English Literature
Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary

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Uncovering the Controversy of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary in 19th-Century France

When Gustave Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary was first published in 1856, it caused a major uproar due to its depiction of extramarital affairs, which was seen as scandalous at the time. Flaubert was even taken to trial in 1857 for supposedly violating public moral codes. Yet, he ultimately won the case, leading to a surge in the novel's popularity. Today, Madame Bovary is recognized as one of the greatest examples of Realism in 19th-century French literature.

The Historical Context behind Madame Bovary

The term "bourgeoisie" originated in the 11th century and referred to commercially wealthy cities in Western and Central Europe. By the mid-1800s in France, the bourgeoisie had risen to become the upper-middle class after the collapse of the aristocracy. This social class was known for their belief in liberalism, advocating for individual rights and protections.

After the French Revolution (1789-1799), the bourgeoisie gained civil and political rights, leading to economic growth through commerce. They were often described as materialistic and affluent. Flaubert, as part of the educated elite, held a strong disdain for the bourgeoisie, viewing them as too traditional and unsophisticated.

In Madame Bovary, Flaubert masterfully contrasts realistic descriptions of country life with the protagonist Emma's fantasies and disgust towards the bourgeoisie class to which she belongs. Her longing for a more exciting life leads her to make morally questionable decisions, ultimately revealing Flaubert's aversion towards the bourgeoisie.

The Role of Literary Realism in 19th-Century France

The origins of Literary Realism can be traced back to French painter Gustave Courbet and later spread to literature, with Flaubert emerging as a prominent figure in the movement. Realism focused on portraying the ordinary, mundane lives of everyday people and was a reaction against Romanticism, another literary movement of the 19th century.

Romanticism, which thrived from approximately 1770 to 1850, prioritized the individual hero, subjectivity, and imagination. It celebrated beauty, nature, the power of transcendence, and the concept of the sublime.

Despite Madame Bovary being considered Flaubert's prime example of realism, he skillfully incorporates elements of Romanticism to create irony in the novel's plot and characters.

About the Author: Gustave Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert was born in Rouen, France, in 1821, to parents Achille, the chief surgeon, and Anne. He showed a talent for writing from a young age, having completed the first version of his novel Memoirs of a Madman (1901) by the age of 17. In the 1840s, Flaubert moved to Paris to study law but dropped out after experiencing an epileptic attack. After his father's death in 1846, he moved to Croisset with his mother and niece, who had become an orphan.

In 1851, Flaubert began writing Madame Bovary, a project that took him five years to complete. Encouragement from his writer friends Maxime du Camp and Louise Bouilhet, after reading a manuscript of his novel The Temptation of St. Anthony (1874), led Flaubert to focus on writing a realist novel. He went on to author several other works, including Salammbo (1862) and Sentimental Education (1869). In the 1870s, Flaubert struggled with health issues caused by venereal diseases and financial troubles. He passed away in 1880 due to a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 58.

A Summary of Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary begins by delving into the childhood of Charles Bovary, who struggled to fit in as a young boy. As a young man, he was portrayed as average and failed a medical exam, but still managed to become a country doctor. He was then married off by his mother to a widow who passed away shortly after their marriage.

It is during this time that Charles meets Emma, a patient's daughter, and falls in love. After their marriage, the couple settles in Tostes. However, Emma soon realizes that Charles and their marriage do not align with her romantic ideals, which she believed would solve all of life's problems. Having lived a dull life in a convent, Emma longs for a more exciting and fantastical existence.

Emma's romanticized ideals and fanciful desires ultimately prove to be her tragic downfall.

After becoming pregnant and falling ill, Emma's husband Charles moves them to Yonville for her health. In this new town, Emma meets a variety of characters, including the self-centered pharmacist Homais and bored law clerk Leon. She gives birth to a daughter, Berthe, but is disappointed as she had hoped for a son. Feeling unfulfilled as a mother, Emma begins to dream of a more exciting and fulfilling life.

Emma's idealistic views lead her to develop feelings for Leon, and when he reciprocates, she tries to play the role of a dutiful and faithful wife. However, Leon grows impatient and leaves Yonville to study law in Paris, leaving Emma once again bored and unsatisfied.

