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Madame Bovary

Term Definition
Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary is the French writer Gustave Flaubert's debut novel. The story focuses on a doctor's wife, Emma Bovary, who has adulterous affairs and lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of provincial life.

Background information about Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary was written by French author Gustave Flaubert. His debut novel, it focuses on a doctor’s wife named Emma Rouault. Emma is looking to participate in adulterous affairs and lives far beyond her means in an attempt to escape from her empty, banal provincial life. Bored with her husband who is in failing health, Emma becomes romantically interested in Leon, a young law clerk and becomes negligent of her husband and their daughter. When Leon leaves for law school, her frustration and dissatisfaction only grow. Though her husband tries in vain to capture her affections, she is unimpressed with his efforts. Finally, Emma is able to have the affair she has been craving, but afterwards becomes gravely ill.

After she recovers, she encounters Leon and begins another affair with him. To visit him every week, she spends her husband’s money foolishly and incurs a large amount of debt. Secretly, she obtains Power of Attorney over her husband’s affairs so that she has full control of his money. When collectors come to seize her property, she is distraught. Neither of her lovers will assist her, and Emma poisons herself in shame. Shortly after, her husband dies, broken and ruined, and their daughter is left alone in poverty. 

The role of gender as a core theme

A major theme in this story is the powerlessness of women. Though Emma is somewhat of a villain in this story, there is no question that she is oppressed. She hopes that her baby will be a boy because she says “a woman is always hampered”. The men in Emma’s life have more of a chance at influencing and improving her life than she does. Her husband has opportunity to improve their financial situation before he falls ill, but he is lazy, which prevents him from advancing to a higher social circle and becoming a successful doctor. Her first lover has the financial means to change Emma’s life, and she believes that he will whisk her away, but instead he abandons her. While Leon does not have a large sum of money on his own, he is able to move to the city and attend law school in order to improve his position, while Emma must stay home to attend her husband and child, as the expectations of that time dictate. Emma truly has no means of improving her own life.

Information about the author

As stated before, Madame Bovary was Flaubert’s first novel. Though the plot is a simple one, the beauty of the novel lies truly in the hidden patterns and intricate details. Flaubert was a perfectionist and obsessed over always finding the perfect word. When published in the winter of 1856, it was criticized for being obscene. He was charged by public prosecutors and went to trial the following February. The trail made the novel famous and when Madame Bovary was published as a single volume in April of 1857, it quickly became a best seller. It is now considered to be Flaubert’s masterpiece and an prominent realism piece that is one of the most influential novels ever to be written. 

The book was partially inspired by a school friend of Flaubert’s who went on to become a doctor. His mentor suggested that he write the book in a natural way without digressions in order to produce a down-to-earth tone. Flaubert wrote the novel in the style of Balzac, creating an impeccable example of realism. The realist movement was a reply to romanticism. Emma can be considered a romantic- she has no regard for reality and rather spends her time living in dreams. Flaubert mocks her daydreams and her taste. The book is seen as commentary on the foolishness of impossible aspirations. It speaks out against self-satisfied, deluded personal culture and demonstrates the dangers of falling into dreamy delusions rather than remaining cemented in reality.

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