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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
A picture of physical decay, the blind beggar who follows the carriage in which Emma rides to meet Leon also symbolizes Emma’s moral corruption. He sings songs about “birds and sunshine and green leaves” in a voice “like an inarticulate lament of some vague despair.” This coupling of innocence with disease relates to the combination of beauty and corruption that Emma herself has become. While her words, appearance, and fantasies are those of an innocent and beautiful wife, her spirit becomes foul and corrupt as she indulges herself in adulterous temptations and the deceptions required to maintain her illicit affairs. Later, when Emma dies, the blind man gets to the end of his song about a young girl dreaming. We then discover that what we thought was a song about an innocent woman is actually a bawdy, sexual song. This progression from innocence to sexual degradation mirrors the path of Emma’s life.
When Emma comes home with Charles, she notices his dead wife’s wedding bouquet in the bedroom and wonders what will happen to her own bouquet when she dies. Later, when they move to Yonville, she burns her own bouquet as a gesture of defiance against her unhappy marriage. The dried bouquet stands for disappointed hopes, and for the new promise of a wedding day turned sour and old. In another sense, Emma’s burning of her bouquet foreshadows the way her desires will consume her youth and, eventually, her life.
Binet’s habit of making useless napkin rings on his lathe is a symbol with several meanings. First, it represents the useless, nonproductive, ornamental character of bourgeois tastes. Second, it represents something more ominous—the monotony of the life that traps Emma. In the scene in which she contemplates throwing herself out the window, Emma hears the sound of the lathe calling her to suicide. Finally, the lathe represents the craftsman repeatedly making a simple, uniform work of art. Flaubert once compared himself as a writer to a craftsman working on a lathe.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Madame Bovary!