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Madame Bovary | Study Guide

Gustave Flaubert

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

Madame Bovary | Themes


Flaubert uses the techniques of contrast and juxtaposition in both the novel's structure and its themes to point out the deep ironies he finds in middle-class life. Illusions and appearances mask the flaws and unhappiness of many of the characters.

Desire and Dissatisfaction

Educated in a convent, Emma Bovary devoured romance novels and formed her ideas regarding love based on these sources. Unfortunately, Emma's interpretations of the novels do not match her experiences with reality. Her desire for romanticized love leads her to feel perpetually dissatisfied by her marriage, motherhood, and even her extramarital affairs because she understands love only as an abstraction and a stereotype. Emma's story serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of romanticism and illusion.

Power and Helplessness

Although it may be easy to blame Emma for her choices, she is trapped because of her gender by the society she lives in. Her safety and comfort necessarily depend on a man, first her father and then Charles. She cannot leave Charles despite her unhappiness, as there are no real options for an alternative life. Emma is aware of her limited power, as she hopes her baby will be male because "a woman is always hampered."

In some ways, Emma's infidelities may be read as an attempt to claim power and rebel against the helplessness of her situation. Emma conducts transactions for power using the only currency allowed her: her body. Yet Emma's attempts to compete with the money and property of the male realm using this medium ultimately fail her. She is abandoned by her lovers; she begs for money to pay her debt in exchange for sexual favors; and she obtains the arsenic to commit suicide through the use of sexual power over Justin.

Freedom and Confinement

The rules of freedom and confinement in the text are based on gender. As a woman, Emma is confined to her marriage, despite her dalliances with the freedom of having extramarital affairs and spending money. These small freedoms do not take the place of real freedom, leaving Emma feeling more confined than ever by abandonment and debt.

As men, Rodolphe and Léon lead free and easy existences and move about or spend money as they please with and without Emma. While she has no impact on their place or power in society, these men have the power to change Emma's life to make it better or worse—something she can't find a way to do for herself.

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