Madame Bovary

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Madame Bovary
Gustave Flaubert

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Reading


After Revue de Paris published several installments of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, the editor decided to remove from the novel several passages he determined would be offensive to France's conservative Second Empire (1852–1870), ruled by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte III. Flaubert was understandably furious over the loss of control over his work. Yet, even after the offending passages were edited, the government soon banned the novel and charged Flaubert with obscenity due to its detailed depiction of the heroine's adulterous relationships. Charges were soon dropped, however, and the novel was published in two volumes in April 1857. Madame Bovary immediately gained a wide readership, due not only to its notoriety but also to its celebrated artistry.

Flaubert worked on the novel from September 1851 to April 1856, during which time he rewrote the manuscript several times, often spending days perfecting a single page or paragraph. The result of his painstaking creativity was a penetrating psychological study of its heroine, Emma Bovary, as she struggles to find fulfillment through a realization of her romantic fantasies of love and wealth. Flaubert's realistic portrait of the tragic fate of this complex woman has earned him the reputation as one of the most celebrated and influential novelists of the nineteenth century.

Author Biography

Gustave Flaubert was born on December 12, 1821, in Rouen, France, to Achille Cleophas (a physician) and Caroline (Fleuriot) Flaubert. Flaubert lived with his family in an apartment in the hospital where his father served as chief surgeon and professor. Stirling Haig, in his article on Flaubert in Dictionary of Literary Biography, suggests that Flaubert, who was exposed to pain and suffering at the hospital throughout his childhood, developed a "gloomy perspective on life and death" that he would later weave into the fabric of his works.

Flaubert began writing in his childhood. By 1832, he had completed two texts: the serious-minded Eloge de Corneille (Tribute to Pierre Corneille, the seventeenth-century playwright) and the juvenile La Belle Explication de la Fameuse Constipation (The Fine Explanation of the Famous Constipation). While a student at the Collège Royal de Rouen, Flaubert devoured the classics and staged plays by Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Jean Baptiste Poquelin Molière. He started writing historical fiction (for school assignments) and psychological mysteries, elements of which foreshadow the characterizations in his novels.

After graduation, Flaubert entered law school in Paris, prodded by his parents. In 1844, he had what was most likely an episode of epilepsy. As a result, he gave up the law and turned to a literary career. The best of his early work, the novel Novembre (1885; translated [1934] as November) is a fictional account of Flaubert's sexual relationship with an older woman he had met in 1836 in Trouville.

Flaubert worked on his most famous and celebrated novel, Madame Bovary, from September 1851 until April 1856. The novel gained notoriety after the French government charged Flaubert with obscenity and stopped its publication, determining the work to be a challenge to moral decency. The charges and the ban, however, were soon dropped, and Madame Bovary would become one of the most celebrated novels of the nineteenth century. Ironically, Flaubert came to resent the attention paid to the novel, especially since, as a result, few of his other works received the consideration he thought they deserved. Yet, through his body of work, Flaubert has come to be regarded as one of the finest novelists of the nineteenth century. Flaubert died on May 8, 1880, in Croisset, France, ending a long and successful literary career.

Plot Summary

The narrative begins from the perspective of a French schoolboy, who records Charles Bovary's first day in his class. Everyone stares at Charles, the fifteen-year-old "new boy" from the country, who enters with an exceedingly embarrassed manner. His classmates soon begin to tease him, ostracizing him for his country manner and dress. The teacher also ridicules him when he can't understand Charles's pronunciation of his name and makes him sit on a dunce stool near him.

Charles is an average student, but others note that "he had not the least elegance of style." After his parents determine that he would make a fine doctor, he enrolls in medical school, where he becomes a mediocre student. He soon begins to enjoy his freedom at college, frequenting the tavern and playing dominos, which develops into "an initiation into the world, the introduction to forbidden pleasures." As a result, he fails his medical examinations. Later, he returns to school and, through careful memorization of the questions, retakes the exams and passes. Soon after, he moves to Tostes to begin his practice. When his mother decides he must marry, she finds him a forty-five-year-old wealthy widow. Charles finds Héloïse ugly and thin. After they marry, she takes control of the household and complains incessantly of health problems.

One night Charles is called away to a farmhouse to set a farmer's broken leg. The farmer, Monsieur Rouault, is a widower with one daughter, Emma. Charles is struck by her beauty and returns to the farmhouse as often as he can, ostensibly to check on her father but in reality because he is drawn to the farm and especially to her. When Héloïse finds out that Rouault has a beautiful daughter, she forbids Charles's return to the farm. After Héloïse loses her inheritance, Charles's parents accuse her of lying about her wealth and cause a scene. Héloïse becomes so upset that she falls ill and suddenly dies.

Charles returns to the farm and soon asks Rouault for his permission to marry Emma. Although he finds Charles rather dull, Rouault agrees, since he determines that Emma is not much use to him around the farm. After a suitable period, Emma and Charles marry at the farmhouse and then go on to Tostes. Charles clearly adores his wife and so becomes supremely happy and contented. Emma, however, is not satisfied. She had thought herself in love with Charles before they married, but those feelings failed to materialize. She finds none of the passion in her marriage that she has read about in books and dreamt about for herself. Although Charles is supremely content, their life together soon falls into monotony for her.

One evening she and Charles attend a ball at La Vaubyessard, the home of the Marquis d'Andervilliers, one of Charles's patients. This first experience with "the complexion of wealth" enthralls Emma, who desperately wants to become a part of this world. The memory of the ball and the lifestyle it represents develops into an obsession with her, reinforcing her sense of the meaninglessness and monotony of her life. A viscount, with whom she danced that evening, becomes the personification of all the romantic heroes she finds in the sentimental novels she reads.

When the dramatic event she hopes will transform her life fails to materialize, she begins to slip into depression, abandoning all her hobbies and domestic duties. Soon, her health suffers, and Charles decides they will move to Yonville-l'Abbaye, hoping that a change of scenery will improve her condition.

After they move, Emma finds herself pregnant; however, when she realizes that she cannot afford an elegant layette, she loses all interest in the upcoming birth and pays little attention to her daughter, Berthe, after she is born. In Yonville, Emma meets Léon Dupuis, a lawyer's clerk, who has her same romantic temperament. As the two spend a good deal of time together, they fall in love with each other. Refusing to declare her feelings for Léon, Emma turns her attentions to her family, showing new interest in her daughter. Her pride in remaining virtuous, however, clashes with her frustration over not being able to admit her love for Léon. When she tries to get advice and comfort from the local priest, he cannot understand her dilemma. Weary of not being able to express his love for Emma, or of not having it reciprocated, Léon decides to move to Rouen. His farewell to Emma is strained, as both suppress their feelings for each other and their pain over their separation.

After Léon leaves, Emma upbraids herself for not acknowledging her love for him and falls back into a deep depression, alleviated temporarily by extravagant spending sprees. One day, she meets Rodolphe Boulanger, a country squire, who comes to Charles for medical advice. He finds Emma quite attractive and so plans to seduce her, determining that "she's gaping for love like a carp on the kitchen table for water." They meet at the Agricultural Exposition, where Boulanger tries to convince her that men and women should give in to their desires. Weeks later, during a horseback ride in the woods, he seduces her.

