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Madame Bovary | Study Guide

Gustave Flaubert

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Madame Bovary | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


In Madame Bovary in what ways do Charles Bovary, Leon Dupuis, and Rodolphe Boulanger represent different stages in Emma's evolution as a character?

Charles Bovary, Léon Dupuis, and Rodolphe Boulanger each arrive in Emma Bovary's life at a point where she is hungry for change, and each represents that change. Charles represents Emma's fundamental innocence and naïveté, and her most childlike version of herself. Emma marries him because she is bored with her current life, and she pins on him all her fantasies of marriage that she has read about in books. Yet she gives Charles little chance to ever show her a different kind of love, since she wholeheartedly rejects him from the start. Léon represents Emma's growing boredom and curiosity, and gives Emma the first spark that a person exists who might understand her view of the world. Upon their reunion, Léon also represents the ways in which Emma has grown bolder and savvier, noting that "he has become her mistress" rather than the other way around. Rodolphe represents the stage of Emma's life in which she discovers the physical side of love, and lets herself equate it with the fantasy of love. Flaubert uses each character individually and then taken together, to show the inevitable limitlessness of Emma's dissatisfaction.

In Madame Bovary how does Flaubert use the character of Justin to highlight the tragic irony of Emma Bovary's life?

Justin, Monsieur Homais' s assistant, hovers in the background for much of Emma Bovary's life in Yonville, yet he silently loves and worships her. Tragic irony—related to dramatic irony—occurs when the words and actions of the characters contradict the real situation, which readers fully realize. The reader sees Justin's faithfulness to Emma throughout much of the novel, and the way in which he fully sees her as other characters don't, such as her moments of weakness, doubt, and depression. And yet he remains largely invisible to her, and she never realizes that the love she craves is right under her nose. In the ultimate instance of tragic irony, it is Justin who gives Emma access to the poison she uses to kill herself. Flaubert uses his character to bring up the ultimate question: would Emma have been happy with Justin if she knew of his feelings?

In Madame Bovary what role does illness play in the novel?

Flaubert uses Emma Bovary's illnesses to correlate with her mental and emotional states at different points in the novel. Emma's feelings tend to manifest physically, and Flaubert seems to be hinting that she has no other outlet for them. Emma seems to be able to operate on only two levels: excitement or depression, and when she slides into the latter, she grows physically ill to the point of being unable to cope. It's almost as though her body is unable to handle the devastation of reality's not living up to the fantasy in her head, and so her heartbreak manifests literally. By showing readers this correlation, Flaubert also foreshadows Emma's gruesomely ill death—manifested by her own hand.

In Madame Bovary how does Flaubert indicate that Emma Bovary has or has not changed as a person by the end of the novel?

Flaubert rarely shows Emma Bovary in a moment of self-realization throughout the novel. Rather, she repeatedly makes similar choices, frustrated that the outcomes are nearly always the same when it comes to love or money or excitement. She does not grow in her relationships as a mother or a wife, and by the latter half of the novel, she is living a perpetual lie both emotionally and financially. If there were a point at which Emma could realize that she was the common denominator of her own unhappiness, Flaubert never shows it to readers. Instead, readers see her grow more frantic and desperate as the novel progresses, and rather than face up to her lies and the change that lies would force, Emma takes her own life. By portraying her in this light, Flaubert offers a brutally realist take on the notion of an individual's capacity to fundamentally change, a position that is strikingly similar to that of the ancient tragedians who depict people caught in the grip of a fate they cannot change.

In Madame Bovary what role does Charles Bovary's mother play in the novel?

Charles Bovary's mother—the original Madame Bovary—plays a formidable role in the novel and serves as a contrast to Emma Bovary. Madame Bovary is introduced to the reader as an overbearing and protective mother who has strong ideas about the kind of person her son should become and the kind of person he should marry. She and Emma clash from the start, and each represents a different view of the "woman's role" in society. Madame Bovary disapproves of Emma's spending and taste, and constantly harasses Charles to get a handle on her. Yet Charles always chooses Emma's side, even though it's clear that his mother sees her in a more honest light. Flaubert brings in Madame Bovary often in order to give readers a different, and perhaps more discerning take on Emma's actions, and to contrast her with a more traditional wife and mother.

In Madame Bovary what does the color blue come to represent?

At various points in the novel, Emma Bovary refers to the color blue when referencing her feelings or the future. With Léon Dupuis, she imagines him as a composite of all the qualities she admires, and conjures him as living in "the big blue country," smelling of flowers. It is a fantastical image that lines up with Emma's tendency to fall into fantasy when she begins to grow bored. With Rodolphe Boulanger, she imagines their future together as a "blue immensity." In both of these imaginings, nothing concrete exists, for feelings are an abstraction. This is the world that Emma desperately wants to live in, a world in which nothing boring or harmful can touch her. In this light, blue symbolizes the abstraction of her desires.

In Madame Bovary what does Binet's lathe come to represent?

The sound of Binet's lathe is a constant backdrop of sound in Yonville. In one sense, it represents the droning monotony of Emma's existence there, and she notes that the sound of it is what calls her to commit suicide. Earlier in the novel, Emma envisions her life as a long dark hallway, with a closed door at the end, and the lathe represents the unbearable endlessness of that hallway for her. In another light, Flaubert uses Binet's obsession with the lathe to highlight the uselessness of much of the bourgeois tastes in Yonville—he makes napkin rings that no one ever uses. In both representations, there is a depressing sense of futility.

What does the motif of windows represent in Madame Bovary?

Windows are a constant backdrop throughout the novel—Emma Bovary is often sitting in one, gazing wistfully at life outside. She often communicates through them, either to Charles Bovary or Léon Dupuis, and in this light they come to represent her confinement as a woman in 19th-century France—her domain is the house, whether she likes it or not. But for Emma, they also represent the possibility of ultimate escape, such as when she considers jumping out of one to commit suicide. Yet Emma remains trapped behind them, longing for a freedom that is not allowed to her. Windows are meant to be transparent, but nobody ever looks into Emma, as though she were a one-way glass.

What role do language and communication play in Madame Bovary?

Flaubert sets out to write a realist novel, but a problem arises: how can he depict the failure of language to communicate feelings? And how can he depict that failure in writing, which is its own form of communication? Flaubert explores this conundrum by using different writing techniques in order to show how language fails his characters. They try again and again to communicate, but are left alienated at nearly every turn. For example, Charles Bovary is ridiculed by his fellow pupils when they mishear his name, and Emma Bovary is brushed off by a priest who cannot seem to understand her emotional distress despite her attempts to explain it. Emma and Charles seem unable to communicate their feelings to each other in ways the other will understand, which leads to Emma's deep dissatisfaction in her marriage. Characters such as Emma and Rodolphe Boulanger often lie to others who are content to believe their untruths. Flaubert highlights the fact that the truest form of realism is one that cannot actually articulate the realities of life.

Why might one literary critic have called Madame Bovary "a study of human stupidity"?

The critic is not calling the novel itself stupid, but rather pointing to the fact that few, if any, of the characters in the novel undergo any serious change or transformation that makes them wiser or better people. The novel ends in tragedy and heartbreak that seems inevitable, despite the fact that the characters are presented with opportunities to change at various points along the way. Flaubert, in his attempts to write a realist novel, chooses to highlight the painfully real ways that humans can be averse to change even when that change might benefit them. In this light, the critic's comment can be seen as a compliment, since Flaubert attempts to depict a brutally honest truth about the human capacity to stay the same.

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