Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary Themes

A Woman's Fruitless Quest for Freedom and Power

Throughout Madame Bovary, Flaubert continually reminds the reader that women in his time tend to define themselves and be defined primarily through the men in their lives, with limited power to live independently and pursue their own interests. In some ways, the entire novel depicts the struggle to assert freedom and power, though Emma is far from worthy of emulation in her methods. Emma keeps trying to develop a more glamorous life, but feels bogged down first by her husband and then by lovers who continue to fail her. At home with Charles, Emma spends much of her time looking out the window, as though she lives her life merely as a spectator. Emma is largely at fault for the tragedy that befalls her, growing increasingly desperate in her attempts to make something more of herself.

Since childhood, Emma has dreamt of the perfect romance, the perfect love that would give her a life of ultimate happiness. Clearly, in her mind this happiness can only be reached with a man by her side. When Emma is in her most desperate state at the end of the novel, immediately before committing suicide, she again turns to men for assistance. Most often, when she appeals to men, she is denied assistance--even when attempting to prostitute herself for the funds she requires to pay her debts. Emma comes to believe that her only source of power is her sexuality, but even that cannot prevent her destruction--a boy in love with her agrees to give her access to arsenic.

Bourgeois Airs and Bourgeois Mediocrity

Flaubert presents a tale of a middle-class bourgeois woman who is unsatisfied with her life and struggles to find something greater. Her fantastical impressions of high-class events, such as the ball she and Charles attend, are almost humorous in their unreality. At the ball, no one even notices Emma, but for months after the event, she can picture every detail of the evening.

Homais truly epitomizes Flaubert's impression of bourgeois mediocrity. Homais loves to pontificate about various subjects in which he believes himself an expert but is not. For instance, it is Homais who reads the article about clubfoot surgery and convinces Charles that together the two can perform the task. Later on, at Emma's bedside, Homais speaks to the professional doctor called in from Rouen, explaining how he attempted to examine Emma's mouth by carefully "introducing" a piece of tubing. The reader can imagine the doctor's look of disgust as he retorts that it would have been better to "introduce" his fingers to her mouth. Although he apparently despises the bourgeois class, Flaubert accepts that the bourgeois are often successful. As the novel ends, Homais is described as having been awarded the medal of the Legion of Honor.