Media Adaptations

  • There have been eight film versions of Madame Bovary, and five television versions. The most famous adaptation was directed by Vincente Minnelli in 1949 for MGM. Jennifer Jones starred as Emma and Van Heflin as Charles.

The two enter into an affair, seeing and writing each other often. Their relationship fills Emma with a happiness she has never known. She often sneaks out in the early morning to Boulanger's bed. One morning as she returns home, she runs into Monsieur Binet and gives him a clumsy excuse for being there. Binet and others in the town begin to suspect that Emma is having an affair. Soon Boulanger's affections for her begin to wane.

Emma tries to shift her attentions back to Charles and so is encouraged when he plans to try out a new method for treating clubfoot. Emma and Charles are convinced that the success of the operation will make him famous. Charles, however, botches the operation on Hippolyte, a handyman at the inn, and as a result, the patient's gangrenous leg must be amputated. Emma becomes humiliated at the thought that such a man as her husband "could amount to anything, as if she had not already had sufficient evidence of his mediocrity twenty times over."

Emma's and Boulanger's love for each other becomes reinvigorated. When Monsieur Lherueux, the merchant, begins to press her for payment of her outstanding bills, she convinces Boulanger to run off with her to Italy. On the night they are to leave, however, he has second thoughts and abandons her. As a result, Emma falls into a deep depression and her health suffers. In an effort to cheer her up, Charles takes her to the opera at Rouen, where she sees Léon. The two soon begin a passionate affair, and Emma borrows more money to support their extravagances. Yet, their passion cannot live up to their romantic imaginations, and as a result, it inevitably fades. Emma's bills mount up to the point at which she and Charles are threatened with financial ruin. When she cannot pay back the loans and can find no one, including Léon, to give her financial assistance, she becomes desperate. In an attempt to prostitute herself, she goes to Boulanger to plead for his help. He does not have the money to help her, however, and the bailiff comes to seize all of her and Charles's property.

Finding no way out of her dilemma, Emma takes arsenic and suffers an agonizing death. When Charles finds her love letters to Rodolphe, he blames fate rather than Emma and soon dies. Berthe moves in with an aunt and lives in poverty. The novel ends with Monsieur Homais winning the Legion of Honor.


Monsieur Binet

Monsieur Binet, Yonville's tax collector, does not often participate in the social life of the town. Monsieur Homais claims he is "a dead fish" with "no imagination, no wit, nothing of what makes a man a social light." He serves as a foil to Emma when she runs into him one morning as she is returning from Boulanger's estate. Emma turns to him for help when she is about to lose her home, but he refuses to help her. Two of the village women watch through the window, suspecting that Emma is "making advances to him," which appears to be confirmed when he immediately jumps back exclaiming, "What are you thinking of, Madame?" The women see this as evidence of Binet's courage.

Monsieur Rodolphe Boulanger

Rodolphe Boulanger, a thirty-four-year-old country squire, is "cynical in temperament and keen of intellect." He seduces Emma during a horseback ride in the woods after a careful manipulation of her feelings. When he first meets her, he immediately comprehends the problems in her relationship with Charles and so determines that she will be vulnerable to him. He notes that she has been starved for passion and eloquent words of love and so tells her that some force beyond his control drove him to her. His ability to understand her predicament and provide her with the romantic words and the attention she craves causes her to fall in love with him.

His callous and shallow nature become apparent in his decision to discard her after their affair begins to bore him. He decides that Emma is like all mistresses: "the charm of newness, slipping down little by little like a garment, revealed unclothed the eternal monotony of passion."

Abbé Bournisien

Abbé Bournisien, Yonville's priest, suggests his lack of perception when Emma comes to him, trying to explain her unhappiness and looking for strength to resist her feelings for Léon. He insists to Emma that any woman who has enough to eat and a fire in winter should be perfectly happy. As a result of his lack of understanding, she does not confide in him and turns her back on religion as a source of comfort.

Berthe Bovary

Berthe Bovary is the daughter of Charles and Emma Bovary.

Charles Bovary

From the beginning of the novel, Flaubert characterizes Charles as dull, dim, and graceless. The narrator notes that his conversation was "flat as the sidewalk of the street and the ideas of everyone he spoke to passed through it without exciting emotion, laughter, or contemplation." Charles has few interests besides his family. He does not care about the theater or books and has never learned any skills like swimming or fencing that would make him an interesting companion or husband. His name suggests his "bovine," cud-chewing personality.

Many of Charles's patients in both Tostes and Yonville, however, appreciate his lack of airs. They also admire his sense of responsibility. Yet his inability to develop a firm grasp of the intricacies of his profession results in his botching of a clubfoot operation, and his patient subsequently suffers the amputation of his leg.

Charles adores Emma, which, combined with his weak will, allows her to control his life. He turns a blind eye to her financial extravagances and her attentions to other men, which Emma usually does not take great pains to hide. His lack of perception extends to his relationship with her. Often, Charles has no idea what Emma is thinking or feeling, unless her health obviously begins to deteriorate. His lack of ambition and his country habits, coupled with his weak nature, irritate and depress Emma. Yet Charles is ever loyal to her, even after he discovers that she has been having affairs with Rodolphe Boulanger and Léon Dupuis. His intense love for her ultimately destroys him, however. Soon after she commits suicide, Charles wastes away and dies.

Monsieur Charles-Denis-Bartholomé Bovary

Monsieur Bovary, Charles's father, was a former assistant surgeon-major. After he was forced to leave the service, Bovary found a wife with a large dowry so he could live comfortably. He failed, however, at farming, since he drank and ate up his profits. Eventually, Charles's vain, braggart father became a bitter drunk, "disgusted with humanity" in his later years.

Madame Emma Bovary

Emma's sensuality becomes apparent as soon as Charles meets her. While she is sewing, she pricks her fingers and raises them up to her mouth to suck them. Later, she licks every drop of liquor from the bottom of a glass with her tongue. Charles does not encourage this quality in her. Soon after they are married, she becomes bored by the monotony of their life together.

Discontented with her life on the farm, she agrees to marry Charles, confusing her desire for a better, more comfortable life with feelings of love for him. She had thought herself in love with Charles before they married, but those feelings failed to materialize. Soon after their marriage, she waits for a dramatic event to transform her life. When none occurs and she finds no fulfillment in her relationship with him, she develops an appreciation for the things money can buy. The narrator notes that she "confused, in her longing, the sensual appeals of luxury with the joys of the heart, elegance of manners with delicacy of sentiment." Her desire to live a life full of luxury leads to her destruction.

Frustrated by her inability to afford the lifestyle she feels she deserves, Emma turns to other men to satisfy her passionate nature. Her romantic vision of love, however, destroys her relationships, not only with her husband but also with her lovers. When Charles fails to live up to her expectations of what a man should be, she dreams about finding lovers like those she reads about in sentimental novels. When her marriage provides none of the passion she finds in these books, she wonders "just what was meant, in real life, by the words felicity, passion and intoxication, which had seemed so beautiful" on the page.

