An analysis of Flaubert’s use of theme and detail in Madame Bovary

              …first on the eyes, which had been so covetous of earthly splendours; then on the nostrils, avid for warm breezes and scents of love; then on the mouth, which had opened to emit lies, had groaned with pride, and had cried out in lust; then over the hands, which had revelled in sensual contacts; and finally on the soles of the feet, which had once moved so rapidly when she was hurrying to quench her desires. (Madame Bovary, III,8)

This description of Abbé Bournisien administering extreme unction to Emma Bovary, critically punctuated by authorial commentary, serves as a climactic summary of Flaubert’s use of detail to interrelate the themes and motifs of Madame Bovary.  The senses and the organs or conduits of sensation are used directly and symbolically as thematic links throughout the novel, of which the main topics are romantic illusions or blindness, incommunicability. and the sensuous yearning for impossible gratification.  Emma Bovary’s life disintegrates as a result of her romantic illusions and insatiable desires.  Flaubert’s use of detail to thread characters and events together, adds dimension, explores perspective, and sets up the tensions of the novel.

It is significant that Charles is introduced before Emma and that effectively, our first view of Emma is coloured by Charles’ romantic perspective.  The view of Charles on his first day at school serves to introduce the theme of incommunicability that, in different degrees, affects so many of the characters and torments the Bovary marriage.  As a schoolboy, Charles could barely communicate his own name.  His first marriage, contrived by his mother, lacked the warmth and security of understanding and communication.  Heloise, having misrepresented her fortune, tyrannised Charles by her sharp tongue and self-regarding nature.  Later, Charles was to worship Emma blindly, fail utterly to comprehend and therefore satisfy her, and die shortly after her of a broken heart.

The description of Charles’ clothing and appearance emphasises his lack of grace and style, which Emma soon finds repugnant.  He was awkward, submissive, and dull from his severely cut ‘village choirboy’s fringe’ to his ‘badly polished’ hobnail shoes (I,1).  Charles’ limitations were emphasised by his lack of achievement in intellectual pursuits.  He was a mediocre student, ‘impossible now to remember’, and in his further studies ‘understood nothing’, maintaining a tenuous grip on his later studies only by diligent plodding (I,1).

The introduction to Charles by a schoolfellow is also significant in lending later credence of Emma’s rapid disillusionment, as the view of Charles gradually shifts to her perspective of him.  With such inherent dullness, Charles was unlikely to change nor comprehend the need to do so.  After his marriage, his conversation remained ‘as flat as a sidewalk, with everyone’s ideas walking through it in ordinary dress’ (I,8).  His love for Emma was sincere and deep, but the expression of it remained beyond his powers.  Lovemaking rapidly assumed a dull routine: ‘he embraced her at certain hours.  It was one habit among others’ (I,7).  All these details about Charles render Emma Bovary’s plight worthy of compassion.

The first appearance of Emma in her neat, efficient kitchen, gleaming with polished metal and dancing light, and with her grace and studied elegance of appearance, provides a complete contrast to the first view of Charles and, significantly, it is viewed through the eyes of Charles.  Of Emma’s three lovers, Charles alone remains faithful and constant to the end, loving her most and understanding her least.

Two habitual characteristics of Emma are introduced from the first: her habit of biting her fleshy lips when silent and her tendency to gaze outside ‘forehead pressed against the window’ (I,2).  These details reveal her sensuality and her propensity to dream, and they recur throughout the novel to illustrate and emphasise the theme of sensual desire and romantic illusion.  Emma’s insatiable appetite for sensory gratification forever compounds and conflicts with her romantic yearning to escape the confines of her unsatisfactory, bourgeoisie life.

In a story about a sensuous woman, Flaubert neglects no opportunity of bringing descriptions of the senses into frequent and usually erotic play.  Emma, ineptly sewing bandages, repeated pricked her fingers and would ‘put them into her mouth to suck them’, while her beautiful eyes would ‘look at you frankly, with bold candour’ from beneath thick lashes (I,2).  In describing Emma sucking her injured fingers, Flaubert compounds an important thematic link: the hands, besides their functional uses, are also agents of communication and sensation, like the mouth.  Interestingly, it is Emma’s hands that Charles first notices; not attractive in themselves, but with surprisingly white, finely-tapered fingernails ‘cleaner than Dieppe ivories and almond-shaped (I,2); and one of the first indications of the stirring of Emma’s interest in Leon is her observation of his well-manicured fingernails, ‘longer than they were worn in Yonville’ (II,3).  Ironically, Leon kept a pen-knife in his desk to manicure his nails, while Charles kept one in his pocket ‘like a peasant’ (II,3).