It's not long before Emma's wealthy neighbor, Rodolphe, confesses his love for her at an agricultural affair. Captivated by her beauty, he seduces her, and they embark on a passionate affair. Despite Emma's attempts to keep it a secret, their relationship becomes the talk of the town. Charles remains ignorant of his wife's infidelity, and his reputation as a doctor suffers after a botched surgery. Frustrated with her husband's incompetence, Emma continues her affair with Rodolphe and spoils him with lavish gifts.

As her discontent with her life grows, Emma seeks comfort in another affair, this time with Leon. She secretly meets him in Rouen and borrows money from a moneylender to finance their trysts. With mounting debts, Emma becomes desperate and even considers prostitution to obtain funds. However, her former lover refuses to help her, and in a state of despair, Emma ultimately takes her own life by ingesting arsenic.

Realism and Romanticism in Madame Bovary

Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary is a captivating blend of Realism and Romanticism. The novel realistically portrays the mundane and repetitive aspects of daily life, highlighting Emma's dissatisfaction and yearning for something more. This use of Realism is a central theme in the novel, emphasizing the consequences of romanticizing life.

Additionally, Flaubert also incorporates elements of Romanticism throughout the novel. Emma's character is a prime example of this, as she is portrayed as a romantic at heart. She constantly dreams of a luxurious and extravagant lifestyle, mirroring the ideals of Romantic literature. However, these dreams and desires ultimately lead to her tragic fate, showcasing the irony of Romanticism in the novel.


In Madame Bovary, Flaubert masterfully intertwines Realism and Romanticism to create a poignant and tragic story of a woman's desires and the repercussions of her actions. Through these literary techniques, Flaubert highlights the dangers of idealizing life and the importance of facing reality. As Emma's story unfolds, readers are reminded of the power of both Realism and Romanticism in shaping our perceptions and behaviors.

The Paradox of Romanticism in Madame Bovary

Gustave Flaubert's novel, Madame Bovary, serves as a cautionary tale of how romanticism can offer illusions of grandeur, only to end in disappointment and despair. The protagonist, Emma, constantly feels unfulfilled and turns to romantic fantasies to escape her mundane reality. However, these fantasies ultimately lead to her tragic downfall, highlighting the paradox of romanticism in literature.

In a poignant excerpt from the novel, Emma expresses her yearning for a different life, stating, "Everything, including herself, seemed unbearable to her. She wished she could escape like a bird and start anew somewhere beyond the vastness of space" (Part 3, Chapter 6). This excerpt epitomizes the irony of how Emma's dissatisfaction with her own life leads her to indulge in romantic fantasies that are unattainable and unrealistic, ultimately leading to her downfall.

To emphasize the contrast between Emma's reality and her romantic illusions, Flaubert brilliantly shifts between Realist and Romantic descriptions. Flaubert's realist descriptions are straightforward and plain, while his romantic descriptions are elaborate and sensory, providing an intimate glimpse into Emma's imaginative mind.

The Use of Contrasting Writing Styles in Madame Bovary

Gustave Flaubert's novel, Madame Bovary, effectively portrays the contrasts between the realist and romantic writing styles through the characters and their experiences. In a realist scene, Flaubert simply states, "A cat was stalking about the rooftops, arching its back in the last pale rays of sunshine" (Part 1, Chapter 9). On the other hand, in a romantic scene, he vividly depicts Emma's idealistic view of Paris, emphasizing the stark difference between her inner world and the reality of her life. This effectively showcases the main theme of the novel - the human tendency to reject their reality and constantly crave for fanciful illusions, resulting in inevitable downfall.

Themes in Madame Bovary

The novel delves into various themes, including the flaws of the bourgeoisie, women's limitations, and the consequences of not accepting one's reality. Flaubert uses Emma's character to criticize the societal expectations and superficial desires of the bourgeoisie. Emma's constant longing for wealth and indulgence ultimately leads her down a path of self-destruction, showcasing the dangers of living a materialistic life.

Furthermore, Madame Bovary also sheds light on the limitations of women during the 19th century in France. Emma's desires for a different life are constantly hindered by societal norms and expectations, ultimately leading to her confinement and dissatisfaction. Flaubert uses Emma's struggles to highlight the need for change and female empowerment.

The theme of confinement and dissatisfaction is prevalent throughout the novel, with Emma constantly yearning for more and feeling unfulfilled in her life. Flaubert's commentary on the dangers of romanticism and the consequences of rejecting one's reality serves as a cautionary tale for readers.