She falls in love with Léon and Rodolphe when they compare favorably to Charles. However, neither can live up to her romantic vision of love. As a result, she alienates both men. Inevitably, she rediscovers in adultery all the uniformity of marriage. As she drains "every pleasure by wishing it to be too intense," she succumbs to a "universal numbness" that, coupled with her financial troubles, prompts her to commit suicide.

Madame Héloïse Bovary

Héloïse Bovary, Charles's first wife, is a forty-five-year-old wealthy widow when Charles marries her. Charles is not content with this woman, whom his mother determined he should marry, finding her ugly and thin. She takes control of the household and complains incessantly of her health, which turns out to be actually quite frail. When her family loses its fortune, and Charles's parents angrily accuse her of fraud, she falls ill and dies.

Madame Bovary

Mrs. Bovary, Charles's mother, had once adored her husband, which irritated him. When she was first married, she was a happy and affectionate woman, but as she was forced to face her husband's infidelities and overindulgences, she became difficult, irritable, and nervous. She swallowed her frustration "in a mute stoicism." Unhappy with her marriage, she spoiled Charles, transferring to him all of her lost ambitions.

She tries to extend her control over Charles after he becomes an adult by choosing his wife. Her control slips, however, when Charles marries Emma, whom Madame Bovary considers "too refined in her airs for their financial position." She also becomes jealous of Charles's love for Emma. In an effort to reassert her dominance, she makes frequent visits to the couple and continually corrects Emma's housekeeping.

Monsieur Léon Dupuis

Emma meets Léon Dupuis, a lawyer's clerk, soon after she and Charles move to Yonville. Léon has the same romantic sensibility as does Emma; his thoughts, like hers, are constantly "interweaving with fiction." He admits to her that his heart "becomes involved" with the characters he reads about, as it "beats underneath their costumes." Emma and Léon feed off each other's romantic imagination as they consummate their relationship. When they link hands, "the past, the future, reminiscences and dreams, all were blended in the charm" of the moment.

Eventually Léon tries to revolt against Emma's absorption of his personality. Yet his timid nature allows her to dominate him, even as his affection for her wanes. Even after he becomes bored by her demands, he is indecisive about their future, allowing her to dictate when and where they meet.


Fourteen years old when she comes to work as Emma's maid, Félicité is an orphan "with a sweet face." Emma tries to make a ladies' maid of her and Félicité obeys without question. However, after Emma dies, she steals most of her clothes.

Monsieur Homais

Monsieur Homais, the pharmacist, is the Bovarys' neighbor. The pompous Homais pontificates about religion, society, and human nature, which does not earn him many friends. He tries to hide his illegal medical activities and treats Charles with exceptional kindness in order to ensure that Charles will not turn him in to the authorities. Charles, however, is too unobservant to notice.


Justin, a boy who works in the pharmacy, falls in love with Emma—so much so that he cannot refuse her when she asks him to let her into the cabinet where Monsieur Homais keeps arsenic.

Madame Lefrançois

Madame Lefrançois, the widowed innkeeper at Yonville, complains and gossips a great deal about her customers.

Monsieur Lhereux

Monsieur Lhereux, Yonville's linen draper, encourages Emma's extravagant spending habits through clever sales tactics. Initially "polite to the point of obsequiousness," Lhereux grovels in front of his customers until he makes a sale. He convinces Emma to purchase expensive items that she cannot afford by preying on her desire for elegance and allowing her to buy on credit. When Emma's bills mount, he demands payment and shows no remorse or consideration for her dilemma.


Search for Self

When Emma first marries Charles, she does not have a clear sense of identity. However, she knows that she does not want to be stuck on the farm for the rest of her life. Initially, she assumes that what she feels for Charles will develop into love and that she will become content to be a doctor's wife. Soon, though, when her feelings for Charles fail to materialize, she enters into a severe depression, feeling herself to be displaced and unable to endure the monotony of her life and marriage.


In an effort to alleviate her depression, she turns to sentimental novels, imagining herself as the heroine who falls passionately in love with a dashing man who rescues her from a life of poverty and desperation. Her imagination recreates these fictional figures into two men, with whom she enters into passionate affairs. Her sexual relations with these men give her a sense of identity, at least for a time.

Class Consciousness

Emma's search for identity and fulfillment also centers on issues of class. Soon after she marries Charles and realizes that she cannot find contentment in her relationship with him, she begins to buy things for the house and for herself. Emma's spending, however, soon puts the family in debt. When she attends the ball at La Vaubyessard, Emma sees for the first time, "the complexion of wealth" that characterizes the upper class. From that point on, Emma desperately tries to become a part of that world through her relationship with Rodolphe and through extravagant purchases.

Emma's desire to move up in class leads to disaster for those around her as well as herself. She transfers her ambitions to Charles, who determines that he can perform a new surgery on clubfoots. However, when he performs the untested operation on a local man, he botches the procedure, which results in the amputation of the patient's leg.

When she realizes that Charles will never help them move above their station, her extravagant spending increases to the point of financial ruin. In a desperate attempt to acquire money and thus to save herself from the public humiliation of the auctioning off of her property, she tries to prostitute herself. When that tactic fails, Emma finds suicide her only recourse. Her death devastates Charles, who dies soon after, and Berthe, their child, becomes orphaned and impoverished.



Flaubert often illustrates Emma's character and situation through a juxtaposition of scenes in the novel. Most of these instances involve Emma's mingling of past memories with present reality. One occurs when Emma is at the ball. As she looks out the windows and observes the servants on the lawn, separated from the evening's glamour and festivities, she envisions herself "as she had been once" on her father's farm. The juxtaposition of past and present reinforces Emma's obsession with "this luxurious life" that she witnesses at the ball. Another instance occurs when she is looking at Léon one day. As she gazes at him, she conjures an image of Charles as she has seen him so many times in the past. The juxtaposition of her image of Charles with her gaze on Léon prompts her to compare the two. Deciding that Charles is infinitely inferior, she promptly falls in love with Léon.

Flaubert uses a different kind of juxtaposition during the scene at the agricultural fair. Here he jumps back and forth between two simultaneous events: Rodolphe's initial seduction of Emma and the awarding of prizes at the fair. As a result, Flaubert highlights Rodolphe's calculated, self-serving attempt to lure Emma into his bed.


Flaubert also uses symbolization to reinforce his themes. He adds a note of foreshadowing at the ball when Emma sees a guest rumored to have been Marie Antoinette's lover. The description of the slovenly man with bloodshot eyes and "drops of gravy falling from his lips" reinforces the fact that he has "led a life wild with debauch" and forecasts Emma's own decline. In another scene, at the close of the agricultural exposition, the crowd enjoys a display of fireworks. In an effort to allay fears that they might start fires, Monsieur Binet notes that no sparks have fallen. Yet, destruction is eminent for Emma, as her affair with Rodolphe has been sparked.

