Madame Bovary

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Truth, Rhetoric, and Hypocrisy 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.
Truth, Rhetoric, and Hypocrisy Theme Icon

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 the emotions.”

Skilled speakers and writers – rhetoricians – easily manipulate language to their own ends. Homais’s linguistic facility allows him to disguise or distort the truth: he vastly exaggerates his emotions and achievements, and his article about Charles’s irresponsible operation makes Charles seem like a hero. Rodolphe employs the rhetoric of romantic love, which disguises his actual cynicism, in order to manipulate Emma and seduce her. On the other hand, kind but tongue-tied people like Charles and Catherine Leroux often fail to convey the depth and delicacy of their emotions. For them, language does not quite rise up to the truth. People incorrectly assume that their simple, stunted ways of speaking indicate stupidity: “… as though the soul’s abundance does not sometimes spill over in the most decrepit metaphors, since no one can give the exact measure of their needs, their ideas, their afflictions.” We are urged to remember that language is an imperfect reflection of the speaker’s opinions and emotions.

If an author’s goal is manipulation or personal gain, language is a well of fluidity and floweriness one can plumb indefinitely; but if an author is concerned with truth, language is a precision game she is bound to lose. Flaubert lived this belief through his meticulous, searching prose and his disdain of linguistic ornament and cliché.

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Truth, Rhetoric, and Hypocrisy Quotes in Madame Bovary

Below you will find the important quotes in Madame Bovary related to the theme of Truth, Rhetoric, and Hypocrisy.
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.


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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 5 Quotes

With her black hair, her large eyes, her straight nose, her gliding step, always silent now, did it not seem as if she passed through life almost without touching it, bearing on her brow the pale mark of a sublime destiny? She was so sad and so calm, so gentle and yet so shy, that by her side you felt under the spell of a frosty charm, just as you shiver in church at the scent of flowers mingling with the feel of cold marble. … But she was filled with lust, with rage, with hatred.

Related Characters: Emma Bovary, Léon Dupuis
Page Number: 99-100
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Emma realizes that Leon is in love with her — this information delights her, and pushes her to adopt new, wifely mannerisms. Her tenderness only fans the flames of his passion and in this section, the narrator slips into Leon's mind, full of hyperbole and love. 

This description — of a "sublime destiny" and "frosty charm" — aligns with Leon's romantic sensibilities, and the reader can infer that the narrator has moved away from more impartial omniscient narration. Leon and Emma share this fragile disposition, an interest in "the scent of flowers mingling with the feel of cold marble."  In other words, Leon turns Emma into a caricature of a romantic heroine ("so sad and so calm"), just as she similarly reduces most people to novelistic archetypes. 

Dialogue then interrupts Leon's daydreaming and, when the narrator returns, readers encounter a changed Madame Bovary, "filled with lust, with rage, with hatred." Flaubert jolts the reader by juxtaposing these two contradictory descriptions, mocking Leon's naiveté and Emma's deceitful nature. Leon loves a woman who does not exist, an impossible incarnation of beauty itself, a mirage.

Part 2, Chapter 8 Quotes

It was that mingling of the everyday and the exotic, which the vulgar, usually, take for the symptom of an eccentric existence, of unruly feeling, of the tyranny of art, always with a certain scorn for social conventions which they find seductive or exasperating.

Related Characters: Emma Bovary, Rodolphe Boulanger
Page Number: 128
Explanation and Analysis:

At the agriculture show, Rodolphe mocks the provincial people of Yonville, particularly the women with their unfashionable outfits. This mockery appeals to Emma, of course, as it matches her own fascination with wealth, glamour, and romantic pride. 

In this section, the narrator steers clear of the characters' minds, remaining aloof, omniscient, and scornful. Both Emma and Rodolphe are mocked: the latter simply combines "the everyday and the exotic" in the hopes that he will seem "eccentric." And Emma, one of "the vulgar," falls for his trickery and believes herself to be superior to the rural society. In this moment, the narrator reduces both characters to their basic flaws. Readers might consider the source of this scathing commentary: is it a response to the couple's mockery of the townspeople? Does Flaubert want us to sympathize with the town's farmers and laborers? And does Rodolphe, a careless philanderer, represent the whole country's upper-class? 

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

… as though the soul’s abundance does not sometimes spill over in the most decrepit metaphors, since no one can give the exact measure of their needs, their ideas, their afflictions, and since human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we knock out tunes for dancing bears, when we wish to conjure pity from the stars.

Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the novel's essential passages. The narrator breaks away from the plot, fleshing out a digression on language. Again, this is a sort of apology for Emma and all her clichés: according to the narrator, we all have occasion to use "the most decrepit metaphors" in an attempt to describe our interior lives. (Readers should note the first person plural "we" in this section.)

Of course, this raises important questions about Flaubert's project. Does he too use "decrepit metaphors" in the text? And if so, do they undermine his work? In fact, Flaubert places this condemnation of inexact, clichéd language next to a particularly elaborate metaphor: "human speech is like a cracked cauldron..." Here, we find a juxtaposition of the sublime and mundane, the cold, inspiring heavens and ridiculous "dancing bears." Though Flaubert mocks the romantic sensibilities of Emma (and Leon), this passage reveals its own kind of idealization of the human soul, too. The moment, then, might have an ironic subtext; it might also serve to cut some of the narrator's bitterness, and temper it with earnestness and a kind of sadness. 

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.)

Part 3, Chapter 2 Quotes

The pharmacist had meditated every phrase, he had smoothed and polished it and made it flow; it was a masterpiece of deliberation and progression, of elegant style and tactfulness; but anger had obliterated rhetoric.

Related Characters: Monsieur Homais
Page Number: 233
Explanation and Analysis:

Emma returns to Yonville, only to walk in on Monsieur Homais berating Justin. Though Monsieur Homais planned to tell her of her father-in-law's death in a delicate, diplomatic fashion, he is so enraged and distracted that he forgets the speech and can only speak plainly. Emma leaves the shop.

The question of language and artifice becomes essential in this scene. Though the narrator acknowledges (albeit ironically) Homais' rhetorical abilities, he also seems to scorn the artifice involved. (Note the accumulation of vivid, metaphorical verbs: "smoothed and polished and made it flow.") The sentence itself moves along a similar path, beginning with superfluous and dazzling language and ending with a blunt assertion: "anger had obliterated rhetoric." 

The narrator does not tell us of Emma's immediate reaction to the news. Instead, readers learn of Homais' return to calm, his own obliviousness to his hurtful words. Once again language has affected and distorted reality and interpersonal communication. 

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.