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Literature / Madame Bovary

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Gustave Flaubert's uber-detailed novel about the eponymous Madame Emma Bovary, a middle-class doctor's wife who has the imagination to want more out of life, but not the cleverness to avoid unrealistic romantic fantasies. When first her stolid husband and then her adulterous lovers refuse to behave as they do in her favourite novels, the betrayal leads her to violent dissatisfaction, ruinously extravagant debt, and finally suicide.

Purposely melodramatic, it was an implicit critique of the bourgeoisie, a class of which Flaubert was unashamed to be a member. It was also a deconstruction of the Romantic novel. Since modernism is a reaction to Romanticism, said to be the forerunner of modernism à la Franz Kafka.

Madame Bovary contains examples of:

  • Animal Theme Naming:
    • Charles Bovary (and later Emma, when she takes his name) has a name that, even in story, clearly evokes cattle (boeuf in French), and not to their credit.
    • Madame Bovary's lover, M. Leon, marries a woman by the name of "Leboeuf" which reflects this nicely.
    • Both of Emma's lovers fit into the theme as well: the name Rodolphe comes from a Germanic root meaning "wolf", and Léon literally means "lion". Note that they are both hunter animals contrasting the herbivorous cattle.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Both Bournisien, the local priest, and the chemist Homais frequently quote The Bible in their religious arguments.
  • At the Opera Tonight: After Emma's fit of illness, Charles decides that a visit to the opera in Rouen would do her good.
  • Auto Erotica: It's the back of a carriage but pretty much the same thing.
  • Beard of Sorrow: After his wife dies Bovary grows one of these.
  • Betty and Veronica: Gender-inverted: the sensitive, poetic Léon is the Betty and the rakish, libertine Rodolphe is the Veronica to Emma's Archie.
  • Black Comedy: Depending on your perspective — and amount of sympathy for Emma — there are definite overtones of this.
  • Blatant Lies: Hard to pick one. Nearly everything Rodolphe says fits the bill. Emma and Lheureux also get their fair share.
  • The Casanova: Rodolphe.
  • Cessation of Existence: Surprisingly for the time period, death, particularly the death of Emma is described just like that, with terms like the sudden advent of nothingness.
  • Chekhov's Lecture: The lecture when Homais tells off Justin for being careless with handling of their chemicals, and reveals the location of arsenic in front of Emma, who uses it on herself in the end.
  • Chiaroscuro: Inasmuch as you can pull off a visual trope on the written page, Flaubert invokes this in his descriptions and symbolism, both to highlight Emma's ideals and just how far from reality they are.
  • Consummate Liar: Emma becomes one during her tryst with Leon, when it becomes a mania, a need, a pleasure, for her.
  • Death by Despair: Charles' first wife. After Emma killed herself and Charles discovered her infidelity, he also died this way.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Charles Bovary. The first section of the novel follows his life, from school to his meeting with Emma and their marriage, after which the focus switches on her.
  • Description Porn: During the ball in the middle of the book author even describes the fake roses in the jackets with drops of artificial water to make them look more natural.
  • The Ditz: Charles is pretty much established as this from the get-go. His opening scene, which recounts his schooldays, ends with him in the corner wearing the dunce cap.
  • Downer Ending: Emma commits suicide, Charles follows her into the grave soon afterwards and all their wealth is consumed by debts, leaving their daughter in the hands of a poor relative who sends her to work in a cotton factory.
  • Driven to Suicide: Because it's so romantic...
  • Extreme Doormat: Charles for Emma, so very much. She despises him for it.
  • Film of the Book: Thirteen film adaptations to date. Renoir's 1993 movie version is probably best known.
  • Foil: Homais and his family end up as counter-foils for Charles Bovary. They’re both medical practitioners of average skill in slightly different fields, yet while Charles was married to the beautiful, headstrong Emma, Homais had a plain, steadfast wife. By the end of the novel Charles’ household is bankrupted by Emma’s lavish spending and they die within a year of each other, while Homais is still prosperous and happily married with three children, and ended up with an Imperial Cross.