Topics for Further Study

  • Watch the 1949 MGM film version of Madame Bovary, especially the scene at the ball when Emma is dancing. Choose another scene in the novel that focuses on Emma's passionate nature and describe how you would film it.
  • Compare Tolstoy's Anna Karenina to Emma, analyzing their motivations and their fate.
  • Research the rights of women in France during the mid-nineteenth century. How much freedom and opportunity would a woman like Emma have in that culture?
  • Investigate the lives of the French middle class during the nineteenth century. How strict was their class system? What moral standards did they follow?

Historical Context


The term realism first appeared in a Parisian periodical of 1826, as noted by Haig in his article on Flaubert in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. The journalist defines the term as a movement that would "lead to the imitation not of artistic masterpieces but of the originals that nature offers us." Later in the article, the writer determines that realist works could in the future be considered "the literature of truth." Realism became a popular form of painting, especially in works by Gustave Courbet, and literature in the mid-nineteenth century. Novelists in this movement turned away from what they considered the artificiality of romanticism to a focus on the commonplace in the context of everyday contemporary life. They rejected the idealism and celebration of the imagination typical of romantic novels and instead took a serious look at believable characters and their often problematic interactions with society. In order to accomplish this goal, realistic novels focus on the commonplace and eliminate the unlikely coincidences and excessive emotionalism of romanticism. Novelists like Samuel Clemens discard traditional sentimental novelistic forms as they chronicle the strengths and weaknesses of ordinary people confronting difficult social problems, like the restrictive conventions nineteenth-century African Americans suffered under. Writers who embraced realism use settings and plots details that reflect their characters' daily lives and realistic dialogue that replicates natural speech patterns.

Realism in Madame Bovary emerges in Flaubert's discarding of the idealism of traditional romantic literature in his exploration of the day-today life of Emma Bovary. Other writers like Honoré Balzac and Stendhal had also focused on the daily life of their characters; however, those characters lead exciting lives and can not be considered "ordinary." Flaubert was one of the first to chronicle in his fiction the often monotonous and sordid life of the middle class.

Compare & Contrast

  • Mid-nineteenth century: In 1835, French philosopher Victor Cousin first uses the phrase "l'Art pour l'Art" ("Art for Art's sake") to define a new literary movement that promotes style over other literary elements. Flaubert is greatly influenced by this movement.

    Today: The confessional narrative gains a prominent position in the literary world.
  • Mid-nineteenth century: In 1848, the first American convention concerning women's rights is held in Seneca Falls, New York.

    Today: Women have made major gains in their fight for equality and although some bills—like the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment Bill—still have not passed to this day, discrimination against women is now against the law.
  • Mid-nineteenth century: The Second Empire begins in France in 1852. French social mores, under the leadership of Bonaparte III, include a devotion to a strict moral code, at least in public.

    Today: Some see the election of George W. Bush to the office of president as the result of America's desire to return to a more conservative sense of morality.

Censorship in Nineteenth-Century France

France's Second Empire (1852–1870), ruled by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte III, set a moral tone by repressing challenges to traditional codes of conduct. The government allowed authors to write about characters who threatened the accepted tenets of society; however, they expected the characters to be justly punished for such actions. They supported didactic literature that encouraged readers to condemn immoral behavior, such as adultery. However, when Flaubert refused to denounce Emma in Madame Bovary for her actions and Emma herself did not ask for forgiveness, Flaubert was charged with pornography and blasphemy, and the book was banned. All charges against him were eventually dropped and the ban lifted. However, Haig notes that the judge who discharged the case did so with a warning of the excesses of realism, a novelistic form that he considered both "vulgaire et souvent choquant" (vulgar and often shocking): Although Flaubert did not consider himself a realist, critics have placed the novel in this literary school.

Critical Overview

When Madame Bovary was published in installments in Revue de Paris in 1857, its realistic subject matter earned the novel immediate notoriety, which was enhanced when the French government soon banned it and charged Flaubert with obscenity. Its initial reception was mixed. Many readers were shocked by the novel's "immoral" characterizations but praised Flaubert's undeniable artistry. Others were offended more by the novel's obvious link to realism, as noted by Lennard J. Davis, in his article on Flaubert for European Writers. Davis cites one critic who insisted that Madame Bovary "represents an obsession with description. Details are counted one by one, all are given equal value" and that, as a result, "there is neither emotion nor feeling for life in this novel." Davis notes another reviewer who claimed that Flaubert was an "unwavering analyst … a describer of the minutest subtlety" but that a machine made "in Birmingham or Manchester out of good English steel" could have written a comparable novel. Most scholars, however, have celebrated the work as one of the finest of its age. F. W. J. Hemmings in The Age of Realism insists, "this finely balanced mixture, where Emma is concerned of empathy and critical objectivity … has earned the novel its celebrity as the first masterpiece of the realist esthetic."


Wendy Perkins

Perkins is an associate professor of English and American literature and film at Prince George's Community College and has published several articles on British and American authors. In this essay, she examines Flaubert's exploration of naturalistic themes in Flaubert's novel.

[The wind-tower] was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It represented in a degree … the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual—nature in the wind, and nature in the vision of men. She did not seem cruel to him then, not benef-icent, not treacherous, not wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent."

This famous passage from Stephen Crane's short story "The Open Boat," which focuses on four men in a small dinghy struggling against the current to make it to shore, is often quoted as an apt expression of the tenets of naturalism, a literary movement that emerged in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries in France, America, and England. Writers included in this group, such as Crane, Emile Zola, and Theodore Dreiser, expressed in their works a biological and/or environmental determinism that prevented their characters from exercising their free will and thus controlling their fates. Crane often focused on the social and economic factors that overpowered his characters. Zola's and Dreiser's works include this type of environmental determinism, coupled with an exploration of the influences of heredity, in their portraits of the animalistic nature of men and women engaged in the endless and brutal struggle for survival. In Madame Bovary, completed in 1856, Gustave Flaubert's treatment of the main character in Madame Bovary, proves the novel to be an important precursor of the naturalist movement. As Flaubert explores the environmental and biological forces that shape Emma Bovary's character and experience, he raises important questions about how much influence we have over our destinies.

Two biological factors help determine Emma's fate: her innate sensuality and her romantic imagination. Her sensuality becomes apparent as soon as Charles meets her. As he watches her sew, she pricks her fingers on the needle. Immediately she raises them up to her mouth and sucks them. Later, when they are drinking liquor, she drains her glass and licks, with the tip of her tongue, the final drops. Her passionate nature could have been allowed full expression in marriage and thus resulted in a satisfying relationship and a contented life for Emma. However, Charles's "placid dullness" quickly dampens her passion. She notes that if Charles had been receptive to her spirited nature, "a sudden overflow would have poured from her heart as the ripe fruit falls from a tree when one lays hand to it." She expects him to "initiate [her] into the forces of passion … but he taught nothing … knew nothing, desired nothing." As a result, Emma could only wonder "just what was meant, in real life, by the words felicity, passion and intoxication, which had seemed so beautiful to her in books."

