Madame Bovary

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Abstraction, Fantasy, and Experience Theme Analysis

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.
Abstraction, Fantasy, and Experience Theme Icon

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 maintain a connection between them – the connection that we call knowledge. But the balance between abstraction and experience is different for each person. Madame Bovary explores the psychology of a person who always chooses abstraction over experience as a guide to action, and who derives her abstractions not from her own life but from sentimental novels.

Like Don Quixote, Emma abstracts a set of rules from a literary genre and then imposes those rules onto a complicated reality, which exceeds and contradicts those rules at every turn. But unlike Quixote, Emma never learns to adjust her abstractions according to her experiences. She ignores everything that does not fit well with the rules of romance novels, and deems irrelevant anything that falls outside their province. That means she blinds herself to anything not directly related to love, beauty, and sensual luxury, and to any love that doesn’t strongly resemble the love in novels. She then finds that almost her entire life is unreal to her: her marriage, her child, her town, all her pursuits. Only her love affairs with Léon and Rodolphe, which are made to resemble the affairs in books, seem to have any value. Léon himself lives in similar world of abstractions, and Rodolphe knows that world well enough to pretend as part of his efforts at seduction. The men’s artificiality and insincerity paradoxically allow Emma to experience the affairs as real and true. The affairs dissolve shamefully, life seems to run to nothing, and Emma senses a vague disillusionment: the exhaustion of ideals growing stale. But she holds fast to them, and dies with them.

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Abstraction, Fantasy, and Experience Quotes in Madame Bovary

Below you will find the important quotes in Madame Bovary related to the theme of Abstraction, Fantasy, and Experience.
Part 1, Chapter 5 Quotes

The universe, for him, did not extend beyond the silken round of her skirts.

Related Characters: Charles Bovary, The elder Madame Bovary
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

The beginning of Charles' marriage to Emma is marked by the former's utter devotion and infatuation. Flaubert details the doctor's every tender feeling towards Emma over the course of the day: in sum, the whole of his attention is directed at Emma, while already she only feels lukewarm towards him.

The gulf between the husband and wife is already evident to the reader; while Charles cannot conceive of a world beyond Emma's "skirts," she does not feel an equivalent love. Emma dreams of ineffable, vague romances — her universe is the stuff of novels—but reality, even a dull one, satisfies the much more practical Charles.

Yet despite Emma's fanciful nature, Flaubert reminds readers that she belongs fully to her material and financial circumstances. Emma worries about her clothing and jewelry throughout the book, and even Charles’ love is also, in part, a love for her “silken” clothing, her aesthetic sensibilities and expensive taste.


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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 the books.

Related Characters: Emma Bovary
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of Chapter 5, Flaubert describes Charles' blind affection for Emma and her own more ambivalent feelings. She already understands her mistake: bliss has not immediately followed her marriage because she never truly loved Charles.

Here, readers first encounter Flaubert's worries about language. Emma wants to "find out exactly what is meant in real life by [three] words," to understand how words can describe and capture her lived experience. Readers should, of course, ask themselves this same question as they read Flaubert's text: can an abstract word like "felicity" match so-called real life? Madame Bovary is a book about distortion, the gaps between reality and our transcription of it. Flaubert even ends the chapter with the noun "books," hinting that (mediocre) literature will go on to play an important role in Emma's life. This bittersweet moment already tells us of Emma's permanent dissatisfaction, which goes on to become a self-annihilating lust for physical delights and material goods. Emma is always seeking and never quite finding. 

Part 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

Familiar with the tranquil, she inclined, instead, toward the tumultuous. … From everything she had to extract some personal profit; and she discarded as useless anything that did not lend itself to the heart’s immediate satisfaction.

Related Characters: Emma Bovary
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

Just as Chapter 5 ends with the word "books," Chapter 6 begins with Emma's experience of the sentimental novel "Paul et Virginie." In this section about Emma's upbringing, Flaubert makes it clear that books shape Emma's childhood and adulthood: in Catholic school, she relishes all opportunities to starve and purify herself. 