Leon’s well-tended hands become reservoirs for his frustrated emotional energy in his leave-taking of Emma: ‘Leon enclosed her hand in his and the very substance of his entire being seemed to pour into this moist palm’ (II,6).  Similarly, the fusing of fingers seals Emma’s acquiescence to Rodolphe’s adulterous overtures at the agricultural show; although at first her hand trembled ‘like a captive dove trying to resume its flight’, but soon afterwards Emma and Rodolphe gaze at one another, dry lips quivering with desire and ‘gently, without effort, their fingers intertwined’ (II,8).  But Emma feeds on romantic illusions and Flaubert highlights these by the use of ironic contrast.  Those instruments of sensuous contact are put to more practical use when Rodolphe, immediately after his love-making and while Emma is still vibrating with passion, turns his hands to the practical and unromantic task of repairing a broken bridle.  Nor is there any delicacy of action when Emma’s hand plunges into the jar of arsenic and stuffs the poison into her mouth.

Emma commits suicide by devouring poison and Flaubert uses the theme of food and ingestion in so many ways that food and drink come to symbolise life itself as a continual process of devouring and being devoured.  For Emma, married life soon became an unappetising collation and conjugal passion a habit ‘like the established custom of eating dessert after the monotony of dinner’ (I,7).  At the Tostes house, where the kitchen smells penetrated the consulting room and the sounds of sick patients were heard in the kitchen, Emma felt that ‘all the bitterness of her existence seemed to be served up on her plate’ (I,9).  Images of food and consumption surround Emma’s life.  Rodolphe sends his clandestine messages to her in baskets of farm produce, including the fateful communication in a basket of apricots, which Emma then has to witness Charles eating with relish.  Symbolically, Emma has ‘fed’ on Romantic literature as a girl and her mother-in-law, recognizing too late that this diet is ‘poisoning her’, belatedly recommends abstinence.

But if food has bitter connotations for Emma, it is seen by some as a kind of panacea.  Her father, with his rather hedonistic attitude towards food and drink, liking his cider ‘full-bodied’ and his ‘legs of lamb rare’, significantly found that his grief at his wife’s death manifested in a ruined appetite, until time healed his sadness ‘bit by bit, crumb by crumb’ (I,3).  Sympathising with Charles’ first bereavement, Rouault laments his inability to provide such restoratives as ‘small pots of cream or stewed pears’ and, indeed, after the benefit of a good meal and by the time the coffee arrived, Charles had forgotten his grief (I,3).  Similarly, Abbé Bournisien, misdiagnosing Emma’s spiritual torment as an alimentary upset, recommends the restorative effects of tea or water with brown sugar (II,6) and characteristically, Leon’s unhappiness is detected by Madam Lefrançois because of his loss of appetite (II,6).

In Charles’ mind, food and sexuality are confused when he contemplates his conjugal nights ‘like those who, after dinner, still savour the truffles they are digesting’ (I,5).  The act of eating and drinking also expresses dissipation and sensuality.  Emma, provocatively licking her glass of liqueur at Les Bertaux, or voluptuously giving herself up to the enjoyment of chilled champagne or maraschino-flavoured ice at Vaubyessard (I,8) are early indications of her propensity to indulge her senses to the utmost, like the debauched old man she sees who had ‘lived at Court and slept in the beds of queens’, and from whose mouth, as he faced his mountainous plate of food, the sauce dribbled as he ate (I,8).

The sumptuous elegance of the meal at Vaubyessard contrasts sharply with the Bovary wedding breakfast, notable for its vulgar collection of guests, its monstrous wedding cake and its sixteen hours of feasting, at which even the horses gorged themselves (I,4).  Characteristically, Emma had the romantic notion of holding her wedding ceremony at midnight.  The Vaubyessard ball is later parodied by the masked ball she attends in Rouen, in which she finds herself in the company of ‘the dregs of society’ (III,6) at the nadir of her own dissolute behaviour.