Emma turns to sentimental novels, with their dashing heroes, in an attempt to imaginatively live the passionate life she desires. Her imagination recreates these fictional figures into two men, with whom she enters into adulterous affairs. Her attraction for Léon turns to love one afternoon as she gazes at him and at the same time conjures an image of Charles as she has seen him so many times in the past. When the juxtaposition of the images of these two men causes her to compare them, Léon emerges as the superior. Thereafter, Léon becomes the focal point for her marital boredom as he reappears in her imagination "taller, more handsome, more polished, more indistinct" than he actually is. Thus, by the time the two are reunited, Emma is primed to fulfill her romantic dream of a passionate relationship with him.

Her imaginative vision of the opera singer becomes the final determining force that propels her into an affair with Léon. As she listens to the singer, his voice "seemed to her no more than the echo of her own consciousness and the illusion which cast its spell over her, something out of her own life." When she sees Léon at the opera, she transfers her feelings for the singer to him, making their union inevitable.

Emma's affair with Rodolphe is sparked by her evening at La Vaubyeeard, where, for the first time, she experiences the intoxicating world of the upper class, a world she wants desperately to make her own. The evening is capped by her waltz with a viscount, which embodies for her the "luxurious life which she must soon abandon." Later, as Rodolphe tries to convince her to give in to her desires, she recalls images of the viscount and of Léon. The juxtaposition of these images with the presence of Rodolphe and his amorous words causes an imaginative fusion for Emma, who is now ready to allow herself to be seduced.

Emma's fate is determined not only by her nature and her vivid imagination. These biological forces combine with environmental factors that help propel Emma to her tragic end. Flaubert notes the social reality of the world Emma is so desperate to enter as he describes the gentlemen seated at the dinner table at La Vaubyeeard: "in their indifferent glances was the serenity of passions daily gratified." Their "brutality" emerges "in fairly unexacting matters where force is employed and in which vanity takes pleasure: the handling of blooded horses and the society of abandoned women."

Rodolphe recognizes Emma as one such "abandoned woman." He callously manipulates her feelings after he determines that she is "gaping for love like a carp on the kitchen table for water." Thus he knows that he will be able to seduce her with loving words and attention. Revealing his selfserving nature, he worries about "how to get rid of her afterwards." Her affair with Rodolphe initially brings her the fulfillment she lacked in her relationship with Charles. However, soon Rodolphe decides that "Emma was like all mistresses; the charm of newness, slipping down little by little like a garment, revealed unclothed the eternal monotony of passion." As a result, he abandons her, leaving her more despondent than she had been before the affair.

Emma's financial situation exacerbates her depression, causing her to spend more extravagantly and thus increasing her debt. Her vision of herself enjoying the comforts of the upper class prompts her to surround herself with artifacts from that world. She notes the lack of control she has over their financial situation and over her romantic imagination when she decides that she would rather have a boy than a girl, since "a man, at least is free … but a woman is continually restrained." She insists that a woman is governed by "the fragilities of the flesh and the restrictions of the law. Her will … flutters in every wind; there is always some desire urging her on, some convention restraining her."

As in the situation that the men in Crane's open boat discover for themselves, no benevolent force comes to Emma's aid. She feels a sense of abandonment after she tries to talk to the local priest but cannot make him understand her desperate plight. When she tries to explain her unfulfilled needs to him, he insists that all one requires is to be warm and well fed. After Rodolphe leaves her, she again searches for spiritual solace "but no sensation of rapture descended to her from heaven, and she would rise, her legs wearied, with a vague consciousness of having been vastly cheated." Susanna Lee, in her article on the novel for Symposium, writes that "God's absence or indifference … is a foundational event in Madame Bovary, the explicit reason for Emma's contaminated existence."

Emma's passionate nature and her vivid imagination combine with the social forces of her age to determine her fate. As Emma faces the disintegration of her love affair with Léon and the humiliation of her financial situation, she desperately searches for some form of salvation, but can find none. As a result, she determines that her only escape can be through death. Flaubert's compelling portrait of a desperately unfulfilled woman in Madame Bovary places the novel firmly in the naturalist tradition as it engages readers in a tragic study of free will and determinism.

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on Madame Bovary, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

William C. VanderWolk

In the following essay, VanderWolk examines the "considerations of gender" in Madame Bovary to identify Flaubert's views on masculine versus feminine writing.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Flaubert's heartwarming short story "Un coeur simple," collected in Trois Contes (1977), has been celebrated for its realistic portrait of human dignity and compassion.
  • In L'Education sentimentale, published in 1869, Flaubert presents his assessment of his generation in the story of Frédéric Moreau and his friends in Paris during the 1840s.
  • Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (1984), written by Lynn Hunt, offers a comprehensive overview of French culture during and after the Revolution.
  • In Anna Karenina, published in 1877, Leo Tolstoy chronicles the passion and tragic fate of his married heroine as she enters into an affair with a dashing officer.

Questions of gender in recent French literary criticism have generally been posed by feminist critics. Writers such as Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, and Luce Irigaray have pointed out that men do not need to pose such questions, as they are already in possession of the dominant language system. "What does it mean to write as a woman or to read as a woman?" has been a common question in feminist criticism whether one speaks of a feminist critique, a Female Aesthetic, gynocritics, or gynesis. Male critics have indeed rarely felt the need to formally pose such a question, but with the rise of gender theory, the comparative study of sexual difference, men have felt empowered to ask: "What does it mean to write as a man or to read as a man?" All of this is complicated by the question of essentialism and the debate over whether or not critics should distinguish between male and female modes of writing and reading. All anti-essentialist feeling rejects biological sex as the determining factor in writing or reading. Yet even after one eliminates biological sex as a consideration, the masculine/feminine opposition does not disappear. Feminists in particular continue to struggle with the question of whether it is best to assimilate or differentiate feminist views from the mainstream, whether to identify an "écriture féminine" or aspire to an "écriture" that would be equally accessible to women. The most fruitful avenue of exploration seems to be to raise questions of gender, both biological and non-biological, and asking such questions may, after all, be the most significant contribution of feminist criticism to the study of literature.

Writers as diverse as Jean de Meung, Christine de Pisan, Marguerite de Navarre, Rousseau, Stendhal, and Balzac have debated various influences—positive and negative—of women writers and readers in particular. The twentieth century has expanded and heightened the discussion, in both intellectual and emotional terms. In this paper, I will examine Gustave Flaubert's thinking about the problem of masculine versus feminine writing to show that many of the questions pertinent today were being asked over a century ago by an author whose misogyny today's feminists would find reprehensible. While Flaubert was concerned with maintaining a "masculine" style, a stylistic study of his writing yields less than a thematic one. It is in the very threads of Flaubert's story that we find categories of sexual difference which give rise to the questions we are highlighting here. A brief examination of considerations of gender in Madame Bovary will show how Flaubert attempted to put his views into literary practice and will underline the importance of the questions raised for twentieth-century gender criticism.

