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.