Madame Bovary: Saint or Sinner?

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Madame Bovary: Saint or Sinner?

published in Vol.II, Issue.XX, September 2016

Introduction to the Author:

Ria Narayanan Aiyer is a recent graduate from the Department of English, Ramjas College, Delhi University. She is an avid reader and literature enthusiast, and enjoys delving into the complexities of the author’s intent. Apart from being involved in seminars by the Department of English for 2 years, she also presented a paper in the Conference titled “The End”, organised by the Department of English, Ramjas College, and graduated with a First Division in B.A. (hons) English.

In 1857, Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) published his first book after five years of refining and polishing it. Madame Bovary reflects every hour of the effort put into its delightful and expressive prose.  It is one of the first novels written in the style of what later came to be known as French Realism, of which Flaubert was an early exponent. The style strives to depict a truthful image of real life. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Salammbo, and Sentimental Education are among other works by Flaubert, but Madame Bovary, his debut, has remained his most famous work. Following the life of young Emma Rouault as she negotiates the stark world of reality while searching for the great passions promised by her paperback world of fiction, it deals with many themes including marriage, adultery, class, bourgeois society and the idea of sin. The book gained notoriety after its initial publication as Flaubert was tried for obscenity in the novel.  Madame Bovary is still widely read, and Emma’s affliction has been deemed so universal that Bovarism is an accepted word that means deluding oneself by a glamourized conception to an extent that it changes one’s behavior.

One of Flaubert’s famous quotes says “There is no truth. There is only perception.” In this essay, I intend to put forward my perception of the author’s intent in writing Madame Bovary as well as my interpretation of it. Is the book intended as a tragedy or morality play or only a critique of bourgeois society? Is Emma’s death the downfall of a tragic hero, or the righteous punishment of a sinner? I also intend to highlight how Flaubert portrays bourgeois behavior in light of these questions.

Traditional Greek tragedies follow the pattern of a noble yet flawed protagonist, who, despite being well intentioned and essentially good, commits wrongs because of the one flaw in his character, or in ignorance. Though Emma does not fit exactly into this mold, there are nonetheless several similarities that hold merit. Emma’s pursuit for great passion, love and riches can be seen as her hamartia, her tragic flaw that leads to her downfall. It is this romantic but irrational yearning that causes her to be continuously discontented with her comfortable life. It causes her to ignore the deep love that her husband has for her; also causes her to ignore her duties as a mother, wife and housekeeper.

Though Emma is seen to commit grave moral wrongs, many readers are of the opinion that she cannot be held entirely responsible for her wrongdoings. Many of her shortcomings can be attributed to her environment, and the society she was brought up in. The untimely death of her mother and her early marriage at age fourteen meant that she never received much affection or felt any kinship with another person, leading her to yearn for grand love in her other relationships. It can also be argued that as a woman in nineteenth century France, she had limited social mobility and limited financial or economic independence, and had no other way to improve her lot than by manipulative and sinful methods.

Another perspective to the novel is to see it as a morality play, though this may be a bit simplistic, given the complex nature of the subjects Flaubert explores. Nonetheless, in many ways, the novel echoes the patterns of one. Emma is plagued by the monotony of her life, she desires much more for herself. She desires to transcend her social status and live an epic romance with her knight in shining armor, with an abundance of riches and material possessions. Her unsuccessful attempts at wooing her lovers into marrying her and her unrestrained greed that plunged her into debt lead to her eventual suicide. It is possible that she sees romanticism even in the idea of taking her own life, but the graphic description of her death removes all such ideas, at least from the readers’ mind. She is thus punished for her overreaching greed.