In a letter to his longtime lover, Louise Colet, Flaubert declares: "Je suis un homme-plume. Je sens par elle, à cause d'elle, par rapport à elle et beaucoup plus avec elle." "Homme and "plume" are key words in the formulation of Flaubert's aesthetic, for they represent the author in his entirety. The man—and I think we must read the masculine into this term rather than the generic "man"—would not exist without the pen—this is a common thread throughout Flaubert's correspondence. But just as importantly, the pen's existence depends on the man, the essentially masculine man who controls the language system. Flaubert was keenly aware of the role of gender in writing, and he used male images to describe the writing process: "Cet homme qui se dit si calme est plein de doutes sur lui-même. Il voudrait savoir jusqu'à quel cran il peut monter et la puissance exacte de ses muscles. Mais demander cela, c'est être bien ambitieux, car la connaissance précise de sa force n'est peut-être autre que le génie." This notion of strength is seen in Flaubert's development of an impersonal style: "Rappelons-nous toujours que l'impersonnalité est le signe de la Force." "Homme" and "plume" thus become inextricable forces in an aesthetic based on the assumption of male ownership of the pen.

Flaubert's correspondence reveals him to be a misogynist, his reflections on women and sex consisting mainly of vulgarities transmitted to male friends and condescending homilies sent to Louise Colet. Sartre points out that for Flaubert, "comme pour ses amis, la copulation est éminemment publique; les filles sont propriété collective, on partouse, on se raconte grossièrement les parties de jambes en l'air, on se communique les bonnes adresses." Despite such stereotypical male attitudes, however, and perhaps because of them, Flaubert was deeply concerned with questions of gender difference when it came to literary creation. He writes, "j'aime les phrases males et non les phrases femelles comme celles de Lamartine", and though we can imagine what he means, Flaubert never specifically spells it out.

Ironically, the most powerful character to emerge from this fundamentally masculine enterprise was a female, Emma Bovary. In creating his heroine, Flaubert was forced to examine how a male creates a female character and how much transference took place between himself and Emma. Baudelaire immediately recognized the male in Emma, calling her androgyny her greatest strength as a literary character, "une ame virile dans un charmant corps féminin." While Emma is indeed androgynous, we can say the same for her creator. While he has infused his character with a masculine part of himself, he has in turn assumed a certain female sensibility in his characterization and even his most sacredly impersonal language. Paradoxically, then, Flaubert would seem to be the kind of androgynous writer feminist theorists have idealized yet without any of the sensibilities feminists attach to their notion of such a writer.

Flaubert was acutely aware of his emotional involvement with his character, and he occasionally found himself almost physically ill after a difficult passage. He writes to Louise Colet:

Il faut t'aimer pour t'écrire ce soir, car je suis épuisé. J'ai un casque de fer sur le crâne. Depuis deux heures de l'après-midi, j'écris de la "Bovary." Je suis à la Baisade, en plein, au milieu. On sue et on a la gorge serrée. Voilà une des rares journées de ma vie que j'ai passée dans l'Illusion, complètement, et depuis un bout jusqu'à l'autre. Tantôt à six heures, au moment où j'écrivais le mot "attaque de nerfs," j'étais si emporté, je gueulais si fort, et sentais si profondément ce que ma petite femme éprouvait, que j'ai eu peur moimâme d'en avoir une.

Flaubert has invested himself in the novel through identification with Emma. He is polymorphic as well as androgynous. The fictive illusion captures him as do the fictive illusions of Emma's reading. Yet the misogyny remains very much in evidence in a term such as "ma petite femme." There exists at once sameness and difference, and the feminine Other Flaubert finds within himself bears no resemblance to the other woman Hélène Cixous describes: "There always remains in woman that force which produces/is produced by the other—in particular, the other woman … Text: my body—shot through with streams of song; I don't mean the overbearing, clutchy "mother" but, rather, what touches you, the equivoice that affects you, fills your breast with an urge to come to language and launches your force … that part of you that leaves a space between yourself and urges you to inscribe in language your woman's style." Everything is different/difference here between Flaubert's Other and Cixous's as well as between their conception of "force" in writing. And the difference does not stem solely from biological considerations but is seated in the fabric of writing itself. Flaubert is concerned with the preservation of the dominance of male over female, whether in the conception of a Romantic heroine or the formulation of a writing style. Cixous, on the other hand, proposes that a woman can write with a force equal to the male's. Flaubert's "androgyny," then, is a false one, as his incorporation in his character remains incomplete. Yet we must be careful not to dismiss the emotional input of the author, for it is significantly sexually inflected, and it raises questions of gender in our minds as well as Flaubert's.

Emma's well-documented projection into the literary characters she envies is not accompanied by any of the defenses Flaubert provides for himself when he projects himself into his character. In her utter reliance on the validity of literature, she loses herself in the illusions of metaphor, what René Girard calls "external mediation." Despite Flaubert's complete dispersal of self into every element—human and natural—of his scene, he is still conscious of the fiction: "Mais je redoute le réveil, les désillusions des pages recopiées." Taken into the seduction scene during the act of creation, Flaubert the artist still realizes he must go through the work of revision. After allowing the restraints of self to be broken, Flaubert returns to assert his mastery over the written word. The illusion of immediacy and immersion is broken. Fiction is no longer authentic life; he is no longer seduced by the metaphor. This is the ultimate masculine act, the immersion in language, the realm of the Father.

Emma, whose lack of gender definition has been noted, finds her downfall in her inability to leave fiction, especially a fiction she has entered after the very seduction scene Flaubert has just described writing. Lucette Czyba has noted this dichotomy between Flaubert's and Emma's relation to fiction. Czyba sees the writing of Madame Bovary as a "dépassement" of Flaubert's romantic youth. "Le texte ne reproduit pas en effet passivement les thèmes anesthésiants de l'idéologie dont l'héroïne est victime mais les présente de façon à produire activement les conditions d'une lecture démystificatrice." Emma's attitude, however, is " 'romantique' car elle conserve l'illusion d'éprouver des désirs spontanés alors qu'ils sont en fait médiatisés." Emma's incorporation into fantasy is a complete metamorphosis. Her present and her past are part of the metaphor. Yet her fictive world eventually disintegrates. The very scene in which her mental illusions are destroyed is also, like the seduction scene, one which demonstrates Flaubert's dispersal into the novel.

Rejected by Rodolphe, ignored by Léon, all Emma has left is the memory of her loves. Forced into recognizing that her literary models have failed her, she experiences an attaque de nerfs that resembles Flaubert's own nervous attacks which began in early 1844. In a letter to Hippolyte Taine, Flaubert described those attacks as "une maladie de la mémoire, un relachement de ce qu'elle recèle. On sent les images s'échapper de vous comme des flots de sang." Flaubert's description of Emma's attack echoes his own: "elle ne souffrait que de son amour, et sentait son âme l'abandonner par ce souvenir, comme les blessés, en agonisant, sentent l'existence qui s'en va par leur plaie qui saigne."

