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A literary canon is a list of the most esteemed books in a country; books that have attained a high status and considered to be of high aesthetic quality. Canons are works that are approved by cultural and academic institutions. Overall, the books are above all other books in terms of language, meaning, and social impact. Due to the book’s progressive nature, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is canonical since it served as a severe critic to French Society in the 1800’s by attacking economic class divisions, gender roles, and former romantic beliefs while using metaphors, detailed imagery, and symbolism to further the work’s overall meaning.
In France during the 19th century, the class divisions were so deeply rooted and prevalent; each class having distinct characteristics and almost different cultures. There was a middle class that arose termed the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie were seen as the materialistic byproduct of the newfound French capitalism. This class had “the family and the state still exist, but – the family [was] successively broken down and more [resembled] a relationship of commercial contract, rather than one [that] genuinely [expressed] kinship and the care of one generation for the other; the state [retained] its essential instruments of violence, but more and more [came] under the sway of commercial interests, reduced to acting as a buyer and seller of services on behalf of the community” (www.marxists.org). Quite evidently, this class was characterized by merely existing for the sake of production, a true labor class. One could never rise up in wealth and one could never lower down, if one was a bourgeoisie it was almost impossible to move in economic status unless hit with debt or any other unfortunate happenings.
Flaubert is seen criticizing the bourgeois class by using his realistic style of writing and centering Madame Bovary around this middle class. He recounts the life of the beautiful, newly wedded Emma Bovary. Although she is at first satisfied with her middle-class lifestyle, she shows a growing discontentment with her wealth despite having reasonable living conditions, a loving husband named Charles, and eventually a daughter. She could not stand the “little ground-floor living-room with its smoking stove, squeaking door, running walls and damp flagstones” (Flaubert 79) compared to the “chateau, a modern building in the Italian style with two projecting wings and three flights of steps in front of it, sprawled at the bottom end of a wide stretch of parkland” (Flaubtert 59) which belonged to the Marquis d’Andervilles, once Charles’ patient. The time she spent at the chateau was the life she dreamed of and thought she deserved to live in a house and lifestyle such as the wealthy while her husband “looked well and felt well” (Flaubert 74) and was still irrevocably in love with his wife. Although Emma was continuously spoiled by her adoring spouse, being allowed to buy luxuries such as “a Gothic prie-Dieu, spent fourteen francs in a month on lemons for cleaning her nails, wrote to Rouen for a blue cashmere dress, and picked out the loveliest sash at Lheureux’s, to wear around her waist over her dressing gown” (Flaubert 137) yet she was still never satisfied with what she had. “The craving for money and the melancholy of passion, all blended together in one general misery. She was irritated about a meal badly served or a door left ajar; she moped to herself about the velvet she did not possess, the happiness that was passing her, the loftiness of her dreams and the littleness of her house” (Flaubert 121); this general unhappiness is the result of being in a middle class lifestyle with little to no movement up or down in wealth.
By showing Emma’s greed and inability to derive any type of pleasure in the stable life she currently lives, Flaubert emphasizes the struggle of the bourgeois and showed how French capitalism was unfair. The middle class worked for several hours per day but the result was only to bring food on the table, not buy lavish clothing and throw balls in a chateau like those born into wealth. Emma embodies the frustrations of the middle class created by an unfair system of capitalism where the higher class are only rich due to family wealth, the poor are mistreated and the middle class suffers the largest workload.
In addition from making the protagonist Emma Bovary, Flaubert uses her to criticize the role of women in France. Time after time, Emma is only seen as an attractive wife, essentially treated as an object, but no one takes account for her intelligence other than Leon, her first affair. Even her father disregards her, stating that he “would not have been sorry to get rid of his daughter, who was little use to him about the place…so when he saw that his daughter’s presence brought a flush to Charles’s cheek – which meant that one of these days he would be asking her hand in marriage…he said to himself: ‘If he asks for her, he shall have her’ ” (Flaubert 36-37). He even treats her as if she was an object, selling her off to Charles since he “was just then having to sell twenty-two acres of his land, and owed a lot of money to the mason and a lot of money to the saddler…” (Flaubert 37). Emma may have been able to sketch, play piano, read, recite poems, and sing but even she was self aware of her place in society even saying that she hoped her child would be a “a son…he can explore the passions and the continents, can surmount obstacles, reach out to the most distant joys. Whereas a woman is constantly thwarted. At once inert and pliant, she has to contend with both physical weakness and legal subordination. Always there is a desire that impels and a convention that restrains” (Flaubert 101).
