C'est Moi: Gustave Flaubert's "Madame Bovary"

By Rebecca A. Demarest
2011, Vol. 3 No. 03 | pg. 1/1

Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is an intricate and compelling tale of a young woman caught in the throes of romanticism, a tale full of rich imagery and authorial allusions to Flaubert’s own life. In fact, he is once quoted as saying, “Madame Bovary c’est moi.” This, however is counterbalanced by his own insistence that “Nowhere in my book must the author express his emotions or his opinions” (Letters 302). Therefore, the reader is left to wonder whether Flaubert has truly managed to keep his emotions and opinions out of his work.

The critic Bernard Paris says, “Flaubert is deluding himself about his personality being absent” (Paris 7). This holds especially true if, as Flaubert claims, he and Madame Bovary are one. The choices Flaubert makes in presenting the story, the closeness to his own life, even his letters all point to the fact that the novel is inseparable from the author.

One point of conversion between Flaubert’s life and this novel is the attitude the novel takes towards Romanticism. It is at once playing up the romantic form but is also condescending and critical about those who read it. Emma spends all of her childhood reading romantic novels and, from a young age has a very definite image of the way the world is supposed to work:

When her mother died she cried much the first few days…Emma was pleased that she had reached at a first attempt the rare ideal of delicate lives, never attained by mediocre hearts. She let herself meander along the Lamartine, listened to harps on lakes, to all the songs of dying swans…She soon grew tired but wouldn’t admit it, continued from habit first, then out of vanity, and at last was surprised to feel herself consoled, and with no more sadness at heart than wrinkles on her brow (Bovary 34).

Emma is in fact pleased at herself for the quality of her mourning, emotions that run only as deep as her skin, as evidenced by the comment about the wrinkles on her brow. She is only concerned with her image, as she openly admits that she continues “out of vanity” to appear the mourning heroine. It is worthwhile to note though that Flaubert’s early work is stereotypical romantic literature. In fact, his work at times becomes so romantic that his friends jeered him and demanded he write something real (Chang). As such, this commentary about Emma’s romanticism becomes much more than a commentary about a realist author against the romantic novel. It has become a commentary on his own work.

This is interesting, because as Paris notes:

“The primary object of Flaubert’s satire is Emma’s romanticism, which is shown to be foolish, derivative, and destructive. Many critics feel that Flaubert sympathizes with Emma’s frustrations, which are blamed on the meanness of bourgeois society, and I think that they are not entirely wrong in sensing that it is not only Emma but also Flaubert who is a thwarted romantic.” (22)

Flaubert’s friends obviously share the narratorial attitudes about the frivolity and uselessness of romanticism. In a flight of romantic fancy, Emma consistently chooses a course of action she believes to hold the greatest passion and intrigue. She throws her wedding bouquet into the fire to symbolize the end of her marriage, just before she becomes pregnant. She carries on affairs, one with a wealthy man, another with a clerk whom she felt she had a connection with and could speak on higher brow subjects, regardless of the accuracy. The clerk, Léon, says

“It is the same with mountainous landscapes…A cousin of mine who travelled in Switzerland last year told me that one could not picture to oneself the poetry of the lakes…and I no longer wonder why a celebrated musician…was in the habit of playing the piano before some imposing view.” (Bovary 69)

Léon has never seen these mountainous views, but he interjects this nugget into a discussion on just how beautiful landscapes can be. It shows that no matter how romantic your inclination, if you pretend to have the culture and class that romanticism requires, you often end up just looking silly. For instance, how is one to obtain a piano in the middle of a mountain range? It is illogical and fanciful.

Paris also notes that Emma “is spellbound by the social elegance and material refinements of this world, but Flaubert subverts her view of it by calling attention to its sordid features.” (11) This is nowhere more evident than on page 48 of the novel when she is examining the shoes that she wore to the one ball they were invited to. “The…soles were yellowed with the slippery wax of the dancing floor. Her heart resembled them: in its contact with wealth, something had rubbed off on it that could not be removed.” Once again, the characters are coming close to the romantic ideal, trying to move among the higher echelons of society, but they only come away with dirt on their noses, or in this case, wax on their heels. And it dirties them; in this case it actually stains her heart.

And this heightened romanticism has blinded these characters to true and real love. In the case of Emma, Charles. Charles is far from a throw-away buffoon in the novel. He is actually in love with the dastardly woman as evidenced by several passages. Just after the couple are married, Charles “reproached himself for not loving her enough; he wanted to see her again, turned back quickly, ran up the stairs with a beating heart…he came up on tiptoe, kissed her back” (Bovary 29). And when Charles is burying his wife, he puts together a funeral fit for a queen, with nesting coffins and statues (259). He fully and truly loves Emma in this world, though he is blind to her faults. If Emma had not been blinded by romanticism, she may have been able to see the reality of love in her own house.

