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Madame Bovary

Gustave Flaubert


Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Inadequacy of Language

Madame Bovary explores the possibility that the written word fails to capture even a small part of the depth of a human life. Flaubert uses a variety of techniques to show how language is often an inadequate medium for expressing emotions and ideas. The characters’ frequent inability to communicate with each other is emblematic of the fact that words do not perfectly describe what they signify. In the first chapter, for example, Charles’s teacher thinks he says his name is “Charbovari.” He fails to make his own name understood. This inadequacy of speech is something Emma will encounter again and again as she tries to make her distress known to the priest or to express her love to Rodolphe. It is also present when Charles reads the letter from Rodolphe and misinterprets it as a note of platonic affection.

The lies that fill Madame Bovary contribute to the sense of language’s inadequacy in the novel, and to the notion that words may be more effective for the purposes of obscuring the truth or conveying its opposite, than for representing the truth itself. Emma’s life is described as “a tissue of lies.” She invents story after story to prevent her husband from discovering her affairs. Similarly, Rodolphe tells so many lies about his love for Emma that he assumes her words are also insincere. Flaubert points out that by lying the lovers make it impossible for words ever to touch at the truth in things.

The strong sense of the inadequacy of language is in part a reaction against the school of realism. Although Flaubert was in some senses a realist, he also believed it was wrong to claim that realism provided a more accurate picture of life than romanticism. He deploys ironic romantic descriptions to establish a tension between various characters’ experience of events and the real aspects of life. By combining ironic romanticism and literal realistic narration, Flaubert captures his characters and their struggles mormore fully than a strictly literal or a wholesale romantic style would allow.

The Powerlessness of Women

Emma Bovary’s hope that her baby will be a man because “a woman is always hampered” is just one of the many instances in the novel in which Flaubert demonstrates an intimate understanding of the plight of women in his time. We see throughout Madame Bovary how Emma’s male companions possess the power to change her life for better or worse—a power that she herself lacks. Even Charles contributes to Emma’s powerlessness. His laziness prevents him from becoming a good doctor, and his incompetence prevents him from advancing into a higher social stratum that might satisfy Emma’s yearnings. As a result, Emma is stuck in a country town without much money. Rodolphe, who possesses the financial power to whisk Emma away from her life, abandons her, and, as a woman, she is incapable of fleeing on her own. Leon at first seems similar to Emma. Both are discontented with country life, and both dream of bigger and better things. But because Leon is a man, he has the power to actually fulfill his dream of moving to the city, whereas Emma must stay in Yonville, shackled to a husband and child.

Ultimately, however, the novel’s moral structure requires that Emma assume responsibility for her own actions. She can’t blame everything on the men around her. She freely chooses to be unfaithful to Charles, and her infidelities wound him fatally in the end. On the other hand, in Emma’s situation, the only two choices she has are to take lovers or to remain faithful in a dull marriage. Once she has married Charles, the choice to commit adultery is Emma’s only means of exercising power over her own destiny. While men have access to wealth and property, the only currency Emma possesses to influence others is her body, a form of capital she can trade only in secret with the price of shame and the added expense of deception. When she pleads desperately for money to pay her debts, men offer the money in return for sexual favors. Eventually, she tries to win back Rodolphe as a lover if he will pay her debts. Even her final act of suicide is made possible by a transaction funded with her physical charms, which are dispensed toward Justin, who allows Emma access to the cupboard where the arsenic is kept. Even to take her own life, she must resort to sexual power, using Justin’s love for her to convince him to do what she wants.

The Failures of the Bourgeoisie

Emma’s disappointments stem in great part from her dissatisfaction with the world of the French bourgeoisie. She aspires to have taste that is more refined and sophisticated than that of her class. This frustration reflects a rising social and historical trend of the last half of the nineteenth century. At the time Flaubert was writing, the word “bourgeois” referred to the middle class: people who lacked the independent wealth and ancestry of the nobility, but whose professions did not require them to perform physical labor to earn their living. Their tastes were characterized as gaudily materialistic. They indulged themselves as their means allowed, but without discrimination. The mediocrity of the bourgeoisie was frustrating to -Flaubert, and he used Emma Bovary’s disgust with her class as a way of conveying his own hatred for the middle class. Madame Bovary shows how ridiculous, stifling, and potentially harmful the attitudes and trappings of the bourgeoisie can be. In the pharmacist Homais’s long-winded, know-it-all speeches, Flaubert mocks the bourgeois class’s pretensions to knowledge and learning and its faith in the power of technologies that it doesn’t completely understand. But Homais is not just funny; he is also dangerous. When he urges Charles to try a new medical procedure on Hippolyte, the patient acquires gangrene and then loses his leg. Homais does even greater damage when he attempts to treat Emma for her poisoning. He tries to show off by analyzing the poison and coming up with an antidote. Later, a doctor will tell him that he should have simply stuck a finger down Emma’s throat to save her life.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Death and Illness

There are many disturbing references to death and illness in Madame Bovary, and the novel can seem very morbid. These references emphasize Flaubert’s realistic, unflinching description of the world, and also act as physical manifestations of Emma’s moral decay. For example, Lestiboudois grows potatoes in the graveyard because the decomposing bodies help them grow, and Homais keeps fetuses in jars. Similarly, Hippolyte loses his leg to gangrene, the blind beggar with festering skin follows the carriage to and from Rouen, and, when Emma faints in Part Two, Chapter XIII, Homais wakes her up with smelling salts, saying, “this thing would resuscitate a corpse!” Such excessive corruption is a comment on the physical state of the world. Flaubert constantly reminds us that death and decay lurk beneath the surface of everyday life, and that innocence is often coupled very closely with corruption. This focus on the negative aspects of life is part of Flaubert’s realism.