There are various arguments to counteract both these interpretations. Emma does not ‘qualify’ as a tragic figure because she has no justifiable cause, her quest is motivated by selfish desire. She longs to play the part of the victim, but she has enough agency to make her choices, and makes all the wrong ones. She wills herself to be wooed by the lies of her lovers, she wants to believe in their falsehoods. Corina A. Lopez writes[1] , while calling her the ‘faux tragic heroine’, “Her misguided moral claim is shown in her final confrontation with Rodolphe, as she makes her plea for a loan to pay off her mountainous debt. “…And you sit there quietly in your chair, as if you hadn’t made me suffer enough? Without you, you know very well, I could have been happy… And then, when I come back to him … to implore him for help, help that anyone in the world would give, when I come begging, bringing back all my love, he rejects me, because it would cost him three thousand francs!” (Part III, 277). She hurls both insults and objects at him, appealing to both Rodolphe’s and the reader’s sense of duty. The only problem for Emma, well there are two, but the first is that Rodolphe is under no duty to acknowledge her moral claim. They had been lovers, yes. But their amorous contract had been broken. She accuses him of making her suffer, but that suffering is part and parcel of all adulterous affairs. She willingly wanted the lover, but she did not want the responsibility and pain a lover would bring. Again, she makes herself the victim, rather than a tragic hero. There are no redeeming characteristics about her personality that would make her fall in the category of a noble hero beguiled by the lures of society; she comes across largely as a selfish woman with an abhorrent and childish worldview. Echoing the words of Paul D. Miller[2], “I hated her [Emma’s] ennui, her vague and directionless longing, her solipsism, her selfish willingness to put her own quest for meaning above the needs of her husband and daughter.”

Though I condemn Emma and do not have much sympathy for her, one reason for this is also because I perceive her from my privileged standpoint in a world where women are significantly empowered and have various legal and economic escapes from such repression, and the agency to pursue their dreams. As such, it is a rewarding exercise to examine Emma’s social context as painted by Flaubert.

The novel is actually titled Madame Bovary: Moeurs de Province, translated as Provincial manners or Provincial Lives. It is thus deeply concerned with society, especially the middle class or bourgeoisie. It also explores the familiar contrast drawn between Paris and the rest of France. Flaubert was highly critical of the superficial and mundane values of the middle class. He calls them “dull, materialistic, petty and cliché-ridden”[3]. Emma encapsulates his disgust for the fakeness of bourgeois society. Geoffrey Wall[4] says, in his introduction to the novel, drawing from Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, “For Flaubert, each bourgeois phrase, each bourgeois feeling, each bourgeois opinion, is touched by the hilarious dismaying suspicion of fakery. Solemnly and energetically proclaiming their clichés, perhaps the bourgeois are indeed simply machines…received ideas circulate unchallenged.”

The novel was written in the early 1850s. This period heralded much change for the country, with the coming of the railway, telegraph and printed newspapers. It also then signifies the setting up of industry and setting in of a capitalist culture and economy. Through Homais, Flaubert mocks the class’s pretentions to knowledge, as well as the capitalist desire for fame and money without expertise or morality. Lheureux, the money lender who manipulates Emma also represents the advantaging of material possessions over empathy or humanity.

Even in this atmosphere of change, women were suppressed. The repression of Emma’s voice and personality is apparent from the moment we perceive her; we do not hear her speak at all before her marriage. She is introduced to us through the eyes of a desiring male, as Charles falls in love with the “whiteness of her fingernails, the shape of her hands” and later with her lips, neck, ears, cheeks and hair, reducing her to a collection of body parts. In one conversation with Leon, Emma voices her experience of feeling “a hundred and one things that have a claim on you.” When Leon claims to empathize, she says “I doubt if you can. You’re not a woman.” Madame Bovary goes a long way in exposing the nineteenth-century notion that women should have lesser ambitions and desires than their male counterparts, and suggests that the subordinate role assigned to women in society hampers them and causes tensions between their internal and external selves.

I will conclude by stating that Flaubert’s intent is elusive, and cannot be concretely determined. He identifies with Emma to the extent of saying he himself is her, but also condemns her by attributing to her unforgivable sins of causing great hurt to those around her for selfish motives. He gives her a damning end, with great suffering, but also subtly highlights the contributions of society in her downfall. My reading of Madame Bovary did not incline me to sympathize with Emma, but it did prompt me to look further into her motives and context. Madame Bovary thus, lends itself to multiple interpretations and provides an intriguing insight into a complex multitude of personal emotions and their interactions with different forces in society.

Inline Citations:


[2] Can be found at

[3] Quoting Russell, from

[4] Geoffrey Wall teaches at French at the University of York. Quote taken from his translation of Madame Bovary printed by Penguin.





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