The novel Madame Bovary was written by Gustave Flaubert in 1856. Flaubert was born in 1821, in Rouen, France. His father, being a doctor, caused him to be very familiar with the horrible sights of the hospital, which he in turn uses in his writings. In this novel, Charles Bovary, an undereducated doctor of medicine has two wives in his life. The first, Madame Dubuc, died. Emma Rouault, his second wife, after many affairs commits suicide. The doom of Charles and Emma’s marriage is described by an elaborate connection of symbolic relations. The relationships of the shutter’s sealing bang, Emma’s long dress that keeps her from happiness, the plaster priest that conveys the actions of the couple, the restless greyhound, and Emma burning her wedding bouquet are all images of eternal doom to the couple’s marriage.
Charles Bovary first met Emma Rouault when he was on a medical call to fix her father’s broken leg. Not long after his arrival Emma catches his interest. Her actions satisfy his hearts need for a young, fresh mind and body. The old widow that he is currently married to dies of chagrin. Charles is sadden by this but his mind stays on Emma. After frequent visits to her farm, even after her father’s leg was healed, Charles gives a thought about if he would like to marry Emma but he is uncertain. Her father sees Charles’ interest in his daughter and takes it upon himself to engage the two. He waits until Charles is departing and then confronts him about the engagement. As expected Charles accepts the marriage and the father runs to the house to receive Emma’s acceptance. This was to be shown by the opening of a shutter door. “Suddenly he heard a sound from the house: the shutter had slammed against the wall; the catch was still quivering” (Flaubert 21). The sound that the shutter makes is the beginning of an end. The bang seals the never-ending doom of the couple’s marriage (Turnell 101).
Emma’s wedding is a special occasion. It is held in the far off pasture of their farm. After all the guests arrive the wedding procession proceeds to the pasture. As they walk “…she stopped to raise it [her dress], and daintily, with her gloved hands, to pick off the wild grasses and prickly thistles” (Flaubert 23). Her dress is symbolic of the obstacles to her happiness. She is at her wedding and she has to stop and pick grass and twigs off of her dress. The fact that she is suppose to be happy at her wedding and she is not, is the obstacle. Another example Flaubert gives mentions how Rodolphe “without slowing down, leaned across whenever it happened, and pulled it loose…” (Flaubert 137). By helping her remove her dress from the snagged stirrup, he was clearing the obstacle and was able to make Emma happy. Unlike Charles who simply stood by and waited at his wedding. Emma’s dress is an obstacle with her lovers (Turnell 103).
The plaster priest, first seen in Tostes in Emma’s garden, is symbolic of the pride of their marriage and later the deterioration of their religion. As she examines the garden for the first time she notices the plaster priest posed reading the bible. As time goes on the plaster on the priest starts to flake off, showing the demoralization and fragileness of her religion (Turnell 103). The foot of the plaster figure also breaks off over time. This is symbolic of the future failures in Charles’ medical practices. The plaster priest continues to be a symbolic figure in Charles and Emma’s lives. Emma becomes depressed due to her failing attempts to be accepted as high class. Charles, showing concern with Emma’s health when she begins drinking vinegar and coughing from the depression, arranges a move to Yonville. The plaster priest falls off the cart and “…shattered into a thousand pieces…” (Flaubert 76) at the arrival to Yonville. This event foreshadows the doom of the end of their marriage (Turnell 103).
While in Tostes Charles receives a greyhound from a patient. Emma has previously seen pictures in the convent she spent her childhood in, of high-class people walking their greyhounds. Due to that Emma is always seeking to be considered high-class, especially after being invited to the ball unknowingly just as the high-middle class representative of her community. She thinks the ownership of a greyhound will enhance her social status. One day as she sits under a pavilion, allowing her dog to roam aimlessly, she begins to think of how bad her marriage is and how she wants out. “‘Oh, why did I ever get married?”‘ These are the first thoughts of the marriage’s damnation. As the greyhound wanders through the park it symbolizes the restless heart and mind of Emma. Emma becomes depressed when she finds out that she is not invited to the ball this year. The depression is so deep that Charles has to move them to Yonville. The greyhound runs away on their way and pushes Emma’s depression over the edge and she continues the thoughts of a doomed marriage (Turnell 103).
At the beginning of their marriage Emma and Charles come back to his house. Charles has not taken “the other bride’s bouquet!” out of his room until “She looked at it.” He then takes it to the attic. Emma sees this and automatically thinks of what will be done with her bouquet. As Emma’s thoughts drift away from Charles and her marriage to him, she finds herself pursuing other affairs. These affairs led her to the end of her marriage. She burns her wedding bouquet. This symbolizes the end of their doomed marriage. The ashes that fly into the air are compared to black butterflies, which takes upon itself a mortifying image of the delicacy of Emma and yet her dark, unrelenting urn to end the horrible marriage that she is trapped in (Turnell 103).
These symbolic relationships represent Charles and Emma’s doomed marriage. Flaubert shows that from the day he made them meet until death does them part they are doomed and will not succeed in love or happiness.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. 1857. Trans. Lowell Bair. New York: Bantam, 1981.
Turnell, Martin. “Madame Bovary.” Flaubert: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Raymond Girauld. Twentieth Century Views. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1964. 97-111.