It can be argued that this sort of commentary on Flaubert’s part is poking fun at his friends who criticized the romanticism in his earlier works. He is recognizing that these characters have taken the romanticism in books too far, that their deluded view of love and society have brought them nothing but pain. However, these characters are not experiencing true romanticism. They do not, as the bard says, now understand the full and true meaning of love songs. They simply pretend that they do. In essence, Flaubert is saying that if you pretend to romanticism, you will fail. However, if you abandon yourself to love as Charles does, you will be happier. For, though Charles is simple and does not understand the depths of his wife’s betrayal until after her death, he loves her even then. Charles is the true romantic of the story, willing to overlook faults and capriciousness out of devotion to his love.

This all goes to show how Flaubert’s material is influenced by his own life. Even the very genesis of the novel was inspired by his friends complaining that he had taken romanticism too far. However, the evidence of his own life’s events are not the only reason to suspect that the novel contains more of the author than Flaubert claims it should. In his letters to Loise Colet he at one point states, “Tonight I finished scribbling the first draft of my young girl’s dreams. I’ll spend another fortnight sailing on these blue lakes, after which I’ll go to a ball and then spend a rainy winter, which I’ll end with a pregnancy” (Letters 303). And, later, he again fails to differentiate himself from his creation with, “I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horse, the leaves, the wind, the words my people spoke, even the red sun that made them half-shut their love-drowned eyes.” (Letters 308)

In these letters, Flaubert talks as though he, himself, is an actor in the novel. In fact, he goes so far as to even claim that he is the setting, the animals, even the very trees of the novel. He is the one sailing, going to a ball, becoming pregnant. He rides under the trees, and, as is implied, is copulating furiously there-under. One cannot mistake the tone of his letters, or his claim that Madame Bovary is he. It is most explicit in its suggestions. Yet, at the same time, he claims that an author’s personality should be absent from their work.

Flaubert apparently believes that he was working towards this end. “I am trying to be impeccable, and to follow a geometrically straight line. No lyricism, no comments, the author’s personality absent. It will make sad reading; there will be atrociously wretched and sordid things” (Letters 301). Thus begins the discussion as to what, exactly, Flaubert means by an absence of personality. He admits that an author “must sing with one’s own voice.” (Letters 305) which means that the way in which an author writes will be distinctly different from any other author, which immediately has in influence over what the audience is reading.

I believe that what Flaubert means when he says that the personality of an author must be absent, that he must make no commentary in the novel is exactly that; the author literally makes no comments within the novel, nor does he draw undue attention and judgment on any character in particular. However, it is impossible to restrict the author from being in the work as the work is born wholesale out of the cloth of the author. It is his dreams and ideas which have coalesced onto the page, as such, the work itself is as much a manifestation of the author as anything else.

As Paris says, “Flaubert plays the role of fate himself, making fools of his dreamers and rewarding only those whose success is not worth the having” (23). The author is in full control of the story and as such, the story does exactly what he wants. Flaubert intentionally created a story about a Romantically obsessive woman who fails to recognize true love around her until she is destroyed because that was the story that he was compelled to tell. To fool oneself into thinking that an author can absent himself entirely from a novel is foolish.

However, Keith Rinehart is correct in stating that, “in this novel Flaubert has managed to express, impersonally, so much of himself” (Rinehart 300). While the novel is laced through with lightly veiled references to Flaubert and his work, gender questions that suggest an even closer approximation of Emma and himself, and a running theme of the destructive force of romanticism, I believe he still manages to portray them in an impartial manner.

Flaubert is presenting us with the story and characters as they unfold, as they stand after they have left his imagination for the page. Whatever commentary is further derived from them comes from the fabric of their character. And these characters are presented with an almost absolute lack of judgment in the narration of their story.

To start with, Charles Bovary is apparently presented as a fool from the very beginning. His teacher exclaims after a rather humiliating introduction to Bovary’s new class that Charles must “conjugate ‘ridiculus sum’ twenty times” (Bovary 8). However, these sorts of external characterizations from other characters in the novel are balanced by lines such as “although from time to time some paper pellet flipped from the tip of a pen came bang in his face. But he wiped his face with one hand and continued motionless, his eyes lowered” (8). In this instance of bullying, Charles is actually shown to be an upright fellow. He doesn’t make a fuss, doesn’t tattle to the teacher, he simply ignores the taunts of his classmates. However, I feel the most prominent example of this duality of presentation surrounds Emma herself.

Firstly, she does try to be a good wife, but society fails her. After her first brush with falling in ‘love’ with men other than her husband, she goes to the local clergy, attempting to find peace within the scripture, to perhaps suffer as a martyred woman, a woman sacrificing herself for the nobility of her marriage. A Romantic notion, but nonetheless a more socially appropriate one than multiple affairs.