Emma's romantic nature is, in some ways, merely a compulsion to commodify her own life. Familiar with the structures and patterns of love stories, she tailors herself and her experiences to these standards and "discards" all that remains. (The words "profit," "extract," and "discarded" here should remind readers that Emma is still very tethered to the corrupt material world, despite her daydreams of abstractions.) Flaubert comments on this misuse of literature, which, in his estimation, should not serve as an ethical model or example (unless as a deeper mode of thinking, rather than acting). Emma is wrong to mimic the behavior she discovers in novels: the starving and praying and moaning. Again and again Emma fails to understand that love itself, particularly the love depicted in popular fiction, cannot be an end or a goal. 

Part 1, Chapter 7 Quotes

Charles’s conversation was as flat as any pavement, everyone’s ideas trudging along it in their weekday clothes, rousing no emotion, no laughter, no reverie.

Related Characters: Charles Bovary
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Flaubert offers us a glimpse of Charles through Emma's eyes. She finds her husband insufferably dull, incapable of witty conversation and uninterested in entertainment. 

This is a subtle instance of so-called "free indirect discourse" in the novel: the omniscient narrator temporarily inhabits a character's consciousness, channeling the character's thoughts while never resorting to the first-person point of view. Through repetition and accumulation, the narrator emphasizes "emotion" and "laughter" and "reverie" in this section, the stuff of Emma's fantasies. And the central metaphor, a derogatory allusion to the middle class, typifies Emma's preoccupation with wealth and glamour. She finds "workday clothes" repugnant and her scorn seeps into the narrator's voice: the result is a scathing portrait of Charles and also a mockery of Emma's own elitism and vanity. She fails to understand that witty banter (foreign to Charles but very familiar to Rodolphe, her lover in later chapters) often is merely a cover for selfishness and arrogance.

Part 1, Chapter 8 Quotes

Her heart was just like that: contact with the rich had left it smeared with something that would never fade away.

Related Characters: Emma Bovary
Page Number: 5254
Explanation and Analysis:

Emma has trouble adjusting to her old routine after the ball. She is in a foul temper for a while and, as she is putting away her slippers with reverence, notices that their soles are stained from the ballroom’s waxed floors. So too is her heart, she decides, from the night itself.

On the one hand, this is a striking image, rendered even more striking by the grammatical division between the sentence’s two halves. Emma makes this dramatic assertion with confidence (though the text remains in the third person) — the stains will “never fade away.”

And yet, on the other hand, readers shouldn’t hesitate to critique this metaphor and see humor in melodrama. Emma cannot recover from her fleeting glimpse of wealth and, in her fit of despair, compares her heart to a dirty shoe. (The verb “smear” is particularly unglamorous, a far cry from the ball’s elegance and charm.) Flaubert employs such ironic juxtapositions again and again throughout the novel, switching back and forth between sympathy and contempt for Emma.

Part 1, Chapter 9 Quotes

It was Paris, rippling like the ocean, gleaming in Emma’s mind under a warm golden haze. The swarming tumultuous life of the place was divided into several parts, classified into distinct tableaux. Emma grasped only two or three of these, and they hid all the rest from her, apparently representing the whole of humanity.

Related Characters: Emma Bovary
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

Emma’s new purchase, a map of Paris, allows her to imagine all the diverse, complicated scenes unfolding in the capital. She has never seen the city, yet it captivates her.

However, even as Emma imagines the “swarming, tumultuous” excitement of Paris, she does so in a highly stylized, detached way. She sees “tableaux:” in other words, she sees arrangements of people and things, a simplification and flattening of human experience. (“Tableaux” means "paintings" in French, and readers might consider the role of visual arts in Emma’s daydreaming.)

Slipping back into a more objective point of view, Flaubert then acknowledges the glaring flaws in Emma's fantasies, implying that she mistakes “two or three” of the tableaux for “the whole of humanity.” She lets pleasing images of ambassadors and duchesses distract her from the poorer and darker parts of Paris. This passage bears a certain resemblance to an earlier one, when local peasants shattered a window during the ball and peered at their fashionable counterparts. Flaubert takes care to emphasize the wealth disparities in nineteenth-century France, as well as showing Emma’s indifference to them.

