Charles represents both the society and the personal characteristics that Emma detests. He is incompetent, stupid, and unimaginative. In one of the novel’s most revelatory moments, Charles looks into Emma’s eyes and sees not her soul but rather his own image, reflected in miniature. Charles’s perception of his own reflection is not narcissistic but merely a simple, direct sensation, unmediated by romantic notions. The moment demonstrates his inability to imagine an idealized version of the world or find mystic qualities in the world’s physical aspects. Instead, he views life literally and never imbues what he sees with romantic import. Thus it is the physical aspects of Emma that delight Charles. When the narrative focuses on his point of view, we see every detail of her dress, her skin, and her hair. When it comes to her aspirations and depressions, however, Charles is at a loss. He nods and smiles dumbly as Emma conducts the same sorts of conversations with him that she does with her dog. Charles is too stupid to manage his money well or to see through Emma’s obvious lies, and he is a frighteningly incompetent doctor. In one scene, as he goes to repair Rouault’s leg, we learn that he is trying desperately to “call to mind all the fractures he [knows].” His operation on Hippolyte’s clubfoot, while it is not his idea, is a complete failure. Charles is more than merely incompetent, however. He is physically repulsive, though it’s hard to tell from Flaubert’s descriptions whether he is actually an ugly man or whether he appears disgusting only through Emma’s eyes.
Despite his unimaginative nature, Charles is one of the novel’s most moral and sincere characters. He truly loves Emma, forgiving her even when he finally recognizes her infidelities. He does everything he can to save her when she is ill, and he gives her the benefit of the doubt whenever her lies seem to fail her. Literal-minded, humble, free of temptations, and without aspirations, Charles is Emma’s opposite. While she possesses some beauty, sensitivity, and intelligence despite her moral corruption, Charles remains good-hearted despite his boorishness and stupidity.
More characters from Madame Bovary
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