Introducing Emma Bovary

By Teleky, Richard | Queen's Quarterly, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Introducing Emma Bovary

Teleky, Richard, Queen's Quarterly

The Western literary canon includes a small number of characters who embody the tensions in our culture and help define the way we think about ourselves. Odysseus, Hamlet, Don Quixote, and Faust top the list, with only a few comparable female characters. Emma Bovary, one of the best known, has sometimes been called a "female Quixote" because of her larger-than-life yet delusional fantasies. Any new translation of Gustave Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary (1857), which gave life to her, is a significant event. But a translation, and its reception, may also be troubling. They can, however, make us take a fresh look at the lasting power of Emma Bovary.

IN 1849 a young Norman woman named Delphine Delamare died by her own hand, of poison. Her suicide was the subject of much gossip, and a friend of the writer Gustave Flaubert drew his attention to it. Flaubert, then thirty, had settled into his family's country home, outside Rouen, to concentrate on fiction writing. We can only guess why Delphine's grim story caught his imagination. The wife of a country doctor, she had married unhappily, continued her search for love, run into debt and, finally, chose death to end her troubles. This story of adulterous sex and money--natural tabloid companions--became the core of the novel we know as Madame Bovary, a book that Flaubert spent five years writing. One might fairly say that Flaubert was Emma Bovary's first translator, turning, as he did, aspects of Delphine's life into fiction.


Iconic characters cannot be separated from their stories. Flaubert's plot is deceptively simple--a domestic odyssey gone wrong. Young Emma Rouault, who lives with her self-absorbed father on a small Normandy farm, agrees to marry Charles Bovary, the sincere but doltish local medical officer. With little aptitude for marriage or home-making, she moves into his house, where his mother rules, and soon drifts into dreams of romance and a more glamorous life. An affair with the handsome Viscount Rodolphe--an unrepentant rake--only exacerbates her fantasies, and, inevitably, he ends their dalliance.

Disappointed by her husband's lack of ambition, and unable to make a bond with her baby daughter, Emma falls into another affair, this time with a passive but not unattractive clerk, Leon Dupuis. As her daily life flattens out, her longings flourish, and Emma turns to shopping as an escape from ennui. Borrowing money, she nearly bankrupts her family. After swallowing arsenic, Emma dies a hideous death, leaving a trail of suffering behind her, with the repellent local pharmacist Monsieur Homais about to receive the Legion of Honour for his public career. What makes Emma's story more than a commonplace tale of adultery are the subtle irony and wealth of detail with which Flaubert conveys Emma's confining world and psyche.

IT'S often noted that Flaubert said of his heroine "La Bovary, c'est moi." Readers and writers have been saying much the same ever since, even when Emma's troubles seem a little too close for comfort. Along with numerous translations of her story into more languages than I can count, there have been several movie versions--also translations, into the conventions of film. Hollywood took on Emma in Vincente Minnelli's lavish but banal black-and-white Madame Bovary (1949), starring Jennifer Jones, with a cameo by James Mason as Flaubert. (In order to circumvent postwar censorship, the screenwriters gave their movie a preachy frame, where Flaubert/Mason defends his choice of subject matter as moral.) The late French director Claude Chabrol filmed his version in 1991, starring a miscast, laconic Isabelle Huppert, who doesn't quite suggest Emma's desperate energy--Isabelle Adjani, with her frantic dark eyes, would have been ideal. A curious Russian version, Save and Protect (1989), with a gross, middle-aged, Siberian Emma, was directed by Aleksandr Sokurov, and has been played in art houses and university film courses; oddly, it best captures the novel's hovering gloom. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Introducing Emma Bovary


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.