Association between the open wounds and death is deliberate on Flaubert's part; if Flaubert's own attacks signaled a possibility of literal death, Emma's attacks correspond to the death of her fictional self. The distinct images of Emma's memory explode "à la fois, d'un seul bond, comme les mille pièces d'un feu d'artifice." She is fragmented, a disassociated body. Her memory has become divorced from herself, and without her fictive models or her memory, she no longer has the assurance of identity. Emma's body is divorced from the body's experience and from language. Lacan's theory of the fragmented body describes this process at separation: "This experience (when the body senses its split from the Real) can neither be included in the Imaginary, the realm of illusory wholeness, nor can it be part of the Symbolic, the domain which grants a conditional identity. The traumatic moment can thus return in psychosis as the experience of the 'fragmented body', unique for every subject, remainder and reminder of this fracture, appearing in art as images of grotesque dismemberment." Emma feels herself fragmenting, and language fails to prevent it from happening. Without the prerogative of the masculine, i.e., writing, Emma is condemned to fragmentation.

Critics such as Michal Peled Ginsburg see Emma's downfall more in her inability to narrate than in her immersion in literary reverie. If Emma were able to tell her story as other Flaubertian characters have (Mémoires d'un fou, Novembre, La Tentation de Saint Antoine), she would be conscious of the repetitive nature of her experience and would then have the power to escape the complete immobility in which she finds herself. Ginsburg writes: "Emma dreams not too much but too little—too little not in terms of the practical welfare of a provincial woman but in terms of the possibility of creating fiction, of coming into being as a narrator." Flaubert thus keeps Emma in a woman's place, in silence.

Marguerite Duras generalizes this idea of men imposing silence on women: "The silence in women is such that anything that falls into it has an enormous reverberation. Whereas in men, this silence no longer exists … Because men have established the principle of virile force. And everything that emerged from this virile force—including words, unilateral words—reinforced the silence of women. In my opinion, women have never expressed themselves." Yet Emma's silence has repercussions that go beyond the simple recognition of women's silence. Emma is not simply a woman who does not write; she is a fictional character whose creator does not permit her to do so. By looking at some of her attempts to write, we may better understand Flaubert's motives.

Emma, while dreaming of becoming a famous novelist, writes only letters to her lovers. As Naomi Schor has pointed out, Emma's letter writing goes through three stages. At first, Emma writes letters in order to receive letters from her lovers. She takes "pleasure in the communication forbidden, impossible on the speech plane." Emma later uses her correspondence in an attempt to revive a waning passion: "… dans les lettres qu'Emma lui envoyait, il était question de fleurs, de vers, de la lune et des étoiles, ressources naïves d'une passion affaiblie, qui essayait de s'aviver à tous les secours extérieurs." Finally, when Emma sees in Léon only the same emptiness she found in her husband, she attempts to remystify him in writing: "… en écrivant, elle percevait un autre homme, un fantôme fait de ses plus ardents souvenirs, de ses lectures les plus belles, de ses convoitises les plus fortes." Emma the writer thus remains as ineffectual as the women Hélène Cixous describes who write in secret because they are ashamed, because writing is "reserved for the great—that is for 'great men'." By the end of this third stage, Emma no longer writes in hopes of having a letter in return; she writes to purge herself of the monotony of her life.

Schor concludes her analysis of Emma's writing by claiming that on one level, at least, Emma triumphs over Homais and comes to represent Flaubert's view that writing has a feminine sex:

It is not by chance that the writing apprenticeship and the 'virility apprenticeship,' if I may call it that, follow paths which ultimately converge at the time of Emma's affair with Léon, for their affair marks the triumph of the imaginary over the real, this being the precondition of all writing. If, insofar as the effect on the real is concerned, Homais' writing surpasses Emma's; considered in terms of the 'reality effect,' it is without any doubt Emma's (Flaubert's) writing that surpasses Homais' for the 'reality effect' can only be achieved through a total renunciation of any real satisfaction, can only be the just reward of sub-limation, i.e., castration. For Flaubert writing thus has a sex, the sex of an assumed lack, the feminine sex."

If we reconsider "the triumph of the imaginary over the real" as an essential precondition of writing, Schor's conclusion can be brought into question. It the imaginary is seen as stemming from the collection of experiences each author has in his or her memory, then we could say that the triumph of memory over the real is the essential precondition of writing. And since Emma's memories focus largely on works of literature, for her—and I submit for Flaubert—writing retains the masculinecoded connotation it has traditionally had. Writing thus does not represent a lack, but a fulfillment in the transformation of memory into language. Flaubert's desire to write "des phrases mâles" is representative of his desire to translate his memories into writing.

Flaubert, unlike Emma, captures his memories and activates them in his literary creation. According to Charles Bernheimer, Flaubert creates "with the blood issuing from the wound of memory, be it Emma's, his own, or the accumulated archival memory of the nineteenth century." Flaubert thus escapes the fate he has prepared for his main character. By dispersing himself throughout his fiction, Flaubert becomes an integral part of each work. He becomes his own reader as he grapples with his memories, and in a sense becomes the hero of his own work. Victor Brombert surely speaks for many readers when he writes: "A curious symbiotic relationship exists between Flaubert and his heroine. The novelist … draws his fictional creature toward himself, and discovers himself in Emma even more than he projects himself into her … [Flaubert] is to some extent playing hide and seek with himself." This relationship between author and character is not as curious as it seems when one takes gender into account. Flaubert is fascinated by Emma's femaleness, just as he endows her with a certain maleness. As we have seen, he does not allow Emma to win the game of hide and seek that he is playing not only with himself but with her, but if he did not let her play, she would lose much of her force as a character.

If Flaubert is the hero of his own work, then he must necessarily be a reader of himself, creating a new relationship between author and reader. Marcel Proust's observation "En réalité chaque lecteur est quand il lit le propre lecteur de soimême" remains true, but the author has added himself to our numbers. By doing so, he allows the reader to share his memories, and in a sense to become a collaborator of the work. Fusion of author and character results in a fraternity between author and reader which allows the reader to find truth and beauty in the universal. For Flaubert, this universal is decidedly masculine-tinted for it can be attained only through the strength of masculine prose (presumably, Lamartine would be excluded).

Reader/writer/participant/reader once again—these are all facets of the man who was in constant pursuit of truth, beauty, and self-understanding. Flaubert never allowed his character to escape her bovarysme because he never allowed her to discover the unifying process of the artist. In 1852 he sent this very Baudelairian statement to Louise Colet: "Ne fautil pas pour être artiste, voir tout d'une façon différente à celle des autres hommes?". Flaubert's characters were among the "autres hommes" whose view of the world and whose goals were often different from the artist's. Their search for self-understanding was invariably derailed by an equally strong desire for happiness, a goal of second rank in Flaubert's hierarchy: "Ne senstu pas qu'il y a quelque chose de plus élevé que le bonheur? que l'amour et que la Religion, parce qu'il prend sa source dans un ordre plus impersonnel? … Je veux dire l'idée." The artist is able to accomplish what his characters cannot: he can transfer his memories and personal preoccupations into writing, and by reading the idea of himself which he has created, he can better understand himself.

