Dr. Fidel Fajardo-Acosta's

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Published in 1857

Language & Form

French original. Novel. Realism. Free indirect style. Recommended Translation: Francis Steegmuller.


Life, loves, and death of Emma Bovary, a beautiful woman married to a small town doctor, Charles. Dissatisfied with her marriage, Emma has a series of love affairs which eventually lead her to social disgrace, financial ruin, and suicide.

Main Issues

Anti-Romantic novel with underlying Romantic impulses; simultaneous criticism and admiration of Emma Bovary; Emma as base and materialistic but also unfulfilled dreamer, failed Romantic hero, a sort of female Don Quixote; "Madame Bovary, c'est moi" ("Madame Bovary, that's me") (Flaubert);

Flaubert was tried on charges of immorality stemming from the publication of the novel; successfully defended himself arguing that the death of Emma shows the novel's upholding of morality and illustrates the consequences of sin

Critical portrayal of bourgeois life as driven by petty self-interest and hypocrisy. "Triumph of baseness" [i.e. of Homais and the bourgeois way of life] (Rene Wellek)

Belief in possibiliy of genuine professionalism, craftsmanship, and scientific knowledge: Dr. Larivière "who appears fleetingly like an apparition from a saner, loftier world of good sense and professional devotion" (Rene Wellek)

"Redeeming power of art"; "victory of art over reality, a passionate search for Beauty, which he knew to be an illusion" (Rene Wellek)

Narrative technique (free indirect style) blends authorial and characters' perspectives. "The author, in his work, must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere" (Flaubert)


Flaubert's critical attitude toward the bourgeoisie related to the failure of the popular revolutions in France (see French Revolution of 1789) and the growing power, selfishness, and arrogance of the middle classes.
Popular and egalitarian character of 1789 French Revolution betrayed in Napoleon Bonaparte's Consulate (1799-1804) and his later crowning as Emperor of France (r. 1804-1815)

Napoleon as characteristic of the bourgeois adoption of aristocratic values and attitudes; return to monarchic, dictatorial model; denial of the values of freedom and equality embodied in the Revolution of 1789

repeated failures of revolutionary movements in France (1830, 1848); monarchy of Louis-Philippe, king of France (r. 1830-1848); Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte's repetition of his uncle's historical trajectory and favoring of the bourgeoisie at the expense of the popular classes

French middle classes represented in Madame Bovary by the variety of professionals (doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, notaries, bankers, etc.) and townspeople; middle and professional classes marked by seeming "progresiveness" masking underlying selfishness and hypocritical, self-serving purposes

Study Questions

What did Flaubert mean when asserting that, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi" ("Madame Bovary, that's me")? What is his attitude toward the subject of the novel? Does he condemn Emma Bovary? Does he sympathize with her or her situation? Why or why not? Is she a hero or a villain? Are there any aspects of her behavior or personality that make her admirable?

Why is the novel entitled Madame Bovary instead of Emma or Emma Bovary? Why is her married name significant to the title and definition of the novel's focus? What issues does it bring up?

Is Emma happy in her marriage? Why or why not? Are her reasons substantial or purely frivolous? What does her life with Charles have to offer to her? What does she want? What are her dreams and aspirations? Are they valid or are they mere vain fantasies? What does bourgeois, middle class society have to offer to its members? What are the main goals and concerns of such people? What is sacrificed in the pursuit of those goals? What is Flaubert suggesting about the limitations or problems of the world Emma inhabits?

What are the implications of the literary inspiration of Emma's dreams and desires? Is Flaubert condemning literature or is he hinting at deeper issues? How does Emma compare to characters like Don Quixote de la Mancha whose desires and actions are also affected by the literary works he read?

Does Charles love Emma? What are his main concerns in life? What makes him so despicable to her? Is she justified in her feelings or is she merely ungrateful? What is the word "Bovary" derived from? What is Flaubert suggesting?

What is the significance of her fascination with aristocrats like Rodolphe and the Marquis d'Andervilliers? Why is the ball at La Vaubyessard so important to her? What does that experience reveal?

How does Emma compare with those around her? Is she like them or different from them? In what respects? How do the points of comparison and contrast relate to the concerns of the novel? What is Flaubert's attitude to the typically bourgeois, middle class society that Emma is part of? How does Flaubert's assessment of Emma relate to that of the world around her? How is the exposure of her baseness and vulgarity related to those judgments? How is her determination to find happiness related to those judgments?

What is the significance of the descriptions and references to Emma's eyes? How are they described? What is seen in them? What do they symbolize?

How is the issue of adultery treated in the novel? Does Flaubert condemn it (as he claimed in his defense during the legal proceedings brought against him on charges of immorality)? Does he understand it? Is there any relation between Flaubert's narrative and the biblical story of Christ and the adulterous woman whom the crowd wanted to stone to death? How does the novel treat the morality of the middle classes? Does it consider it genuine and honest? Why or why not?

What is the meaning of clothes and clothing in the novel? How about scenes of dressing and undressing? How does this relate to Emma's concern with buying expensive fabrics, clothes, furnishings and decorations?

What is the meaning of Emma and Leon making love in a moving carriage? How does that characterize their relationship? In general, what is the meaning of the representation and description of rotating machines, such as carriages, Binet's lathe, the mill at the end of the story? What is the meaning of such devices in classical and medieval literature? What is Flaubert suggesting about industrial capitalism and the bourgeois spirit behind it? What is the fate of human beings living under such conditions?

How are money and economic issues represented in the novel? What role do they play? Why does money become such a central concern to Emma? How are love and money related?

What is the significance of the image of the snake in the novel? Where is it present (visible or invisible)? In what contexts does it appear? What do serpents generally symbolize in Western literature? How does that apply to their use in the novel? Are there any snake-like characters in the novel? Is the use of poison related to these images?

What is the meaning of the blind beggar that so terrifies Emma? What is his position in society? What does his presence reveal about that society? What is the significance of Homais trying to cure the beggar and then, after the cure fails, vilifying and persecuting him? What does that reveal about Homais's character and intentions?

What kills Emma Bovary? Was her death a suicide or a murder? Why? What kills her literally? Where does the lethal agent come from? What is its source?What are the implications of the gruesome death of Emma? What does the manner of her death suggest or symbolize? What is the meaning of the bridal veil that covers Emma's corpse and the cry of horror of Charles as he lifts it? What did he see?

Who is Maître Guillaumin? What role does he play in the downfall of Emma? What is Flaubert suggesting about him and his character? How does that judgement relate to that of other upstanding professionals and well-respected members of society ( pharmacists, doctors, bankers, merchants, lawyers, accountants, etc.)? Are there any exceptions? What are the implications of Flaubert's emphasis on people's professions? What does that suggest about them and their aims? What about the wider economic and social structure they belong to? How is that judged? How is this novel an act of social criticism? How is it a critical engagement of economic issues?

What is the significance of the young Berthe ending up working at the mill? How is that fate similar to or different from that of her mother? What forces seem to rule the destiny of people in the world depicted by Flaubert? Is there any possibility of happiness, freedom, or fulfillment in such circumstances?

What is the meaning of the ending of the novel with the mention of the awarding of the Legion of Honor to Homais? Is that ironic? What did Flaubert mean by noting that "The devil himself doesn't have a greater following than the pharmacist: the authorities treat him considerately, and public opinion is on his side"?

According to Flaubert, what is a higher standard of judgment, beauty or morality? Where does truth fit in that assessment? Can aesthetics and ethics be reconciled on some plane? What role would truth play in that task? In that sense, what are the ultimate purposes of this novel?


to come

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