The Meanings of Madame Bovary

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Madame Bovary is the portrait of a woman trapped in an unsatisfactory marriage in a prosaic bourgeois town. Her attempts to escape the monotony of her life through adulterous liaisons with other men are ultimately thwarted by the reality that the men she has chosen are shallow and self-centered and that she has overstretched herself financially. In despair, Emma resolves her predicament by taking her own life. What should we make of this rather slight story, initially based on the life of a real woman who, like Emma, scandalized her village with her affairs with other men and her extravagant lifestyle? Is there a lesson or a moral to be drawn from Emma's folly and the tragedy of her death? Part of the difficulty - and, indeed, of the pleasure - of reading Madame Bovary is that Flaubert refuses to embed the narrative within an overriding moral matrix, refuses explicitly to tell the reader what lesson s/he should draw from the text. Madame Bovary was a novel shocking to its contemporaries because it did not appear to articulate a clear and unambiguous moral viewpoint and it is because of the ambiguity of the novel's moral stance that Madame Bovary found itself taken to court for its offence to public and religious morality. The challenge today's readers are left with is how to make sense of Emma's story.

A common interpretation of the novel maintains that Emma Bovary's downfall is due to the fact that she is both foolish and romantically inclined. Emma comes to a tragic end because she has been self-dramatizing and impulsive and, above all, because she has believed in the ideals of the Romantic literature of which she has been an avid consumer since adolescence. This is the view adopted by many critics who have viewed Emma as mediocre and trite, her dreams shoddy, second-hand and second- rate. The literary critic Allen Tate, for example, described Emma as a `silly, sad and hysterical woman' (quoted in Brombert: 1966, p.84). For further discussion of this reading...
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