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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (1857)


Before her wedding-day, she had thought she was in love; but since she lacked the happiness that should come from that love, she must have been mistaken, she fancied. And Emma sought to find out exactly what was meant in real life by the words felicity, passion and rapture, which had seemed so fine on the pages of books.

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (1857)

Emma Bovary is the second wife of a provincial doctor characterized by plodding decency and his love of a wife he does not understand. When, after her willing seduction by the shallow Rodolphe, Emma suddenly announces to no one “I have a lover! A lover!” we know why she is so happy: for the first time this avid reader has managed to make her disappointingly ordinary existence conform to the conventions of fiction (150). Famously, marriage is the final destination toward which the story of a fictional heroine traditionally tends, but Emma's story begins only after hers. Madame Bovary works by literalizing the symbolism of the traditional female plot that makes marriage a kind of figurative death, the conclusion to the heroine's existence on the page, the point at which her story ends. The outcome of all plots is, you might say, plotlessness, and death is the plotless condition par excellence because it is where nothing else can happen. Emma's “failing” is that she cannot see that marriage is supposed to be, death-like, an end to all adventures.

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