makes the comparison of human speech to a "cracked cauldron on which we knock out tunes for dancing bears when we wish to conjure pity from the stars," he is saying that language is inadequate to convey true feelings. No matter how different or earnest Emma's feelings are from the women he has been with before, it does not matter to Rodolphe since it all sounds the same.

In Part 2, Chapter 15 of Madame Bovary, why does the opera Emma attends have such a profound effect on her?

Emma Bovary attends the opera at a time when she is feeling particularly devastated and weary. Rodolphe Boulanger has abandoned her, and she is stuck once again in a life that she feels trapped in. The opera is an escape for her in the same way that all romantic stories are—stories with dramatic characters, illusory backdrops, and declarations of love. When Emma does not have an outlet for love that she can pin her fantasies on, she turns to her imagination, where the fleeting glimpse of an actor like Lucia can send her into a reverie about her own wedding day. Watching the wedding scene in the opera, Emma wonders "why had she not, like that woman down there, resisted, entreated?" The opera refracts her own experiences and regrets back to her.

In Part 3, Chapter 5 of Madame Bovary, what does the narrator mean of Emma that "her existence was little more than a tissue of lies"?

Emma's realization in this scene is another rare moment of insight and self-reflection on her part, similar to her yearning to give birth to a boy. This realization is also a heartbreaking one, for it marks a turning point in which Emma seems to understand to some degree that there is no turning back. Yet the narrator notes that this rebellion is so precious to her that "it was a necessity, an obsession, a pleasure" to the point that she begins to lie just for the sake of lying. She has built a house of cards to which she holds a match, and in this risk she finds a strange kind of liberation. She is desperate not to get caught, yet she does little to prevent it as time goes on.

In Part 3, Chapter 5 of Madame Bovary, what is the significance of the narrator noting that Leon Dupuis "became her mistress rather than she becoming his"?

Emma Bovary's and Léon Dupuis's relationship changes significantly by this section of the book. Emma has been changed by her affair with Rodolphe, and Léon has been changed by his time away from Yonville—both are more confident and self-assured, as well as more reckless. Emma becomes more demanding of Léon and his attention—it is as though the longer they are together the more "proof" she requires from him that he loves her. Flaubert seems to be commenting on the fact that in order for them to maintain their fantasy of love, more and more is required from each of them to sustain it so it doesn't sink into something more ordinary. And so Léon "desires to please her," and that imbalance becomes the dynamic of their relationship. Leon ponders where she had learned to be so commanding—and the reader knows she learned it from Rodolphe Boulanger. Again, Flaubert notes Emma's small victories of power in a world where she has little.

In Part 3, Chapter 6 of Madame Bovary, what does the narrator mean by the metaphor, "never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers"?

In Part 3, Chapter 6, Emma Bovary grows increasingly impatient and disillusioned with Léon Dupuis—the spell of their mutual fantasy is beginning to break, since they must become real, flawed people to each other eventually. Emma racks her minds for reasons Léon is a disappointment: he's "incapable of heroism, feeble, banal, softer than a woman." The reader has seen how once Emma finds a seed of discontent, it inevitably flowers into her feeling trapped and bored. And so the narrator aptly notes that "the denigration of those we love always detaches them from us in some degrees." In other words, the metaphor is about the fact that once you see the people you love up close over a long period of time, the illusion that they are perfect is harder to sustain. Emma cannot unsee what she does not like about Leon anymore, and so the "gilding" of her illusion begins to come off at the edges.

In Part 3, Chapter 6, what does the narrator of Madame Bovary mean by "Emma was rediscovering in adultery the platitudes of marriage"?

By this point in Emma Bovary and Léon Dupuis's relationship, they have moved out of the realm of fantasy and romance to something more closely resembling a marriage, and the multitude of feelings contained in one. They have grown weary and bored with each other, and the narrator notes that Léon's "heart ... was sluggishly indifferent to the tumult of a love whose refinements he no longer appreciated." They are going through the motions of a love neither feels, since their love was based on infatuation and upholding a fantasy that could not be sustained. Flaubert plainly points out the irony here: their adulterous affair has grown to resemble a boring, traditional marriage—the very thing Emma wished to escape.

In Part 3, Chapter 9 of Madame Bovary, what dramatic irony can be found in Charles Bovary's funeral arrangements for Emma?

Charles Bovary, overlooked by Emma Bovary for most of their marriage as unimaginative and unromantic, reveals how deeply he did, perhaps, understand Emma's desires. His instructions are for her to "be buried in her wedding dress, with white shoes and a crown of flowers" with her hair flowing and expensive fabric draped over the coffin. The undertakers and Monsieur Homais are taken aback at Charles's romanticism, but the dramatic irony is that Emma would have loved it. Tragically, it also reveals that Emma misjudged how much Charles understood and loved her, something which—if she had not taken her own life—she may have gone on to discover if she were to give him a chance.

In Part 3, Chapter 11 of Madame Bovary, what does Charles Bovary's reaction to finding Rodolphe Boulanger's love letter reveal about his personality?

Flaubert takes care to end the novel quite powerfully by refocusing on Charles Bovary, whom readers may have forgotten was the first focus of the book. Charles fades into the background for much of the novel, appearing only to frustrate and disappoint Emma Bovary, though likely garnering sympathy from the reader along the way. Yet some honest and heartbreaking aspects of his personality are revealed at the end, though they were there all along. Even after Emma's death and the trouble she caused by getting them into debt, Charles still wants to believe the best of her. After finding Rodolphe Boulanger's love letter, he convinces himself that they were just friends. One could argue that this makes him just as prone to fantasy as Emma, making them far more similar characters than either would imagine. And yet Charles has a sense of compassion that Emma never had. Even when he must face the truth about Emma's affairs, he forgives Rodolphe, though he dies heartbroken.

In Part 2, Chapter 4 of Madame Bovary, what is the effect of Emma's using words such as thunder, lightning, tempest, and devastation to describe love?

Emma's choice of words to describe love here shows the influence that reading novels about romance has had on her. For Emma, there is only one formula for love: it must be sweeping and dramatic, grandiose and devastating. It is significant that this description follows the statement that "she had never once questioned herself to see if she loved [Charles]." Because their love did not occur "suddenly, with a great clap of thunder," it simply does not fit into her premeasured formula for love. What Emma does not seem to realize is that a love that is made up of only these dramatic elements would be exhausting and unsustainable. She does not realize that the words she is using are ultimately negative and destructive, and that in using them she is foreshadowing her own future. Her tragic irony is that she never gives Charles's steady, unwavering, gentle love a chance.

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