This is pretty straightforward: Madame Bovary is about Madame Bovary. The novel falls in the tradition of books named after their heroes (think David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Emma, Jane Eyre, etc.). However, Flaubert’s novel threw in an inventive and perhaps unsettling twist – the eponymous Madame Bovary isn’t exactly a heroine. Yes, she is our protagonist, and yes, she is the center of the novel. However, she doesn’t awaken our sense of compassion or sympathy in the same way that the other characters listed above do (see more on this in "Character Role Identification"). Furthermore, the novel was condemned at the time of its publication for being too racy, and for not portraying the scandalous life and times of Emma Bovary in terms of morality. Flaubert did a gutsy thing when he decided to simply name his novel after this ambiguous and difficult character – the title places no judgment, and gives us no hint of how we are supposed to perceive her.
1. Discuss the theme of love and romance. How do Emma’s unrealized dreams of passionate romance contribute to her unhappiness? Are her romantic expectations attainable, or are they fanciful impossibilities? How do Emma and Leon attempt to make each other into their romantic ideals?
2. To what degree is Emma really capable of love? Is she really in love with Rodolphe and Leon? Does she really love Berthe? Use specific textual examples to support your argument.
3. How is the plot of Madame Bovary arranged? Does the novel build suspense leading up to Emma’s suicide? Is Emma’s cycle of frustration-boredom-illness an effective device for pacing her story, or is it repeated too often?
4. What is Homais’s role in the novel? Is he simply a symbol for the bourgeoisie, enabling Flaubert to ridicule its attitudes and values, or does he serve a larger narrative purpose?
5. Discuss Flaubert’s prose style. How does he match his prose to the mood of his narrative?
6. Discuss the novel’s use of irony. With particular reference to the scene of the fair (Part Two, Chapter VIII), how does Flaubert comment on his story by directing the narration toward peripheral details?