Part 2, Chapter 3 Quotes

She wanted a son; he would be strong and dark, she would call him George; and this idea of having a male child was like an anticipated revenge for the powerlessness of her past. A man, at least, is free; he can explore each passion and every kingdom, conquer obstacles, feast upon the most exotic pleasures. But a woman is continually thwarted.

Related Characters: Emma Bovary
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:

Flaubert first introduces Emma’s pregnancy a few paragraphs earlier, and the whole matter receives very little narrative attention. Charles is delighted by Emma’s pregnancy, and both husband and wife anticipate a son. Of course, Berthe’s birth, a few paragraphs later, is then a disappointment for Emma, undermining any healthy relationship between mother and daughter.

Emma’s thoughts about her unborn child in this section align with her usual fantasies: she hopes her infant will be like the hero of a novel, someone “strong and dark.” Emma is so detached from herself and her environment that she cannot consider her child as a real person, only a two-dimensional character.

Yet Flaubert also comments on gender in this passage, differentiating it from similar earlier moments. In Part 1, Emma does not devote a great deal of thought to the injustices of marriage. She curses her fate, but only later in the text does she perceive Charles’ relative freedom and her own wretchedness.The final sentence — “a woman is continually thwarted” — is again somewhere between omniscient narration and internal monologue. And it’s bitterly ironic: Emma’s own hopes are “thwarted” by Berthe’s birth (as Berthe, Emma assumes, is destined to grow up thwarted as well) and the disappearance of the imaginary George.

Part 2, Chapter 9 Quotes

At last, she was to know the pleasures of love, that fever of happiness which she had despaired of. She was entering something marvellous where everything would be passion, ecstasy, delirium; blue immensity was all about her; the great summits of sentiment glittered in her mind’s eye, ordinary experience appeared far below in the distance, in shadow, in the gaps between these peaks.

Related Characters: Emma Bovary
Related Symbols: “The big blue country”
Page Number: 150-151
Explanation and Analysis:

Emma and Rodolphe consummate their illicit love in the woods; when they return, Emma looks in the mirror, finds herself changed, and begins to daydream. 

The fantasy here unfurls in a single long sentence, wrapped around a central metaphor. Love, for Emma, is "blue immensity" — she is at the peak of a mountain, surrounded by nothing but the loveliest blue, far from the petty trivialities of Yonville (or reality itself, essentially). Emma has finally reached her heart's desire: love. And the moment is indeed climactic for that very reason. The protagonist feels the very emotion she has been hounding since adolescence, the passion described in her favorite novels.

And yet Flaubert also reveals it to be pure abstraction, a feeling so detached from material reality that it ceases to have any intelligible meaning. Emma wants a love untethered to any person or place, but Flaubert dismisses this as an impossibility. The ironic accumulation of abstract words — "passion, ecstasy, delirium" — imply skepticism. The spatial distinction between love and "ordinary life," peak and nadir, indicates that Emma's perfect blue love is only a manifestation of her haughty arrogance.

Part 2, Chapter 12 Quotes

Emma was just like any other mistress; and the charm of novelty, falling down slowly like a dress, exposed only the eternal monotony of passion, always the same forms and the same language. He did not distinguish, this man of such great expertise, the differences of sentiment beneath the sameness of their expression.

Related Characters: Emma Bovary, Rodolphe Boulanger
Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:

While Emma and Rodolphe remain passionate, he becomes increasingly annoyed by her melodramatic outbursts and her endless gifts. He lumps her together with the rest of his past mistresses: they all use the same language to describe their love. 

In this passage, Flaubert hints at his own complicated relationship with language. On the one hand, he warns against Emma's tendency toward cliché and hyperbole, repeating the adjective "same" (and the noun "sameness") in order to highlight its monotony. On the other hand, Rodolphe is equally culpable, refusing to look for the "differences of sentiment" that differentiate the various mistresses. Flaubert is wary of language, since it can disguise truth and complexity, but he also seems to advocate for charity between interlocutors here. Emma is flawed, but she is fully herself, hardly indistinguishable from other women. 

