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Madame Bovary | Study Guide

Gustave Flaubert

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Madame Bovary | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


In Madame Bovary in what ways does Flaubert imply that Emma Bovary is capable or incapable of real love?

Despite Emma Bovary's romanticism and infatuations, Flaubert does not imply that Emma is capable of real love. Emma loses interest in her lovers when the fantasy dwindles into reality, and she never gives the real, genuine love offered by Charles Bovary a chance. Emma would prefer the illusion of love to the reality of another person's human flaws and frail emotions. In this light, Flaubert seems to use the character of Emma as a realist critique of romanticism, since her fantasies of love cannot survive the reality. Although Emma is at times a sympathetic character, Flaubert offers her up as a cautionary tale about the perils of putting too much stock in illusions and yearning for what isn't real. Though she is full of flowery platitudes, her words have little substance to their recipients.

In Madame Bovary what role does Monsieur Homais play in Emma's and Charles' s lives?

Monsieur Homais is by turn comic relief and destructive bystander. In this way, he becomes a stand-in for Flaubert's criticism of the money-earning, unlanded middle class of 19th-century France. His social climbing is obvious to readers, but he considers himself indispensable to the Bovarys. His transparent befriending of Charles Bovary only belies the fact that he wishes to be close to him so that he will not judge him for his questionable medical practices and so he will continue to use him for his pharmaceutical services. He also convinces Charles to perform a risky operation so that he may brag about it in the newspaper, but he fails to take any of the blame when it goes awry. Flaubert is also careful to render Monsieur Homais's long, boring speeches on medicine in real time, showing readers just how frustrating and mundane Emma Bovary finds her life to be in his presence. Lastly, Flaubert is careful to use Homais as an example of the realist worldview. Homais receives a medal from the Legion of Honor after the deaths of Charles and Emma, showing that good does not always win out in the end—sometimes selfishness does.

In what ways does Flaubert imply that fiction can be dangerous in Madame Bovary?

Flaubert uses the characters of Emma Bovary and Léon Dupuis to show the ways in which fiction can be dangerous. Both Emma and Léon are deep lovers of fiction, and commiserate over how wonderful it is to escape into novels as an outlet from the mundane existence of daily life. Emma grows up reading novels in the convent, which fills her head with fantasies of what real love must be like, and it is the rubric against which she measures all love in her life—an impossible ideal. In Part 2, Chapter 2, Léon extols that it is "so lovely, amid life's disappointments, to be able to dwell in fancy on nobility of character, pure affections and pictures of happiness." For both of them, escaping into these fantasies allows them to dull their disappointments with real life. Yet Flaubert also seems to be pointing out the dramatic irony—irony that readers can see but the characters cannot—that even though Emma and Léon are drawn together by this "mutual sympathy," their relationship is built on fantasies. Flaubert uses their relationship to portray the illusions of romanticism in a realist light by showing that disappointment is inevitable.

How does Gustave Flaubert treat religion in Madame Bovary?

Flaubert treats religion with some disdain in the novel, beginning with Emma Bovary's time at the convent. He emphasizes the fact that, rather than believe in the religion that is being espoused, she is in love with the imagery and ceremony. In Part 1, Chapter 6, the narrator notes that "she had loved the Church for the sake of the flowers." This observation lines up with the fact that Emma does not like to dwell in reality, finding it unpleasant. Flaubert again criticizes religion as solace when the priest Emma visits after growing unhappy does little to help her with her anguish—he is too preoccupied with other things. Finally, Flaubert shows that religion does nothing to comfort Charles in his loss of Emma, a loss that was obviously by her hand and not God's. Flaubert, in his use of realism, seems to point out that religion is just as much of a fantasy as fiction, and that it offers little in the way of true solace and guidance to characters like Emma or Charles.

In what ways can Madame Bovary be considered a satire?

Throughout the novel, Flaubert makes use of both situational and dramatic irony in order to show the reader fundamental contrasts and themes about middle-class life and the perils of romanticism. One of the most well-known instances of this in the book is the scene in which Rodolphe Boulanger confesses his love to Emma Bovary in the midst of the speeches during Yonville's agricultural festival. Flaubert deftly flips back and forth between the two speeches at a rapid pace in order to show how each is similarly hollow and meaningless. Flaubert uses many juxtaposing moments both in order to satirize Emma's foolish romanticism and the hypocrisy of bourgeois society. Even though Madame Bovary is at times a sympathetic and heartbreaking novel, Flaubert never lets the reader go for long without considering the society and ideas that he is critiquing.

What is the effect of Flaubert's beginning and ending Madame Bovary with a focus on Charles Bovary?

Flaubert surprises the reader by choosing to begin and end a novel about Emma Bovary titled Madame Bovary with a focus on her husband before he met her and after her death. Initially, Flaubert aims to introduce the reader to Charles Bovary in an attempt to show what kind of man he became from the boy he was. There is a deeper commentary here on the nature of personality—a person's capacity to change. Charles's personality, as well as Emma's, changes little over the course of the novel, and the effect of the reader's introduction to him in the first chapter serves to bring up other questions as well: Is Charles dumb? How much will that matter? Will the novel be about him? He is also the reader's first lens through which they meet Emma with rose-colored glasses, and the narration leaps from him to Emma fairly quickly after that, with Charles retreating into the background. But Flaubert brings him into the forefront again after Emma's death, and so his story, in effect, frames hers. This time, the reader knows more about what he has been through, and sees a side of him formerly hidden to them. The effect here brings the reader's sympathy full-circle from him to Emma, underlining the tragedy of what has occurred.

How do the locations of Tostes, Yonville, and Rouen play significant roles in Madame Bovary?

The backdrops of the novel play significant roles. Flaubert uses them to highlight the ways in which people respond to their environments. Characters such as Charles Bovary and Monsieur Homais are perfectly content to live and work in a rural setting, particularly because they are well respected in their professions and enjoy the routines of their lives. But for characters like Emma and Léon, small town settings are stifling and boring, and Flaubert goes to great lengths to describe the mundane moments of small-town living through their eyes. In Part 2, Chapter 2, Léon and Emma commiserate over how "Yonville has so very little to offer." When Léon moves to Rouen and he and Emma reunite there, there is a brief hope that the city can sustain their passion and interests, but instead it serves as a contrast to their growing boredom with each other. Flaubert uses each setting to question the nature of individual happiness.

What role does money play in Flaubert's Madame Bovary?

Money plays a significant role in Madame Bovary, though its insidious capacity to destroy lives creeps slowly into the story. Charles Bovary is a fairly well-to-do doctor, but Emma Bovary is constantly dissatisfied with the state of their lives, and yearns for more of everything—including money and material things. In this way money is very symbolic of their relationship in that it exposes both characters to their naïveté in different ways. Emma is naive in her hopeless romanticism and fantasies, and does not seem to quite understand the concept of debt. She is easily manipulated by Monsieur Lheureux, the town moneylender, which leads to her financial ruin and suicide. Charles's naïveté is revealed in his relationship with money by how much he innocently trusts Emma, never suspecting the dire financial path she has led them down because he believes the best of her. Flaubert also highlights a new kind of financial anxiety that was symbolic of the new "middle class" of 19th-century France—people who did not come from the noble class but made their money professionally and wanted to hold onto that status at all costs.

In Madame Bovary in what ways are Charles Bovary and Emma Bovary similar?

For all of their contrasts, Charles Bovary and Emma Bovary are similar in unlikely ways. Both are childlike in their innocent way of seeing the world and other people. For Emma, this translates into her views regarding love and money. She holds illusions and fantasies about love that have no grounding in reality, which leads her down a disappointing path to her tragic end. Charles is innocent in the way he views Emma—he can see none of her faults, which ends up being a danger to him, as she leads them into financial ruin. He is also ultimately left heartbroken when he discovers Emma's affairs after her death. Flaubert chooses to bring their similarities close to their differences in order to highlight the tragic nature of their relationship—and how under different circumstances it may have worked.

In Madame Bovary who or what does Flaubert insinuate is responsible for Emma Bovary's unhappiness?

Flaubert is careful not to lay the blame for Emma Bovary's unhappiness on any one thing or person. Rather, he points to a composite of all the things and people in Emma's life that collude to keep her unhappy: life in a small town, a husband who does not understand her, and a society that confines her freedom as a woman. Yet Flaubert does hint at the common denominator of Emma's unhappiness through it all: Emma herself. He raises the haunting question of whether Emma's unhappiness and tragic demise arise from external or internal factors, or possibly a combination of both. It becomes clear to the reader that Emma is often the architect of her unhappiness, and that even within the confines of her life, different possibilities are available to her other than the ones she takes. Yet he also paints a strong portrayal of the stifling qualities of her life that are beyond her control.

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