Discuss social 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 distinctions meaningful?
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 poor.
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.
Compare and 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.