Readers might also note the intriguing simile in this passage, a comparison between novelty and elegant clothing. The relationship duplicates, on a grand scale, each individual encounter, with its progression from flirtatious artifice to a sort of bleak nudity. And yet this nudity is not any more honest than the artifice, since "the same forms and the same language" appear here, too. 

And yet, in the immensity of this future that she conjured for herself, nothing specific stood out: the days, each one magnificent, were as near alike as waves are.

Related Characters: Emma Bovary, Rodolphe Boulanger
Related Symbols: “The big blue country”
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

Rodolphe and Emma plan to flee with Berthe together; this plan makes Emma quite happy, improving her relations with her mother-in-law. At night, she dreams of her future with Rodolphe, but "nothing specific [stands] out."

Readers might consider how the "waves" here have something in common with the "blue immensity" of Chapter 9. (In both cases the word "immensity" appears, and Emma envisions herself surrounded by an all-encompassing blue substance.) Her heart's desire, pure romantic bliss, lacks some necessary specificity — it's formless and shapeless. Each wave, each day, resembles the next. The words "and yet" point to the need for specificity; love without any particular details is impossible abstraction.

Even with the verb "conjured for herself" (and a more literal translation might be "made appear for herself"), Flaubert indicates that Emma exists less in material reality, and more in a romanticized and novelized world, full of imagined futures and abstract passions. 

Part 2, Chapter 14 Quotes

Whenever she went to kneel at her Gothic prie-dieu, she called upon her Lord in the same sweet words she had once murmured to her lover, in the raptures of adultery. It was meant to arouse faith, but no delectation descended from on high.

Related Characters: Emma Bovary
Page Number: 199
Explanation and Analysis:

As she recovers from her lingering illness, Emma turns back toward religion. Charles offers her many books about theology, most of which confuse and agitate her. 

Emma first developed her interest in religion while in Catholic school, where the nuns praised her piety. However, even then, Emma was only confusing the trappings of devotion with devotion itself. She prayed, but only because she had read novels featuring pale, saintly young women. Here, too, her extreme religiosity is a charade, not a consequence of faith but an attempt to "arouse faith" and "delectation." For Emma, God is means rather than end, and she fails to understand that this does not conform to Catholic dogma. 

In fact, she conflates godly love and romantic love, hoping both are paths to the "blue immensity" in her imagination. The narrator states this with slight irony, evidenced in the words "sweet" and "raptures." 

Part 2, Chapter 15 Quotes

For now she knew the pettiness of the passions that art exaggerates.

Related Characters: Emma Bovary
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

At the theater, Emma shrugs off Charles's questions and devotes all her attention to the play. The heroine's wedding dress pushes Emma to despair as she remembers her own happy wedding day, a time before her boredom and adultery. However, Emma then adjusts her relationship to the play, viewing it with scorn rather than empathy. 

This shift towards cynicism, of course, comes from Emma's aborted affair with Rodolphe. Having recovered from the incident, Emma allows herself to feel superior and worldly, no longer susceptible to sentimental works of art. Again, the narrator seems to inhabit Emma's mind, despite the use of the third person: Flaubert's free indirect discourse gives readers an often-cruel insight into his characters. We see that Emma feigns cynicism in order to disguise her infallibly romantic nature. In fact, this moment precedes and foreshadows Emma's second adulterous relationship, in which she again turns her life into a novel. 

Readers might also consider how Flaubert depicts art here. Is this play akin to the "decrepit metaphors" that he describes in Chapter 12? How does Flaubert's realism differentiate his own novel from these other art works? 

Part 3, Chapter 1 Quotes

…for that was how they wanted it to have been, each of them now devising for the other an ideal rearrangement of their past. Language is indeed a machine that continually amplifies the emotions.

Related Characters: Emma Bovary, Léon Dupuis
Page Number: 218
Explanation and Analysis:

In Part 3, Leon and Emma reunite and discuss their past, their shared love. Both tell each other lies: Emma exaggerates her illness and Leon pretends to have changed his will for her sake. The narrator drifts away from their conversation at the end of the paragraph, moving towards more a more abstract discussion of language. 

Again readers encounter Flaubert's skepticism. He does not trust language to truly convey feelings and ideas; instead, he believes that words disguise and modify reality. Leon and Emma share an inclination towards dramatic and sentimental diction and each enables the other, remaking the past into a novel. 

