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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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Madame Bovary!