  • Foreshadowing: Emma's worship of ill-fated female historical or legendary figures such as Mary Queen of Scots, Isolde or Galswinthe foreshadows her own unhappy ending.
  • Good Is Dumb: Charles may not be bright, but he's at least one of the moral characters in the novel. His dumbness makes him easily exploitable by Emma, though he still barely outlives her.
  • Hypocrite: Emma and Rodolphe are very frequently hypocritical in their manners and behaviour.
  • Invoked Trope: Emma tries to set up the tropes that she loves in Romantic fiction. This being a Deconstruction, she turns out to be Wrong Genre Savvy and constantly ends up all the worse for it.
  • Irony: For all that Emma tries to distance herself from Charles due to finding him dull and far from her Romantic ideal, he ends up being the character who best lives up to it. Of course, he doesn't do that until after her death, and it ends up being the death of him, too.
  • It's All About Me: Really brought home at Emma's death scene. She doesn't want to see her husband or her child but after the priest anoints her in the Last Unction ritual ... she asks for a mirror to stare at her own reflection.
  • Last-Minute Baby Naming: Emma and Charles decide on a name only after their child is born, while Emma is still recovering. Emma's suggestions reflect her character and romantic outlook on life, as she initially wants to name her daughter after the ill-fated Isolde (from the Arthurian legend) and Galswinthe (the queen of Nestria). She eventually names her daughter after a young aristocrat she had seen at a ball.
  • Loan Shark: Thanks to too much Retail Therapy (see below).
  • Manipulative Bastard: Lheureux, who goads Emma into the aforementioned Retail Therapy to eventually take control over all of Charles' estate.
  • Meaningful Name: Often crossing into Ironic Name territory.
    • Emma means "whole" or "universe". Emma Bovary sees herself as the protagonist of a novel, so she pretends the universe revolves around her.
    • Charles means "man" and by extension "husband". He fully embodies this role by being utterly submissive to his wife.
    • Rodolphe can be translated as "glory-wolf", and he wants to conquer women's, and Emma's, hearts like trophies.
    • Léon - as noted above - literally is "lion", but in the end he turns out to lack any resolve or courage to go along with Emma's desires.
    • Lheureux: heureux usually means happy but it still had its older meaning of successful.
  • Ms. Imagination: Oh, Emma! She was a victim of this trope, being an intelligent and beautiful woman with vivid imagination who lacked common sense. She imagined herself as an aristocrat or at least a noble city dweller. She was a farmer's daughter who married an unimagniative and oafish middle-class doctor and they live in a small town. She suffers terribly, and her family even more so.
  • My Girl Is Not a Slut: Double-subverted. When Charles finds one of Emma's extramarital love letters after her death, his first reaction is jealousy, and then, tormented by grief as he is, he decides that this makes Emma more alluring and desirable, as no man could have helped falling in love with her! But when he finds the rest of the letters, he falls apart, realizing that she loved other men.
  • National Stereotypes: Homais mentions a detailed collection of stereotypes of women from various nations, including German women as moody, Italian as passionate and French as adulterous.
  • New Media Are Evil: Given that the novel is set in the first half of 1800’s, the “new” media in question is theatre, at least from the local priest’s perspective.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Hippolyte, a stablehand for Yonville's inn, has a clubfoot but still gets around better than most people with normal feet. With Homais' encouragement, Charles attempts a surgical procedure on Hippolyte to cure his clubfoot. However, the operation goes wrong and Hippolyte loses his leg to gangrene.
  • No Dead Body Poops: When Emma commits suicide the corpse is stated to have a stream of black liquid coming out of its mouth when it’s accidentally moved.
    • When Voltaire is mentioned at one point in the book, it’s with a myth that he died eating his own excrement.
