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Exploring the Three Main Themes in "Madame Bovary"

written by: R. Elizabeth C. Kitchen • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 7/12/2012

Madame Bovary is a book many students may have to read and analyze during High School. If you need some help understanding the themes in the novel, read on.

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    Madame Bovary, authored by Gustave Flaubert, is a novel centered around Emma. A farm girl, Emma lives in France in a provincial village very far from Paris. She marries Doctor Charles Bovary, but quickly becomes bored with him. She then finds a rich landowner and they become lovers, but he then rejects her. Emma then begins a relationship with a law clerk. Through all of this she is still married to Doctor Charles Bovary who knows nothing of her affairs, or about how Emma has ruined him with her poor management, waste, and self-indulgence. Learning and understanding the Madam Bovary themes allows us to fully embrace the novel, the story it is telling, and how it relates to life.

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    Inadequacy of Language

    This novel looks at the possibility that the written word may be unable to capture even a small component of the depth and profoundness that is part of a human life. The author utilizes several different methods to show how language is often not the proper way to express ideas and emotions. The continual failure of the characters when trying to communicate with one another is representative of words not being able to perfectly describe what they insinuate and imply.

    For example, during the first chapter of Madame Bovary, Charles' teacher believes he stated his name is “Charbovari". Charles failed and ensuring his own name was understood. This inability to clearly state what is meant is something Emma will face over and over as she attempts to make her love known to Rodolphe or express her distress to the priest. It also happens when Charles reads Rodolphes' letter and misreads it as a expressing platonic affection.

    The lies that fill this novel reinforce the inadequacy of language in Madam Bovary. They also lend to the belief that words may be more capable of concealing the truth or giving the opposite, rather than portraying the truth itself. “A tissue of lies" describes Emmas' life. She comes up with story after story to keep her husband from finding out about her affairs. Rodolphe also tells many lies concerning his love for Emma that he believes her words are insincere as well. The author shows that because of the lying, the lovers make it impossible for the truth in thing to ever be touched on with words.

    The strong sense of this Madame Bovary theme is often strong due to reacting against realism. The author was a realist in some ways, but he also felt it was not right to state that realism gave a more precise look at life than romanticism. He dismisses contradictory details and events to create a tension among the many characters' experience of events, as well as the real parts of life. Through combining literal realistic narration and ironic romanticism, the author captures and seizes this novels' characters, as well as their trials and endeavors more completely than a wholly romantic or strictly literal style would permit.

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    Failures of the Bourgeoisie

    Emma was not satisfied with the French bourgeoisie world and this is largely responsible for her disappointments. Emma yearns for a more sophisticated and refined taste than her social class provides.. This dissatisfaction imitates an increasing historical and social trend during the latter part of the nineteenth century. During the time Gustave Flaubert was writing this novel, “bourgeois" was a term referring to the middle class: the people who lacked the ancestry and independent wealth of the nobility, but at the same time whose professions did not consist of having to perform manual labor to make a living. Their preferences were described as gaudily materialistic. Without discrimination, they indulged within their means. This theme demonstrates how potentially harmful and ridiculous the trappings and attitudes that the bourgeoisie possessed can be.

    During pharmacist Homais' long and pretentious speeches, the author ridicules the conceit and hypocrisy of the bourgeois class to faith, learning, and knowledge in how powerful technologies are they do not fully understand. Homais was depicted as funny, but he was dangerous. He pushes Charles to experiment with a new medical procedure which results in his patient developing gangrene and then losing his leg. Homais causes further damage when Emma is poisoned and he tries to treat her. Later, he attempts to boast by creating an antidote after analyzing the poison. After all of this, Homais is told by another doctor that Emma could have been easily saved if he would have just put his finger down her throat.

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    Powerlessness of Women

    The author takes several opportunities to demonstrate the struggles and challenges women faced during this time. Emma hopes her baby will be a boy because she believes that “a woman is always hampered”. Throughout this novel, readers will see how the men in Emmas life, including Charles, have the power to change her life in both good and bad ways. She herself does not have this power. Charles' incompetence keeps him from moving ahead to a higher social level that could possibly make Emma happier and satisfy her desires for the finer things in life. His laziness keeps him from being a better doctor. Because of this, Emma is trapped in a country town with little money.

    Rodolphe is a wealthy man with much financial power and able to take Emma from her current life into one she strongly desires, but he leaves her. Being a woman, she is not capable of leaving on her own. Leon initially seems to share Emmas' feelings about being dissatisfied with country life. Both Leon and Emma want to flee to bigger and better things. However, since Leon is a man, he is able to actually flee to the city to fulfill his dream, while Emma has to remain in Yonville, chained to her child and her husband.

    Ultimately, Madame Bovary's moral structure forces Emma to take responsibility for her actions. She simply cannot blame all that is wrong in her life on the men she surrounds herself with. Emma chose to cheat on Charles and this choice results in him being fatally wounded in the end. However, Emmas' only two choices were to remain faithful to Charles regardless of how dull their marriage was or commit adultery. Emma chose adultery because it gave her the chance to fully have power and control over her own destiny. The men during this time had property and wealth, but as a woman, Emma only had her body to influence others, a form of power she can only use in secret where the price is shame and deception.

    When Emma desperately begged men for money so that she could pay off debts, the men would give her the money, but only in exchange for sexual favors. She eventually tries tries to convince Rodolphe to pay her debts in exchange for her being his lover. Her suicide was even made possible through her using her physical charms, which were aimed at Justin, who permits Emma to get into the cupboard where the arsenic is. For Emma to even take her own life, she had to use her sexual power in order to convince Justin that if he truly loves her, he will give her what she wants.