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Author Gustave Flaubert
Type of work Novel
Genre Realist fiction
Time and place written Croisset, France; 1851–1857
Date of first publication
Revue de Paris
Narrator In the first chapter, Charles’s classmates narrate
as a first-person plural “we.” It is unclear whether one person
or the whole class is speaking. For the rest of the novel, an omniscient
third-person narrator tells the story. Although the narrator appears to be
objective, he often makes his opinion felt, especially regarding
the ridiculous attempts of his characters’ efforts to appear sophisticated.
Point of view The first chapter is told from the perspective of one
or all of Charles Bovary’s schoolfellows. After that, we see the
world through Charles’s eyes momentarily before being introduced
to Emma. The bulk of the novel recounts events as she experiences them,
though always in the third person and sometimes giving us a brief
glimpse into someone else’s mind. Despite the fact that the narrator
limits most of his attention to Emma, however, there is a fairly
even mix of objective observations of her behavior and subjective
accounts of her thoughts and feelings. Flaubert also often uses
free indirect discourse, the narrative integration of thoughts and
feelings without quotation marks or attribution, to show what his
characters are thinking. After Emma’s death, the narration is mostly
Tone Flaubert’s attitude toward his story and his heroine
is evenly divided between sympathy and ironic contempt. We know
that he identified strongly with his heroine because he once said “Madame
Bovary is me.” His sympathy for her is evident in the way he describes
her passions and the circumstances that conspire against her. He
is also, however, very much aware of how ridiculous attempts at
sophistication by members of the bourgeoisie can be, and he portrays
many of his characters as foolish, ridiculous and grotesque.
Tense Simple past
Setting (time) The mid-1800s
Setting (place) France, including the towns of Tostes, Yonville, and
Protagonist Emma Bovary
Major Conflict Emma wishes for romantic love, wealth, and social status that she
cannot attain because she is married to a middle-class doctor.
Rising action Emma begins borrowing money to pay for gifts for her
first lover, Rodolphe. When he leaves her, she falls ill, and her
husband, Charles, borrows even more money to pay for her care. Emma must
now borrow more and more to pay off her debts and to indulge her
extravagant tastes. She takes a second lover, Leon, but he soon
grows tired of her.
Climax Emma’s primary creditor, Lheureux, insists that she
pay him back and obtains a court order to seize all her property.
Falling action Driven to despair, Emma seeks financial help everywhere,
but can find none; she eats a handful of arsenic and dies. After Emma’s
death, Charles loses everything. He finds out about his wife’s infidelities
and dies a broken man. Emma’s daughter, Berthe, is sent to work
in a cotton mill.
Themes The inadequacy of language; the powerlessness of women;
the shortcomings of the bourgeois class
Motifs Death and illness, windows, eating
Symbols The blind beggar, dried flowers, the lathe
Foreshadowing Emma’s financial ruin is foreshadowed as early as the
novel’s first chapter, when Flaubert introduces the danger of poorly
handled finances by describing the incompetent money management
of Charles’ family members. The appearance of Lheureux, coupled with
his early efforts to tempt Emma, foreshadows the eventual nature
of her downfall: she will get herself further and further into debt
with the moneylender. Emma’s romantic disappointments are foreshadowed
as well; with both Rodolphe and Leon, we see early on that their
feelings for Emma are neither as strong nor as durable as she might
wish. Finally, the arsenic with which Emma commits suicide is shown
to us six chapters before she ends her life.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Madame Bovary!