  • Not Distracted by the Sexy: When Emma attempts to convince Lheureux to extend her debt period, she puts her hand on his knee and he is repulsed with disgust.
  • Pair the Spares: Felicite, the servant of Emma, and Justin, the apprentice of Homais, are implied, but never outright confirmed, to be in a relationship.
  • Parental Neglect: Emma hardly cares at all about her daughter, leaving the nurse and her husband to care for her. Having said that, it wasn't all that uncommon at the time amongst lower middle class.
  • Perfect Poison: Defied. The death by poison is long, drawn out, and disgusting — the final betrayal of Emma's romantic fantasies.
  • Porn Stash: Homais discovers Justin with the book Conjugal Love, which includes illustrated engravings.
  • Pretentious Latin Motto: One is put onto Emma’s tomb by Homais. He has racked his brains to come up with Sta Viator amabilem conjugem calcasTranslation . The great irony is that in spite of the epitaph being in Latin, it's fairly conventional and unimaginative, something Emma would have loathed.
  • Protagonist Title: Guess.
  • Purple Prose: An exceptionally well done example.
  • Relationship Sue: invokedWhat Emma seems to look for from her experience of romance novels, and is disappointed when she can’t find anything like that in real life.
  • Retail Therapy: Emma buys a lot of jewels, dresses, and furs she can't afford to try to keep her mind off her unhappiness.
  • Running Gag: Homais’ attempts to get the Imperial Cross. Eventually, he succeeds.
  • A Simple Plan: Homais’ idea to try to cure clubfoot is meant to be just a simple procedure of cutting the errant tendon for Charles. Then the foot grows gangrenous and the limb ends up having to be amputated.
  • Social Climber: Emma wants to be this because she feels it's the kind of life she was destined for, but she fails because of her and Charles' lack of common sense and manners. When invited to the Vaubyessard ball, her husband makes a terrible impression through his oafish behavior, and they both commit a faux pas by leaving far too late. A viscount who had danced with Emma passes them by and accidentally drops his cigar case, but Emma does not return it, even though it would have been a chance to renew the acquaintance.
  • Spiritual Antithesis: Flaubert wrote this in response to a dare to write a story that differed from the romantic works he'd written before - Emma is a woman trying to live her life by the tropes of her favorite romantic novels, and utterly failing.
  • Stalking is Love: Leon has these ideas in the first phase of their relationship, before she has met Rodolphe.
  • Thinks Like a Romance Novel: Emma reads too many romance novels, and is convinced the world works that way.
  • Took a Level in Jerkass: Homais does it near the end after Emma dies, embarking onto a press campaign full of lies and exaggerations against a homeless leper to get him locked away in an asylum for the rest of his life. After he succeeds, he keeps going with other press campaigns in the name of the public good.
  • Tranquil Fury: Charles enters one when he finally confronts Rodolphe after his wife’s suicide, but it doesn’t last.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Emma wants the world to be like romance novels, and acts as if it is. This ends up leading to her ruin, since she's actually in a very cynical Spiritual Antithesis to them:
    • Emma attempts to have a lover outside of her marriage, but Rodolphe isn’t inclined to run away with her while Leon just can’t live up to her dreams, and she ends up miserable.
    • When Emma attempts to convince Lheureux to extend her debt period, she puts her hand on his knee, and he is repulsed with disgust.
    • Emma and her husband are invited to a ball. Her husband, not knowing anything about social graces, turns everyone off with his behavior, and Emma's social life gets worse as a result.
    • When she can't maintain her lifestyle anymore, Emma decides to kill herself by taking a large dose of arsenic, expecting a quick, romantic, and painless demise. She instead suffers a slow, painful, gruesome death from the poison.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Emma often attempts to justify her actions like this, having consumed dozens of romance novels which play it straight. Similarly, Rodolphe also initiates relationship with her by claiming it all to be fate.