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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Madame Bovary explores the possibility that the written word fails to capture even a small part of the depth of a human life. Flaubert uses a variety of techniques to show how language is often an inadequate medium for expressing emotions and ideas. The characters’ frequent inability to communicate with each other is emblematic of the fact that words do not perfectly describe what they signify. In the first chapter, for example, Charles’s teacher thinks he says his name is “Charbovari.” He fails to make his own name understood. This inadequacy of speech is something Emma will encounter again and again as she tries to make her distress known to the priest or to express her love to Rodolphe. It is also present when Charles reads the letter from Rodolphe and misinterprets it as a note of platonic affection.
The lies that fill Madame Bovary contribute to the sense of language’s inadequacy in the novel, and to the notion that words may be more effective for the purposes of obscuring the truth or conveying its opposite, than for representing the truth itself. Emma’s life is described as “a tissue of lies.” She invents story after story to prevent her husband from discovering her affairs. Similarly, Rodolphe tells so many lies about his love for Emma that he assumes her words are also insincere. Flaubert points out that by lying the lovers make it impossible for words ever to touch at the truth in things.
The strong sense of the inadequacy of language is in part a reaction against the school of realism. Although Flaubert was in some senses a realist, he also believed it was wrong to claim that realism provided a more accurate picture of life than romanticism. He deploys ironic romantic descriptions to establish a tension between various characters’ experience of events and the real aspects of life. By combining ironic romanticism and literal realistic narration, Flaubert captures his characters and their struggles mormore fully than a strictly literal or a wholesale romantic style would allow.
Emma Bovary’s hope that her baby will be a man because “a woman is always hampered” is just one of the many instances in the novel in which Flaubert demonstrates an intimate understanding of the plight of women in his time. We see throughout Madame Bovary how Emma’s male companions possess the power to change her life for better or worse—a power that she herself lacks. Even Charles contributes to Emma’s powerlessness. His laziness prevents him from becoming a good doctor, and his incompetence prevents him from advancing into a higher social stratum that might satisfy Emma’s yearnings. As a result, Emma is stuck in a country town without much money. Rodolphe, who possesses the financial power to whisk Emma away from her life, abandons her, and, as a woman, she is incapable of fleeing on her own. Leon at first seems similar to Emma. Both are discontented with country life, and both dream of bigger and better things. But because Leon is a man, he has the power to actually fulfill his dream of moving to the city, whereas Emma must stay in Yonville, shackled to a husband and child.
Ultimately, however, the novel’s moral structure requires that Emma assume responsibility for her own actions. She can’t blame everything on the men around her. She freely chooses to be unfaithful to Charles, and her infidelities wound him fatally in the end. On the other hand, in Emma’s situation, the only two choices she has are to take lovers or to remain faithful in a dull marriage. Once she has married Charles, the choice to commit adultery is Emma’s only means of exercising power over her own destiny. While men have access to wealth and property, the only currency Emma possesses to influence others is her body, a form of capital she can trade only in secret with the price of shame and the added expense of deception. When she pleads desperately for money to pay her debts, men offer the money in return for sexual favors. Eventually, she tries to win back Rodolphe as a lover if he will pay her debts. Even her final act of suicide is made possible by a transaction funded with her physical charms, which are dispensed toward Justin, who allows Emma access to the cupboard where the arsenic is kept. Even to take her own life, she must resort to sexual power, using Justin’s love for her to convince him to do what she wants.
Emma’s disappointments stem in great part from her dissatisfaction with the world of the French bourgeoisie. She aspires to have taste that is more refined and sophisticated than that of her class. This frustration reflects a rising social and historical trend of the last half of the nineteenth century. At the time Flaubert was writing, the word “bourgeois” referred to the middle class: people who lacked the independent wealth and ancestry of the nobility, but whose professions did not require them to perform physical labor to earn their living. Their tastes were characterized as gaudily materialistic. They indulged themselves as their means allowed, but without discrimination. The mediocrity of the bourgeoisie was frustrating to -Flaubert, and he used Emma Bovary’s disgust with her class as a way of conveying his own hatred for the middle class. Madame Bovary shows how ridiculous, stifling, and potentially harmful the attitudes and trappings of the bourgeoisie can be. In the pharmacist Homais’s long-winded, know-it-all speeches, Flaubert mocks the bourgeois class’s pretensions to knowledge and learning and its faith in the power of technologies that it doesn’t completely understand. But Homais is not just funny; he is also dangerous. When he urges Charles to try a new medical procedure on Hippolyte, the patient acquires gangrene and then loses his leg. Homais does even greater damage when he attempts to treat Emma for her poisoning. He tries to show off by analyzing the poison and coming up with an antidote. Later, a doctor will tell him that he should have simply stuck a finger down Emma’s throat to save her life.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Madame Bovary!