In the original French, the narrator compares language to a rolling mill, an obscure machine that flattens and stretches substances. The verb that follows this noun, then, is "allonger," meaning to spread or extend. While Flaubert does imply that language "amplifies" emotions, he also believes that it thins and weakens feelings. Readers might also note that the rolling mill is a machine of the industrial revolution: in some ways, Madame Bovary is a novel about the slow move away towards modernity and complete industrialization. (Charles and Monsieur Homais, for instance, are eager to test new surgical procedures on the unsuspecting Hippolyte earlier in the book.)

Was she serious in saying such things? Doubtless Emma herself had no real idea, being quite taken up with the charm of the seduction and the necessity of resisting it.

Related Characters: Emma Bovary, Léon Dupuis
Page Number: 220
Explanation and Analysis:

Emma doesn't immediately yield to Leon's entreaties; instead, she stresses the importance of a platonic relationship. She tells him that other women will love him, but she herself is too old. Yet the narrator, as usual, questions her intentions. 

The rhetorical question beginning this quotation distances the readers (and narrator) from the scene itself, placing us at an ironic remove. Emma falls into familiar patterns, using hyperbolic and canned expressions in order to recreate scenes from novels. Despite her delusions of cynicism and worldliness, she remains fascinated by "the charm of seduction and the necessity of resisting it." She still believes she can find love if she learns the gestures of love, the confessions and calculated refusals. 

And yet the narrator tells us that Emma "herself [has] no real idea" of her honesty or lack thereof. This slight uncertainty does seem characteristic of an older, wearier Emma. She entertains fewer illusions about the correspondence between language and sentiment. 

Part 3, Chapter 6 Quotes

But, if there were somewhere a strong and beautiful creature, a valiant nature full of passion and delicacy … What an impossibility! Nothing, anyway, was worth that great quest; it was all lies! Every smile concealed the yawn of boredom, every joy a malediction, every satisfaction brought its nausea, and even the most perfect kisses only leave upon the lips a fantastical craving for the supreme pleasure.

Related Characters: Emma Bovary
Page Number: 264
Explanation and Analysis:

As her second adulterous affair falls apart, Emma asks herself why she has never found happiness. She longs for some ideal man, a "strong and beautiful creature," the only one who can draw her out of her despair and boredom. 

Here Flaubert's free indirect discourse gives readers an almost claustrophobic understanding of Emma. (The various feverish exclamations lets readers know that the narrator has moved away from the omniscient third person.) At first, Emma gives her imagination free rein, just as she has again and again since adolescence. She pictures some lofty goal, and tells herself that it alone will give her pleasure. However, at this point in the novel, she's a changed woman: she suddenly swings from daydreaming to a profound, violent cynicism. ("It was all lies!") She cannot find a happy medium between sentimental idealism and pure contempt. 

In a way, Emma seems to have accepted the essential banality of the world, a place full of yawns and disappointments and broken hearts. However, in her fit of passion, she begins to use more and more dramatic language to describe the ordinary; she complains of "maledictions" and "fantastical cravings." Emma turns the mundane into the villainous, forever trapped in the language of romance novels. 

Emma was recovering in adultery the platitudes of marriage.

Related Characters: Emma Bovary
Page Number: 271
Explanation and Analysis:

Emma and Leon lose interest in each other, though Emma continues to give him gifts and write letters. In addition, many of Leon's friends and coworkers warn him against an involved affair with a married woman, and he decides to lead a more respectable life. 

Emma resents Leon just as she resents Charles; she pinned her hopes on both men, and both proved themselves lacking. The platitudes of marriage, here, are disappointment and boredom and restlessness. In Emma's "blue immensity," love and happiness are endless passion; when the passion for Leon wanes, she blames him and longs to end their affair. 

Of course, the word "platitudes" describes much of Emma's language throughout the novel. She uses stale language to describe her boredom as well as her joy — she has fed on platitudes for years and so can only convey the vaguest of feelings, ones poached from novels and plays. Flaubert warns readers to treat language with caution, even as we delight in his own careful prose.