Flaubert shows how women were mistreated and continuously disregarded, only being valued as potential wives and mistresses despite a her knowledge. French society in the 19th century was patriarchal, men were in charge of the household and finances while the women were meant to look attractive, keep the house in order, and take care of the children. Women were to remain docile, religious, and obedient. Flaubert shows how society repressed women through detailing Emma’s thoughts and actions.
Flaubert chose to write Madame Bovary realistically, rather than previous novels published that followed romanticism. He focused on the middle class and showing how the old romantic ideals were far-fetched and crippling to those that strive for them. He creates Emma to be trapped, almost suffocated, by her mundane life of the bourgeois. Her thoughts of love are unrealistic after reading “[novels] all about love and lovers, damsels in distress swooning in lonely lodges, postillions slaughtered all along the road, horses ridden to death on every page, gloomy forests, troubles of the heart, vows, sobs, tears, kisses, rowing-boats in the moonlight, nightingales in the grove, gentlemen brave as lions and gentle as lambs, too virtuous to be true, invariable well-dressed, and weeping like fountains” as a young teen (Flaubert 49-50). She grew up believing these fantastical romances was the embodiment of true love. If she did not experience anything close to these ideals, then it is not really love but mere affection. This shows when Charles does not meet up to her expectations “getting generally more irritated with him. As he grew older he became grosser in his ways…Emma used sometimes to tuck the red border of his undervest inside his waistcoat, or straighten his cravat, or throw away a shabby pair of gloves that he was about to put on. She did these things not, as he imagined, for his sake, but for her own, in an outburst of egoism” (Flaubert 75). Emma’s unhappiness with her marriage is translated into the decay of her wedding bouquet. Her bouquet was in a drawer with “the orange-blossom[s] [yellowed] with dust [and silver ribboned that was] frayed at the edges” (Flaubert 81). This was the symbol of her marriage with Charles deteriorating, the happiness she was long gone and all hopes she had for the future were diminished. She even does so far as to tossing the bouquet in the fire, watching it burn, with no remorse or hint of sadness for doing so. Emma is so disillusioned by romantic influences, that she believes that the real love Charles has for her is false and unexciting. This is why she seems to ravish herself in her affairs with Leon and Rodolphe, to gain the happiness and passion she aspires for.
Flaubert depicts how unrealistic the romantics were when it came to reality. He shows that love is not something that “comes suddenly, with thunder and lightning, a hurricane from on high that swoops down into [one’s] life and turns it topsy-turvy” (Flaubert 113), love is the way Charles still adored Emma even though she drove the family into debt, love was the way Charles moves from Tostes to Yonville-l’Abbaye even though his job in Tostes was going well, love was the way Charles continuously grieved Emma’s death, knowing that she had an affair with Rodolphe after discovering their love letters. Flaubert shows that love can be boring compared to the romantics but it was true, honest, everlasting unlike the short, heated affairs experienced by Emma.
Madame Bovary is a novel that ignited 19th century French society, provoking new thoughts and ideals; it is one of the first books to embody the new realistic standard of literature rather than the previously romantic works. Flaubert’s novel impacted French culture by attacking it’s unfair capitalism, patriarchal system, and unrealistic romantic beliefs and used metaphors, imagery, and symbolism to further enhance his criticism; this makes the book canonical in every way. Madame Bovary’s language is poetic, images thoroughly detailed, and it contains various messages that deal with society’s faults and follies.
“Bo.” Encyclopedia of Marxism. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 June 2015.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. London: Penguin, 1995. Print.
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