Blindness and dissipation are interrelated themes recurring throughout the novel.  Emma’s propensity for extravagance was early discerned by her mother-in-law and luxuries soon became so confused with life for Emma that she began to consider her life in terms of spent or squandered illusions (II,10).  Just as Emma saw only the surrounding romance and not the reality of the old duke at Vaubyessard, so she was equally blind to the mundanity of her surroundings at the agricultural show at Yonville, and the location of her ‘honeymoon’ with Leon on the Rouen riverfront, with its caulking hammers, yapping dogs, tar fumes and oily water (III,3).  In hurrying through the meadow to her clandestine meetings with Rodolphe, Emma would sink ankle deep into mud without heeding it.  The two themes come together in the person of the blind beggar, with his oozing, ulcerated face, his grotesque mime and his bawdy little ballad. 

Emma’s moral decline and the disintegration of her marriage are further punctuated by symbolic details.  Her first affaire is associated with the sap and verdure of the open air, whereas her second is symbolized by decay, in the faded decadence of the hotel room in Rouen, the road to which was flanked by ditches of stagnant water (III,5).  In the garden of the Tostes house, to which Emma went as a new bride, stood a plaster statue of a priest with a breviary.  As Emma’s marriage began its inexorable process of decay, so the statue began its own ominous decline, losing a foot and revealing white patches beneath the frost-flaked plaster (I,9) and in transit to Yonville, the statue falls from the wagon and is smashed.

The appearances of the blind beggar encountered en route between Yonville and Rouen are strategically placed to coincide with the deepening levels of Emma’s depravity, thus providing a moral commentary and thematic link.  After appealing to Leon to steal for her, Emma throws the beggar her last five francs and ironically he appears in Yonville as Emma is dying, as if to express his gratitude with his crude serenade.  Her final, horrible laugh of recognition suggests that at the end, Emma is undeceived.

The theme of sight, or blindness, is exploited in another way, by its link with Emma’s habitual tendency to gaze through windows.  This illustrates her propensity to dream and her desire to escape the bourgeoisie confines of her life.  The unrelieved landscape beyond those windows is symbolic of the monotony of Emma’s married life.  Her characteristically romantic yearning for escape finds gratification in the proposed elopement with Rodolphe, but what Emma frequently seeks is oblivion: ‘to escape like a bird, to go off somewhere and recapture her youth, somewhere far off, in the immaculate expanse of space’ (III,6).  Escape and death are interchangeable in Emma’s disillusioned mind.  In the melancholy that rapidly infiltrates her married life, she contemplates the joy of escape; when Rodolphe deserts her, she considers suicide and in her ensuing illness, when she believes she is dying, has a romantic vision of celestial joy, which is the ultimate escape (II,4).  When death finally does approach, however, she discovers that it is neither simple nor beautiful.

As befits Emma’s romantic imagination, her memories are vivid, powerful and spontaneously triggered by sensory stimuli, showing Flaubert’s unerring ingenuity in the exploration of his themes.  The smell of Rodolphe’s hair pomade and the sight of the Hirondelle recall to Emma’s mind the Vaubyessard ball and Leon, and this memory heralds her complicity with Rodolphe (II,8).  A letter from her father, with its misspellings, coarse paper and sprinkling of ashes, stimulates a powerful nostalgia that marks another crisis: the renunciation of Rodolphe and support of M. Homais in persuading Charles to perform the fateful club-foot operation, which would vicariously satisfy her aspirations.  And her final adulterous relationship is preceded by another chain of memories at the theatre in Rouen.

In contrast with Emma, Rodolphe has to try to provoke sentimental memories to inspire the composition of his letter and, failing utterly, resorts to an artificially manufactured teardrop.  His glib and insincere language can be compared with that of another insensitive character, M. Homais, who reports with pompous fluency on the agricultural show and the club-foot operation, and with heartless inexactitude on the blind beggar.  Amongst Homais’ elaborate notions for Emma’s tombstone is a ‘pile of ruins’, which, despite its reference in Romanticism, nevertheless sounds prosaic when compared with the motif of ‘a spirit carrying an extinguished torch’ (III,10) chosen by Charles, who to the end maintains his romantic illusions.

In Madame Bovary, almost every detail has functional or symbolic significance.  By exploring and contrasting reality with sentiment through his various themes, Flaubert depicts the ambiguities of life and makes his novel of a romantic lover powerfully realistic and an indisputable masterpiece.


About the author of this work

Lynette Sofras is a former Head of English at a London High School.  She now divides her work days between editing and writing (mainly) women’s fiction.  You can read about her novels on her website:

Text used was the New American Library Edition translated by M. Marmur.

The full text is available free online at:

Some suggested further reading:


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