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Madame Bovary | Study Guide

Gustave Flaubert

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Professor Bill Yarrow of Joliet Junior College explains the motifs in Gustave Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary.

Madame Bovary | Motifs



As a woman in 19th-century France, Emma's domain is her home. Yet Emma can often be found gazing from the interior of her home at the outer world through windows. These windows represent feelings of entrapment in the small towns she lives in and the confinements of a marriage in which she feels dissatisfied. Her greatest desire is to escape from both, and the windows function as gateways through which she can see the life she wants but cannot have.


The motif of death stands in tragic contrast to the life Emma yearns to be living. Emma's sense of mortality is often linked to her emotional state—she falls ill for long periods when she is suffering from heartbreak or disappointment. These episodes foreshadow her eventual death by her own hand, and they also mirror the growing deterioration of Emma's hope and sense of morality. In typical realist fashion, Flaubert takes care to depict the brutal aspects of Emma's death, showcasing its reality in opposition to the illusions about life she carried with her.

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