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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 objective.
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.
Emma wishes for romantic love, wealth, and social status that she cannot attain because she is married to a middle-class doctor.
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.
Emma’s primary creditor, Lheureux, insists that she pay him back and obtains a court order to seize all her property.
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.
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!