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.
The Sublime and the Mundane Theme Icon

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 new affair with Léon, and he is there singing about a young girl in love while Emma is dying.

In Madame Bovary, the contrast emphasizes the absurdity of any perspective that excludes the extremities of ugliness and suffering. Every gruesome detail seems to punish the reader, the writer, and most of the main characters for their blindness. Such details are a reproach to the vague, soaring mindset of the romantic, a perspective that must ignore so much in order to maintain itself, and which therefore chooses emotional comfort over truth. The denunciation of the romantic is also closely related to issues of abstraction and reality. A person like Emma, who lives by canned abstractions, is basically hypocritical: such a person appropriates beliefs without grounding them in action or experience.

But the novel does not come out squarely on the side of the mundane. It does not amount to unqualified praise of the realist, for Lheureux is basically a realist. The far side of realism is disbelief in anything intangible: extreme realism relegates every ideal to foolish fantasy and irrelevance, including the ideals of beauty, kindness, and love, The best and most difficult life, the book implies, is one that tries to create an implausible harmony between fact and belief, reality and fantasy, the world and the imagination.

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The Sublime and the Mundane Quotes in Madame Bovary

Below you will find the important quotes in Madame Bovary related to the theme of The Sublime and the Mundane.
Part 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

Emma was inwardly satisfied to feel she had reached at her first attempt that ideal exquisite pale existence, never attained by vulgar souls.

Related Characters: Emma Bovary
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

The death of Emma's mother pushes Emma even further, and allows her to engage in even more extreme behavior. She eventually becomes so weak (or "exquisite") that others take notice — and this attention satisfies her. 

Flaubert is deft in his juxtapositions: though Emma cries for several days, she feels "inwardly satisfied" and pleased when someone else notices her distress. In other words, her sadness is a sort of performance, an imitation of a human sentiment. Even at a young age, Emma exists at a remove from reality, always observing herself and her life and then molding them into whatever shape she finds most pleasing. Emma treats her life like a possession, like any other frock or necklace that she has bought on credit--or like a work of art, like any of the sentimental novels she so adores. 

Readers can also note Flaubert's juxtaposition of Emma's "ideal exquisite pale existence" and the other "vulgar souls." Much of Emma's identify rests on this imagined gulf between herself and other members of the rural middle class; she cannot see her own vulgarity or superficiality, which is as evident to the reader as Monsieur Homais' greed or Rodolphe's dishonesty. 


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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 5 Quotes

He admired the exaltation of her soul and the lace on her skirts.

Related Characters: Emma Bovary, Léon Dupuis
Page Number: 247
Explanation and Analysis:

Emma and Leon delight in their affair, and their room with its mahogany bed and red curtains. Leon, in particular, is amazed that he's found someone so elegant and refined. 

Here, Flaubert uses a clever zeugma (a figure of speech in which a word applies to two other words in different senses) to mock the young man: the verb "admired" governs both "the exaltation of her soul" and "the lace of her skirts." This unites the two grammatical objects, and also lowers "the exaltation of her soul" down to the material world. To Leon, the two, however different, simply prove Emma's social value and worth as a mistress. Both are commodities, just as her own marriage to Charles is a commodity, a fact that makes Emma more desirable to Leon. 

Of course, Emma is not guiltless either; she has turned "exaltation" into a game. Leon does not necessarily wrong her by treating her disposition as a material good. Since Emma merely mimics the gestures of love and adoration, any "exaltation" is a performance, disconnected from her internal state. 

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.