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Madame Bovary is generally considered a forerunner of later realist fiction by writers with as diverse styles as Zola, Chekov, Joyce, Camus and Sartre. Realistic fiction, by definition, encompasses writing that represents life as it really exists to the reader. One of the first examples of realism in English literature is 'The Prologue' to the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. Certain eighteenth-century writers, like Defoe, Fielding, and Sterne, also wrote in a realistic vein.
In Madame Bovary, Flaubert gives the reader a glance into the reality of mid-nineteenth-century provincial life in France. The descriptions of the mannerisms and customs of small-town people are vivid and life-like. Emma's wedding party, the Yonville fair, and Emma's disillusionment are the stuff of which life is made. Flaubert makes his protagonist suffer from middle-class ennui. When Emma attempts to live in a world of romantic fantasy and fails, she takes her own life. It is, therefore, commonplace reality and middle-class morality that triumph in the end.
Some critics have claimed that the nature imagery developed in the novel is almost romantic. It is true that Flaubert's descriptions are detailed and beautiful, but they capture a real picture of the natural world he is describing and do not undermine the realist tone of the novel. Flaubert also sometimes employs romantic imagery during moments of satire in order to make his realistic point. It is Flaubert's satire that sets him apart from other writers of his time. Homais, Lheureux, Charles, and even Emma are presented in satire during some portion of the novel. Flaubert's portrait of middle- class life is unrelenting in its harshness.
Limited Point of View
The limited point of view employed by Flaubert adds to the realism of Madame Bovary. The novel opens with first-person narration to give a portrait of Charles as a youth. For most of the novel, however, Flaubert uses third-person omniscient narration. This mode of narration sometimes shifts when the consciousness of certain characters comes into reckoning. Emma's thoughts are revealed from her point of view, as are Rodolphe's, Leon's and Charles'. Also called free indirect discourse (discours indirect libre), this technique is often associated with Flaubert's work.
Though Madame Bovary is not crowded with symbols, certain images take on symbolic overtones. One such symbol is the cap worn by Charles when he goes to school for the first time. Flaubert describes it in detail. He then relates how the class pokes fun at Charles through the 'cap.' The "dumb ugliness" of the cap is symbolic of Charles' commonplace nature and habits. His coarse habits are partly responsible for Emma's distancing herself from him. Seen this way, the 'cap' symbol adds to the literary flavor of the novel.
The blind beggar's character, too, has a symbolic dimension. He is physically ugly and deformed, and Emma finds him repulsive. However, his physical deformity reflects Emma's inner (hidden) degeneration. The beggar's song is an ironic commentary on Emma's own life. His singing affects her while she is on her deathbed; she dies after envisioning "the hideous face of the beggar rising up like a nightmare amid the eternal darkness." The beggar symbol is usually interpreted as one of evil and death. A similar interpretation is given for the carriage "sealed tighter than a tomb." This symbol directly foretells doom for Emma.
Flaubert's skill as a writer is seen in his use of irony throughout this novel. It is ironic that every time Emma enters into a relationship, she is soon disappointed. She rebels against social conventions in order to make up for her lackluster marriage; however, in adultery she finds "all the banality of marriage." Also, whenever Emma turns to religion, she is motivated by the superficial, sentimental dimensions of it. For instance, she lingers for some time in the Cathedral while Leon waits impatiently for her to respond to him. Despite her fervent prayers, she goes off with Leon. Thus, her act contrasts her external 'forced' religiosity. Emma's aim in life is to be rich and famous. Ironically, even after Charles uses a new scientific method in his practice (the Hippolyte episode), he fails miserably. This incident crystallizes Emma's relationship with Rodolphe. She is madly in love with him and believes that he loves her in an equal measure. However, when the time comes to prove his love, Rodolphe abandons her. Leon does a similar thing at a critical time. It is highly ironic that Emma repeatedly seeks things that are transient and impractical, despite meeting with disappointment time and again.
Also, irony shrouds Emma's downfall and death. She leads a fantastic dream-life, yet she has to face the reality of bankruptcy and social disgrace. Again, she chooses to escape from reality by taking poison. She thinks it will hasten the end. Ironically, her dying moments are prolonged and torturous, both for her and those around her. The greatest irony in the novel is the way that coarse men, like Lheureux and Homais, prosper in life in spite of their many faults.