However, when she approaches the clergyman, she is met with nothing but a rebuff. Not in that he listened and didn’t care, more that he never listened. Her entreaties for congress were met with responses such as, “after all, we are born to suffer, as St. Paul says” and “Ah! Don’t tell me of it…This morning I had to go to Bas-Diauville for a cow was all swollen; they thought it was under a spell” (92). The priest is fully preoccupied with his charges and doesn’t even realize that Emma is in true emotional distress, thinking that she was falling in love with Léon and wishing for an audience.

In this instance, the audience has sympathy for the poor woman as she is truly trying to do the right thing, and come clean about her indiscretions before they overwhelm her. Emma is not only portrayed as a woman obsessed with a kind of lifestyle she cannot reach, but also as a woman who is failed by society. Those around her are no better than she, whether obsessed with their own piety and purpose, or the thought of promoting their own schemes.

This includes characters such as the merchant. He persistently persuades Emma to go deeper and deeper into debt, making her believe that what she is doing is the right thing when in fact, it is all manipulation and leads to her ruin. “Did you think, my dear lady, that I was going to go on to the end of time providing you with merchandise and cash, just for the love of God? I certainly have to get back what I laid out, let’s be fair” (233). He had no intention of doing ought but bringing about the dissolution of all her property for his own gains. However, the language this is presented in is extraordinarily factual and contains no overtone of malice or judgment: “as a result of buying and not paying, of borrowing, signing notes, and renewing these notes, which grew ever larger each time they fell due, she had ended by preparing a capital for Monsieur Lheureux” (232). Nowhere in these sections does Flaubert comment that it was bad of her do this, there are no adjective or adverbs that could be considered to modify the simple language he uses. No, he is simply stating that Emma made a mistake.

Particularly poignant is the scene with the blind beggar along the route to the city. In fact, if there is any commentary in the novel, I feel it rests along the shoulders of this diseased fellow. He sings songs with lines such as, “Often the warmth of a summer day / Makes a young girl dream her heart away” (210) while Flaubert generalizes the rest of the songs with “And all the rest was about birds and sunshine and green leaves.”

If we follow the logic that Flaubert introduces in his letters, he is not only Emma, but also this poor creature that assaults the Hirondelle repeatedly. Thus it might be said that he is directly commenting on the novel itself, particularly during later confrontations. But even here, the lines of the song are anti-inflammatory, non-judgmental. It only says the young girl is dreaming her heart away, not that she suffers for it, not that she should pay for it, simply that it has happened.

Emma herself seems to acknowledge this when on page 238, “Emma, overcome with disgust, threw him a five-franc piece over her shoulder. It was all her fortune. It seemed a grand thing to her to throw it away like this.” She is paying him in order to get him to stop, in order to get away from the self-loathing he seems to inspire. And the only emotional commentary within this passage is a moment of free indirect discourse from Emma herself. She feels it is a grand thing to so throw away her money. The author does not comment on it at all, but simply reports what Emma herself is feeling.

So then, this leaves the reader of Flaubert’s work with an interesting question: How can Flaubert be absent from his own work? It is almost painfully obvious how he has based characters, emotions, and events off of his own life. He openly admits as he is writing it that he is at one with the work, fully immersed insofar as he is everything in the novel down to the leaves. And at the same time he strives to be absent.

At this point it boils down to a question of exactly what the role of an author truly is. Chekov at one point was quoted as saying that the artist’s role is not to solve a problem, simply to present a problem correctly and accurately. An extension to that is that the artist, or author, is to simply lay out the events, the situation, and allow the readers to learn what they will from it. To this end, it would appear the Flaubert is indeed succeeding. While his characters are immersed in harmful affairs and money dealings, goading each other into performing unnecessary surgeries, and eating poison, Flaubert as narrator stays equidistant to all of it. His language is carefully neutral where it could become judgmental and judgments are only ever made in the free indirect discourse within his characters heads. And the characters are the problem. Portraying them accurately is his job. To this end, Flaubert has succeeded in being “impassive, impersonal, and impartial”. He allows them to present themselves and their problems without judgment.


Chang, Yu-Jin. Madame Bovary. Emerson College. 22 September 2010. Classroom Lecture.

Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Trans. Eleanor Marx Aveling and Paul de Man. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005. Print.

Flaubert, Gustave. “Letters about Madame Bovary.” Madame Bovary. Trans. Eleanor Marx Aveling and Paul de Man. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005:300-312. Print.

Paris, Bernard J. “The Search for Glory in Madame Bovary: A Horneyan Analysis.” American Journal of Psychoanalysis Mar. 1997: 5-24. Print.

Rinehart, Keith. “The Structure of ‘Madame Bovary.’” The French Review Feb. l958: 300-306. Print.

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