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class in Madame Bovary. Is Emma a sophisticated aristocrat born
by mistake into a bourgeois prison, or is she simply a middle-class
girl obsessed with a richer life? In the world of the novel, are these
Class distinctions mean everything in the
world of Madame Bovary, especially to its heroine.
Flaubert makes it clear that Emma is strictly middle-class by providing
contrasts to her station in life. Rodolphe and the guests at the
Marquis d’Andervilliers’s ball represent the wealthy and noble.
Emma’s wet nurse, Hippolyte, and the blind beggar represent the
Emma is frequently conscious of both those above her
station and those below it, and her opinions of those people provide
a way of understanding her social station. One of the truly refined
characters in the novel is the Marquis d’Andervilliers. When the
Marquis invites her to his ball, it is because he knows that she
is well--mannered and will not embarrass him. This might be taken
as a sign that she really is a sophisticated woman whom circumstance
has forced to live a middle-class life. On the other hand, her love
for the opera, a genre that is considered by the well-educated to
be ridiculous, is a sign that her tastes are coarse. Later, when
she has to degrade herself and bargain mercilessly to raise money,
her identity as a peasant manifests itself. Flaubert suggests that
Emma can’t escape her peasant roots, saying that her farm-bred nature
reveals itself no matter how sophisticated she tries to appear.
What role does
fate play in Emma’s downfall? To what degree does she have power
over her own destiny?
Rodolphe, in his letter breaking off the
affair with Emma, claims that “fate is to blame”; later, when Charles
meets Rodolphe after Emma’s death, he, too, rationalizes that “fate
willed it this way.” In a sense, they are right. Fate, chance, or,
more precisely, matters of social and economic class, certainly
do play a role. After all, it is not a function of Emma’s will that
she was born into a middle-class family; nor is it her fault that
her lovers abandon her. It is even possible that her romantic, idealistic
nature is a result of fate, and that Emma can’t control her actions
because she can’t control her own identity or her natural inclinations.
But there are two other factors that contribute to Emma’s downfall.
The first is Emma herself—an agent making her own decisions. Emma
chooses to marry Charles, she chooses to take lovers, and she chooses
to borrow money from Lheureux. She also chooses to commit suicide,
proving in a final act that she has power—if only a negative destructive
power—over her own life. The second factor that contributes to Emma’s
downfall is the men around her. Charles’s inability to satisfy her
creates a real trap for Emma in combination with Rodolphe’s jaded
heartlessness and Lheureux’s greedy scheming. Although she makes
her own choices, these men severely limit the options she has at
her disposal. Charles and Rodolphe’s claim that blaming fate is
too easy an excuse, both for Emma and for themselves.
contrast Charles and Rodolphe. What are their attitudes about love?
How does each respond to Emma?
On the surface, Charles and Rodolphe could
not be more different. Charles has terrible table manners; Rodolphe
is gentlemanly and refined. When Charles declares his love for Emma,
he does so awkwardly. He is too shy to speak to her himself, so
he talks to her father—but even then he can’t articulate his request,
and Rouault has to prompt him. When Rodolphe, on the other hand,
declares his love, he goes on and on in a flowery speech that he
delivers in person. The depth of love conveyed by these two very
different confessions is also opposite. Rodolphe has no real love
for Emma; to him, she is just a plaything. In contrast, Charles
loves her deeply, thinks of her constantly, and forgives her no
matter what she does.
Despite their many differences, however, Rodolphe and
Charles have one thing in common: they both fall in love with Emma
for her physical beauty. Each time we see Emma through their eyes,
it is her looks that move them. Even Charles, who truly loves Emma,
never looks more deeply than her daily movements around the house:
he loves to watch her play the piano or do her embroidery.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Madame Bovary!