This last statement must, however, be viewed in the context of Flaubert's own terminology as it pertains to gender, for otherwise it would be incomplete. He writes of these "autres hommes," a group into which I have placed his characters, including Emma Bovary. Although I have attributed to her certain masculine traits, she is decidedly female. Going one step further, if we ignore the physical sex of these "autres hommes" for a moment, is Flaubert not indeed referring to those who are not artists and therefore not controllers of language, i.e., females? Is not the list of things that Flaubert disdains—happiness, love, and religion—an enumeration of interests that nineteenth-century French society assigned primarily to women? And finally, in distancing himself from anything personal, is Flaubert not trying to eliminate the feminine from his writing? Flaubert was a man writing with the force of a man for an audience of men who presumably would best understand his work. (He always had his male friends, Alfred Le Poittevin or Louis Bouilhet, critique his work, rather than Louise Colet. He preferred to critique hers.) Yet his encounter with Emma Bovary clouded the waters somewhat for him, and he was forced to reexamine his position, even though he did not fundamentally change it.

Flaubert's notion of the idea ("Idée") is clearly linked to his fascination with the power ("Force") of writing, the strength so closely gender-identified with the masculine. His correspondence describes this "Idée" not as an idea, for Flaubert even writes that he is not much interested in ideas, but rather as an integral part of style: "… l'âme courbée se déploie dans cet azur, qui ne s'arrête qu'aux frontières du Vrai. Où la Forme, en effet, manque, l'Idée n'est plus." The composing of Madame Bovary was Flaubert's conscious attempt to eliminate all but "la Forme," to write his "livre sur rien." Even though he is unable to succeed in such an undertaking, it is important that he was always conscious of his stated goal. Even if Emma Bovary shares some of herself with Flaubert, and even if the text writes its author as much as the author writes it, Flaubert never ceased to write the masculine, attempting to eliminate "les phrases femelles" and all attachment to anything outside the cherished "Idée."

Flaubert's concept of writing presents a direct contrast to modern-day feminist theories of feminine writing. For Hélène Cixous, for example, "l'écriture féminine" is located in a realm where all difference has been abolished. There are no rigid boundaries of style because writing is a never-ending process:

The book—I could reread it with the help of memory and forgetting. Start over again. From another perspective, from another and yet another. Reading, I discovered that writing is endless. Everlasting. Eternal.

Writing or God. God the writing. The writing God.

Although there is no difference here, it is still the realm of the omnipotent, represented for Cixous by the omnipotent mother. Thus it is that writing, while emanating from a sexless world, can, for Cixous, be gender-identified as feminine; hence the appellation "l'écriture féminine."

In light of definitions of "l'écriture féminine," what then is the place of Flaubert's "écriture masculine" in the history of literary criticism? Certainly, since the rise of feminist criticism, style based solely on a masculine conception of strength has been roundly condemned. And yet some of the more forceful proponents of a new writing that might be considered genderless call for just such a strong language, but one that will not be limited to males. Kristeva speaks of a "spasmodic force" of the unconscious which disrupts women's language because of their strong links with the pre-Oedipal mother-figure. Yet it is actually disrupting the traditional male-dominated system of language and, far from weakening feminine writing, strengthens it from within the system. "For Kristeva … there is a specific practice of writing that is itself 'revolutionary', analogous to sexual and political transformation, and that by its very existence testifies to the possibility of transforming the symbolic order from the inside." An author's biological sex is thus secondary to the subject position she or he takes up in determining revolutionary potential.

Certain patterns appear throughout the feminist aesthetic which help shed light on our discussion of Flaubert's view of language in relation to twentieth-century critics. First, we see as a given of feminist theory a rejection of the appropriation of language. The goal is to carve out a place for women's writing, inside or outside of the established order. Second, women's writing squarely places itself in the sociopolitical arena. One cannot discuss women's writing without examining its revolutionary effects outside the world of literature. Finally, for Kristeva and others, gender distinctions disappear. There is no longer any "écriture féminine" or "écriture masculine," only "écriture."

We seem to have come full circle here. For it could be argued that before feminist criticism there was only "écriture." The radical difference, of course, is that this previous writing was generally written by males for a public subsumed in a maledominant society. Literature by and for females could not be taken quite as seriously. Flaubert wrote according to that essentially male model, but he was not totally comfortable with the assumption of the masculine in his writing. He had to prove constantly to himself that his language was sufficiently "male," so that he would not fall into the trap of Romanticism, into the "female" phrases of Lamartine. Flaubert would certainly have been aghast at the feminine writing proposed by Cixous, for he was fighting to conserve and perfect the traditional Symbolic order.

It would be an injustice to see Flaubert as simply a proponent of male dominance. While he stands for the system feminists are resisting, he was open to questions of gender in the creative process. From a non-gender-identified writing came a style that was consciously male. At the same time, he became aware of the dangers of such a fundamental strategy. Emma Bovary taught him the power of the feminine and allowed him to see himself as he never had before. Flaubert opened a debate that would soon be taken up by Zola in his criticism of Hugo and would continue throughout the Naturalist and Symbolist periods.

Flaubert's world, a world of men, by men, and for men, is not likely to return, precisely because male ownership of language can no longer be taken for granted. Yet through his struggle to preserve that domain, Flaubert necessarily gained consciousness of its arbitrariness. By posing questions concerning gender, Flaubert unwittingly contributed to the evolution of viable alternatives to writing the masculine.

Source: William C. VanderWolk, "Writing the Masculine: Gender and Creativity in Madame Bovary," in Romance Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 2, May 1990, pp. 147-56.


Davis, Lennard J., "Gustave Flaubert," in European Writers, Vol. 7, Scribner's, 1985, pp. 1373-94.

Haig, Stirling, "Gustave Flaubert," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 119: Nineteenth-Century French Fiction Writers: Romanticism and Realism, 1800–1860, Gale Research, 1992, pp. 120-51.

Hemmings, F. W. J., ed., The Age of Realism, Penguin, 1974.

Lee, Susanna, "Flaubert's Blague Supérieure: The Secular World of Madame Bovary," in Symposium, Vol. 54, No. 4, Winter 2001, pp. 203-17.

For Further Reading

Ginsburg, Michal Peled, Flaubert Writing: A Study in Narrative Strategies, Stanford University Press, 1986.

Ginsburg presents a penetrating analysis of the structure and style of Flaubert's work.

Green, Anne, Flaubert and the Historical Novel, Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Green places the novel into its historical and cultural context.

Knight, Diana, Flaubert and the Historical Novel, Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Knight presents a comprehensive psychological study of Emma Bovary and compares her to Flaubert's other characters.

Levin, Harry, The Gates of Horn: A Study of Five French Realists, Oxford University Press, 1963.

Levin places the novel in the realist tradition and compares it to other works in this movement.