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January 9, 2019

Literary Realism and Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary

by Donna Huber

Madame Bovary is the first translated book I remember reading. It was part of my summer reading list in high school and I really enjoyed it. Whenever I think of Madame Bovary, I remember the wedding bouquet. Perhaps in Emma, I saw my own ideas of romance being overly influenced by the novels I read.

Today, I thought I would share some background information on Flaubert and Literary Realism as well as digging a bit deeper into some of the literary themes and devices used in Madame Bovary.

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About the author

Gustave Flaubert was a highly influential 19th-century French novelist. He was born on December 12, 1821, in Rouen, which is located in northern France. His father was the director and surgeon at the local hospital. Flaubert began writing as a child but went to Paris in 1840 to study law.

While in Paris, he became apart of the literary circle (Victor Hugo was an acquaintance). In 1846, he was afflicted with epilepsy and he decided to abandon his studies. He moved away from Paris to an area near Rouen where he remained for the rest of his life. He traveled a good bit, most notably to the Middle East where he contracted syphilis.

Flaubert never married nor had any children, but did have a few mistresses. He was quite open about his sexual exploits with prostitutes during his travels. His most serious relationship is considered to have been with poet Louise Colet.

He fell into financial ruin due to business failures with his niece's husband. He was in ill health in his last years, most likely from sexually transmitted diseases. He died on May 8, 1880.

The writing of Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary is Flaubert's debut novel. He had written a novella, November, which he completed in 1842. Prior to Madame Bovary, he had written another novel - The Temptation of Saint Anthony - in 1849, but after reading aloud this first version to a couple of contemporaries (reportedly over a 4-day period where he did not allow them to interrupt), he was told to throw it into the fire. He then began to work on Madame Bovary.

It took him 5 years to complete the novel which was first published in serial form in 1856. It was challenged by the government for its immorality. Both Flaubert and his publisher were acquitted and when it was published in book form it received a warm reception. It became a bestseller in 1857.

Today, Madame Bovary is considered Flaubert's greatest masterpiece and as one of the most influential works in literary history.

A new literary movement was born

With the publication of Madame Bovary, Flaubert started the trend of Realism in novels. Literary Realism is part of the larger art movement of Realism. The art movement began in French art in the 1850s. As a literary movement, it was popular with French and Russian writers from the 1850s to the early 1900s.

According to Wikipedia, Literary Realism was an attempt to represent familiar things as they are (no artistic interpretations). "Realist authors chose to depict everyday and banal activities and experiences, instead of using a romanticized or similarly stylized presentation."

At the time of Madame Bovary's publication, realism was just emerging as an artistic movement. Romanticism was the current literary trend (with its height of popularity being 1800-1850) in which emphasis was placed on emotion and individualism. (Popular Romantic authors include Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lord Byron, and Jane Austen).

As Madame Bovary was published at the cusp of the transition between Romanticism and Realism, it was not readily understood as attempting something new. By the time of his death in 1880 though, Flaubert was considered the most influential French Realist.

Book summary

Madame Bovary
Emma Bovary is beautiful and bored, trapped in her marriage to a mediocre doctor and stifled by the banality of provincial life. An ardent devourer of sentimental novels, she longs for passion and seeks escape in fantasies of high romance, in voracious spending and, eventually, in adultery. But even her affairs bring her disappointment, and when real life continues to fail to live up to her romantic expectations, the consequences are devastating.


Madame Bovary takes place in the rural towns of Yonville and Rouen, France.

Characters, themes, and devices

The cast of Madame Bovary is quite large and many of the characters embody qualities that Flaubert detested of the current age. Many of the characters can be described as unintelligent.

Charles Bovary is a country doctor and Emma's husband. He is not the greatest of doctors. He truly loved Emma.

Emma is kind of a silly woman. Her ideas of romance are based on the novels she's read. However, reality never lives up to fiction. Her views on love and romance are too idealistic for her to ever find happiness.

Homais owns the apothecary. It is thought that he stands for the new middle-class spirit and progressive outlook that Flaubert detested so much.

The Blind Beggar, whom Emma encounters several times on her trips between Yonville and Rouen (where she has affairs), may be a symbol of either death or the devil. He happens to pass underneath her window when she is dying.

The priest at Yonville, Bournisien, is another unintelligent character. It is thought he represents the ignorance and inadequacies of rural clergy the mid-1800s.

With all of the "unintelligent" characters, you may have guessed a major theme of the novel is human stupidity. I have in my notes from high school that another theme is "Romantic Malady". I had to go look that one up as I wasn't quite sure what that was referencing. It is means pretty much what it sounds like - the romanticizing of illness.

I've already mentioned two symbolic elements of the story - the beggar and the bouquet. Contrast and irony are literary devices employed in the novel. The narrative technique is also a literary device unique to the novel.


"Flaubert is the great novelist of inaction, of boredom, and immobility. But he did not know it clearly before writing Madame Bovary; he discovers it as he composes his novel, and not without some anguish. He thereby reveals to us or confirms what is perhaps a law of creation: we invent only insecurity; the new is disquieting, and the first gesture of the discoverer us a gesture of rejection. But in this groping and disturbed quest, he finds what is really his own. In the act of composing her recognizes himself And this verifies another law of creation: even in as voluntaristic an artist as Flaubert, one as convinced as he is that everything is in the conception adn the plan, invention is inseparable from execution; the conception of the work is completed in the operations that bring it into being." ~ Jean Rousset, "Madame Bovary or the Book About Nothing" from Flaubert, 1964.

"Several myths continue to distort our perspective on Madame Bovary. Flaubert set so much store by technical perfection, he so vociferously denied the intrinsic merits of a 'subject' and proclaimed instead the supreme importance of style, he complained so bitterly of the tortures of composition and of the desperate baseness of his Norman setting that it is only to easy to believe that the novel was for him primarily an exercise in self-discipline, perhaps even a much-needed therapy to rid himself of his disheveled romanticism. The subject had supposedly been suggested to Flaubert to help him achieve literary sanity, after Louis Bouilhet and Maxime Du Camp, summoned for a solumn consultation, advised him to throw the manuscript of La Tentation de Saint Antoine into the fire." ~ Victor Brombert, "Madame Bovary: The Tragedy of Dreams" from Gustave Flaubert, 1989.

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Donna Huber is an avid reader and natural encourager. She is the founder of Girl Who Reads and the author of how-to marketing book Secrets to a Successful Blog Tour.

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  1. Another classic I've never read. (You're starting to give me a complex. LOL!) It's interesting to see how Flaubert's lifestyle may have informed his writing and how he influenced a new era of literature.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction