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THEMES

The following are themes of Madame Bovary.

1. BLINDNESS

The blind beggar whose melancholy song Emma hears just before she dies symbolizes the lack of insight that characterizes the main figures in Madame Bovary. Charles might also be thought of as blind-to Emma's unhappiness and to her unfaithfulness. Even when he discovers Rodolphe's and Leon's letters at the end of the novel, he still refuses to accept the truth. For her part, Emma is unable to see through either her own self-deceiving view of life or the deceptions of others. She idealizes her lovers and is fooled by both the false ideas of Homais and the unscrupulous practices of Lheureux.

2. INADEQUACY AND FAILURE

Madame Bovary is a record of Emma's failure to find a life which corresponds to the vague, romantic notions which she has read about. Each failure leads to another attempt at self-fulfillment. She accepts Charles' marriage proposal, thinking that a life with him will solve the boredom of life on her father's farm. But Charles becomes the symbol of everything inadequate or wrong with her life. The failure of the clubfoot operation represents both Emma's thwarted expectations and Charles' mediocrity.

3. HUMAN INSENSITIVITY

Most of the relationships in Madame Bovary are marked by an extreme lack of sensitivity and love. Despite her dreams of romance, Emma is not particularly loving and seems to care little for others, even her own child. Others, like Father Bournisien and Homais, talk about humanity but ignore actual human suffering. Husbands and wives like Emma and Charles and the elder Bovarys live in a state of separation, marked by either silence or antagonism. Lack of communication, at best, and cruelty, at worst, replace human sympathy. Even Emma's affairs lack real feeling and mutuality, with each of the partners focused inward instead of on each other.


Some readers take the bleak picture of human relationships drawn by Flaubert as evidence of his fundamental pessimism about life. Others consider it a reflection of his own failure in personal relationships.

4. THE "DISEASE" OF ROMANTICISM

Some readers feel that Madame Bovary is a novel about the dangers of reading romantic novels since Emma's image of romance developed from the books she read at the convent school. These books reflected the more exuberant aspects of Romanticism, a literary and artistic movement that focused on the expression of the emotional and imaginative life of the individual. Emma gorged herself on fixed ideas about ideal romance, but since fantasy is rarely like reality, she creates chaos all around her when she imposes these dreams on her daily life. She actually becomes ill after romantic episodes in her life. It's at this point that Romanticism might be considered a disease.

Readers are divided in their interpretation of Flaubert's attitude toward Emma. Some feel that Emma destroys herself and her family by trying to make her dreams reality. Others interpret her romantic feelings as a form of rebellion against the monotony of middle-class life. For these readers even a corrupt form of Romanticism is better than the life-style epitomized by Charles and Homais.

5. ILLUSION VS. REALITY

Emma's dreams do not correspond to the reality of her life. She imagines an ideal life of romance, yet is trapped in a marriage she despises. This reality, however, does not prevent her from imposing the romantic illusion on her life. But in trying to do so, she destroys herself and her family.

6. MANNERS AND CUSTOMS OF PROVINCIAL LIFE

Flaubert explores the hollowness of nineteenth-century middle-class French life. In his detailed descriptions of the clothing, speech, and work habits of his characters, he portrays-often scornfully-the monotony and hypocrisy of small-town life. Dr. Lariviere, who appears at Emma's deathbed, and Catherine Leroux, the old woman who receives an award at the Agricultural Show for fifty-four years of dedicated service, are among the few characters for whom Flaubert exhibits any genuine sympathy. They've worked hard all their lives without pretense or illusion. Remember that Flaubert came from a middle-class background and that he appreciated the values of hard work and stolid professionalism that these two characters represent.

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