Madame Bovary by Gustave FlaubertTable of Contents
1. Madame Bovary: Introduction
2. Madame Bovary: Gustave Flaubert Biography
3. Madame Bovary: Summary
4. Madame Bovary: Themes
5. Madame Bovary: Style
6. Madame Bovary: Historical Context
7. Madame Bovary: Critical Overview
8. Madame Bovary: Character Analysis
Madame Bovary: Essays and Criticism
¨ The exploration of naturalistic themes in Flaubert's novel.
¨ Writing the Masculine: Gender and Creativity in Madame Bovary
10. Madame Bovary: Compare and Contrast
11. Madame Bovary: Topics for Further Study
12. Madame Bovary: Media Adaptations
13. Madame Bovary: What Do I Read Next?
14. Madame Bovary: Bibliography and Further Reading
15. Madame Bovary: Pictures
Madame Bovary: Introduction
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
Madame Bovary 1
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.
Madame Bovary: Gustave Flaubert 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
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  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.
Madame Bovary: 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 hemust
marry, she finds him a forty-five-year-old wealthy widow. Charles finds Héloïse ugly and thin. After they
Madame Bovary: Introduction 2
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
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.
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
Madame Bovary: Summary 3
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
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
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.
Madame Bovary: Themes
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 re-creates 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.
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.
Madame Bovary: Themes 4
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.
Madame Bovary: Style
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, selfserving 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
Madame Bovary: 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
Madame Bovary: Style 5
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.
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.
Madame Bovary: 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.”
Madame Bovary: Character Analysis
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
Madame Bovary: Historical Context 6
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, 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 is the daughter of Charles and Emma 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
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
Madame Bovary: Character Analysis 7
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 fortyfive- 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.
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.
Madame Bovary: Character Analysis 8
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, 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.
Madame Bovary: Essays and Criticism
The 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 beneficent, 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
Madame Bovary: Essays and Criticism 9
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 self-serving 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
The exploration of naturalistic themes in Flaubert's novel. 10
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.
Writing the Masculine: Gender and Creativity in Madame
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
Writing the Masculine: Gender and Creativity in Madame Bovary 11
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
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 mâles 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 âme 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 moi-mâme d’en
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
Writing the Masculine: Gender and Creativity in Madame Bovary 12
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
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 relâchement 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
Writing the Masculine: Gender and Creativity in Madame Bovary 13
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
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 sublimation,
i.e., castration. For Flaubert writing thus has a sex, the sex of an assumed lack, the
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
Writing the Masculine: Gender and Creativity in Madame Bovary 14
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 faut-il 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 sens-tu 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
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
Writing the Masculine: Gender and Creativity in Madame Bovary 15
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
Writing the Masculine: Gender and Creativity in Madame Bovary 16
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.