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Madame Bovary | Study Guide

Gustave Flaubert

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

Madame Bovary | Symbols


Flaubert uses symbols to reflect the psychological states of his characters, particularly the parts of their personalities not readily apparent to others.

Blind Beggar

The blind beggar haunts the periphery of Emma's life as a symbol of judgment throughout the last half of the novel as he follows the carriage she takes to Rouen once a week. His face and demeanor terrify Emma, and she ignores him as much as she can, because he does not reflect the fantasy she wishes to live in. He appears often as Emma grows more corrupt and desperate, amassing debt while carrying on her affairs. As Emma is dying at the end of the novel, she hears the beggar singing outside in a voice "like an inarticulate lament of some vague despair," and the image of his terrifying face is the last thing she sees.

In this way, the beggar and Emma become mirrors of each other. The beggar exemplifies physical deterioration while Emma exemplifies moral deterioration. The song the beggar sings, like Emma, begins seemingly as a song of innocence, but, by its end, the song reveals itself to be inappropriately sexual.

Wedding Bouquet

Emma's first trip home after her wedding should be a happy affair, but one of the first things she notices is the dried wedding bouquet of Charles's dead first wife sitting in their bedroom. The bouquet causes Emma to wonder what will happen to her own wedding bouquet if she dies. Unhappy after their move to Yonville, she tosses her bouquet into the fire. For Emma, it has come to symbolize her disappointment in marriage and love, for neither has turned out as she had imagined.

The fire imagery also symbolizes Emma's impetuousness as well as the way in which her desires will devour her life.

Material Objects

Emma grows increasingly obsessed with having the finest things money can buy, despite her growing debt. Her fascination with material objects symbolizes her obsession with appearance over reality, as well as her delusion that having fine things will make her life better and happier.

When Emma finds out she is pregnant, she loses excitement once she realizes she and Charles cannot afford the nicest things for the nursery, negatively affecting her entire view on motherhood. As time passes, she grows increasingly susceptible to Monsieur Lheureux's manipulations in selling her expensive things he knows she cannot afford as she becomes more and more desperate for a happiness she cannot seem to buy.

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