The Flaws of the Bourgeoisie

Rodolphe, a wealthy and shallow member of the bourgeoisie, embodies their empty and materialistic nature. He takes advantage of Emma's longing for a more thrilling and fulfilling love, using it to manipulate her into an affair. This behavior mirrors the constant pursuit of expensive possessions by the bourgeoisie, quickly discarding them once they lose interest. Similarly, the character of Lheureux highlights the dangers of their aspirations, as he leads Emma into insurmountable debt through manipulation and exploitation.

Women's Constraints and Struggles

In addition, the novel sheds light on the restrictions placed on women during this time. Emma, trapped in her marriage and craving for a more luxurious and exciting lifestyle, finds herself unable to manifest her desires into reality due to her dependence on her husband. Frustrated by her husband's lack of ambition and the societal norms that confine her, Emma yearns for control and power over her own life. As a result, she makes questionable decisions, such as engaging in affairs and overspending, in pursuit of her desires.

However, as her debts become insurmountable and her options run out, Emma finds herself offering to become a prostitute in a desperate attempt to gain independence. This tragic end serves as a cautionary tale against the excesses of the bourgeoisie, emphasizing the need for societal change and the empowerment of women.

In conclusion, Madame Bovary is a thought-provoking novel that effectively portrays the dangers of romanticism, the limitations placed on women, and the flaws of the bourgeoisie. Through Emma's character, Flaubert presents a powerful commentary on societal expectations, emphasizing the importance of accepting one's reality and avoiding the pursuit of fanciful illusions.

Exploring the Tragic Tale of Madame Bovary

Gustave Flaubert's masterpiece Madame Bovary is a powerful reflection of the societal norms and limitations placed on women in 19th century France. In a society that disregards women's agency and values them as perpetual minors, Emma Bovary's quest for autonomy and freedom ultimately leads to her tragic downfall.

In the late 18th century, women in France began to come together in salons to discuss their desire for political and civil rights. This growing feminist sentiment is mirrored in Flaubert's portrayal of Emma's struggle for independence from her husband and their limited lifestyle.

The novel delves into the themes of confinement and discontentment as Emma yearns for something more than her mundane existence. Despite her attempts to break free, she always finds herself back in the same unfulfilling routine. Her affairs with Leon and Rodolphe provide temporary excitement, but are ultimately futile and contribute to her feelings of hopelessness.

Meanwhile, Emma's oblivious husband Charles adds to her feelings of confinement by being content with their monotonous life. As she reflects on her future, Emma sees it as an unending dark corridor with a locked door at the end, symbolizing her entrapment and dissatisfaction.

The Impact of Madame Bovary on Literature

Published in 1856, Madame Bovary not only solidified Realism as a literary movement in France, but also left a lasting influence on many writers including Guy de Maupassant and Jean-Paul Sartre. This novel is a prime example of Realism, with its vivid portrayal of the struggles of individuals in dealing with reality.

While staying true to Realism, Flaubert also incorporates elements of romanticism to depict Emma's inner world and her desires for a lavish lifestyle. However, her spiral into debt and extramarital affairs ultimately leads to her tragic downfall.

The novel touches on several themes, highlighting critiques of the bourgeoisie, the limitations placed on women, and the consequences of confinement and discontentment. Flaubert's masterful exploration of these themes and the complexities of the human experience make Madame Bovary a timeless and thought-provoking read.

Madame Bovary's influence on literature cannot be overstated. Not only did it popularize Realism in France, but it also helped spread the movement to other countries, such as Britain and the United States. The enduring legacy of this novel is a testament to Flaubert's skill in capturing the complexities and struggles of the human condition.

Frequently Asked Questions About Madame Bovary

  • Why is Madame Bovary a famous novel?

Madame Bovary is renowned for its impact on the Realist literary movement in France.

  • What is the main message of Madame Bovary?

Flaubert's novel warns against the dangers of chasing unrealistic fantasies and ignoring the realities of life.

  • What is the plot of Madame Bovary?

The book follows the tragic story of Emma Bovary, a dissatisfied woman who seeks excitement through extramarital affairs and extravagant spending.

  • What is the central point of Madame Bovary?

Madame Bovary is a poignant exploration of an individual's struggle with the harsh truths of reality and the consequences of denial.

  • Who is the titular character in Madame Bovary?

Madame Bovary, or Emma Bovary, is the protagonist in Gustave Flaubert's renowned novel.

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