Madame Bovary

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Themes and Colors
Abstraction, Fantasy, and Experience Theme Icon
The Sublime and the Mundane Theme Icon
Love and Desire Theme Icon
Causes, Appearances, and Boredom Theme Icon
Truth, Rhetoric, and Hypocrisy Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Madame Bovary, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

All of us make use of both detail and abstraction in the effort to interpret our experience. We arrange a vast amount of sensory detail into lower-level abstractions, like the concept of a tree, and higher-level abstractions, like the concept of loyalty. We interpret new experience according to previously established abstractions, and we alter our abstractions to fit our experiences. We cycle between experience and abstraction, adjusting the one and the other, in order to…

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Flaubert, who knew Don Quixote by heart even before learning to read, shares Cervantes’s habit of always putting the beautiful next to the hideous, the lofty next to the petty, and the tragic next to the mundane. Hardly a chapter goes by that does not contain the juxtaposition, but the most pointed examples center on the beggar with the infected eyelids. He is there, leering and suffering, when Emma sits dreaming rosily about her…

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Since Emma’s romance novels describe appearance rather than experience, love, for Emma, is identical to the appearance of love, to certain expressions of love. Her third-rate novels have no fully developed characters, only cardboard stereotypes, so she comes to understand love not as a feeling of admiration and affection for a distinct person, but as a series of pleasure-giving interactions. Love, for her, is desire, sex, and flowery letters: she does not recognize that…

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Charles falls in love with Emma, and then shows his love through kindness, care, admiration, and desire. The emotion of love is the cause, and the behaviors of love are the result. But Emma inverts the cause and the result: she simulates the appearances and behaviors of love without the impetus of actual love, and she expects the simulation to bring her happiness – her flawed approximation for the emotion of love. Her true…

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In several asides, Flaubert insists that human speech does not often convey anything true about the speaker or the subject matter: it either surpasses its subject, or fails to reach it. Language is full of cliché and abstraction, rhetorical tools that allow the speaker to convince the listener of something quite other than the truth, and therefore it is often a conduit for conscious or unconscious hypocrisy: “Language is indeed a machine that continually amplifies…

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