Windows are frequently associated with Emma. We often see her looking out of them, or we glimpse her through them from the street as she waves goodbye to Charles or Leon. For Emma, these windows represent the possibility of escape. A shutter bangs open to announce her engagement, and she contemplates jumping out the attic window to commit suicide. But Emma never manages to really escape. She stays inside the window, looking out at the world and imagining a freedom that she never can obtain. Windows also serve to take Emma back to the past. At the ball, when the servant breaks the window and Emma sees the peasants outside, she is suddenly reminded of her simple childhood. Such a retreat to childhood also could be a kind of escape for Emma, who would surely be much happier if she stopped striving to escape that simple life. But, again, she ignores the possibility of escape, trapping herself within her own desires for romantic ideals of wealth she can’t obtain.


The quantity of food consumed in Madame Bovary could feed an army for a week. From Emma’s wedding feast to the Bovarys’ daily dinner, Flaubert’s characters are frequently eating, and the way they eat reveals important character traits. Charles’s atrocious table manners, magnified through Emma’s disgust, reveal him to be boorish and lacking in sophistication. When Emma is shown sucking her fingers or licking out the bottom of a glass, we see a base animal sensuality and a lust for physical satisfaction in her that all her pretensions to refinement cannot conceal. Finally, when Emma goes to the ball, the exquisite table manners of the nobles and the fine foods they consume signify the refinement and sophistication of their class. In each of these cases, what one eats or how one eats is an indicator of social class.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Blind Beggar

A picture of physical decay, the blind beggar who follows the carriage in which Emma rides to meet Leon also symbolizes Emma’s moral corruption. He sings songs about “birds and sunshine and green leaves” in a voice “like an inarticulate lament of some vague despair.” This coupling of innocence with disease relates to the combination of beauty and corruption that Emma herself has become. While her words, appearance, and fantasies are those of an innocent and beautiful wife, her spirit becomes foul and corrupt as she indulges herself in adulterous temptations and the deceptions required to maintain her illicit affairs. Later, when Emma dies, the blind man gets to the end of his song about a young girl dreaming. We then discover that what we thought was a song about an innocent woman is actually a bawdy, sexual song. This progression from innocence to sexual degradation mirrors the path of Emma’s life.

Dried Flowers

When Emma comes home with Charles, she notices his dead wife’s wedding bouquet in the bedroom and wonders what will happen to her own bouquet when she dies. Later, when they move to Yonville, she burns her own bouquet as a gesture of defiance against her unhappy marriage. The dried bouquet stands for disappointed hopes, and for the new promise of a wedding day turned sour and old. In another sense, Emma’s burning of her bouquet foreshadows the way her desires will consume her youth and, eventually, her life.

The Lathe

Binet’s habit of making useless napkin rings on his lathe is a symbol with several meanings. First, it represents the useless, nonproductive, ornamental character of bourgeois tastes. Second, it represents something more ominous—the monotony of the life that traps Emma. In the scene in which she contemplates throwing herself out the window, Emma hears the sound of the lathe calling her to suicide. Finally, the lathe represents the craftsman repeatedly making a simple, uniform work of art. Flaubert once compared himself as a writer to a craftsman working on a lathe.

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The ___ that fill Madame Bovary contribute to the sense of language’s inadequacy in the novel.
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Essay- Evolutionary Perspective

by Celestial-moon-fire, March 20, 2013

Emma's behaviour could be explored as an effect of sexual selection, which is a form of selection that drives Evolution. Similar to Peacocks, where teh females choose the most attractive mate for reproduction, Emma wants a more attractive and intresting man to pass on her genetic inheritance.


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Discuss the themes of the novel Madame Bovary.

by touhidsm, May 06, 2014

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Theme is one of the most important issues in a literary composition that conveys some universal ideas and truth. Here in the novel titled “Madame Bovary”, written by a French novelist, Gustave Flaubert, there are several dominating themes. The themes, the inadequacy of expression, the powerles... Read more


20 out of 22 people found this helpful

Character of Emma Bovary:

by touhidsm, May 06, 2014

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Madame Bovary is a French novel in English written by Gustave Flaubert. In this novel, Emma Bovary is the protagonist whose tragic downfall is caused by the romantic sentimentalism in her life. The sentimentalism is so powerful that she cannot come out of it. Her character is being nicely described below.

Emma's early life influenced her entire approach to life. She was born with a natural tendency t... Read more


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