Book Discussion Questions: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary book coverTitle:  Madame Bovary: Patterns of Provincial Life
Author:  Gustave Flaubert
Page Count: 430 pages
Genre: Literary, Classic
Tone:  Dramatic, Richly Detailed, Conflicted

Summary:
When Emma Rouault marries dull, provincial doctor Charles Bovary, her dreams of an elegant and passionate life crumble. She escapes into sentimental novels but finds her fantasies dashed by the tedium of her days. Soon heartbroken and crippled by debts, Emma takes drastic action with tragic consequences for her husband and daughter.

SPOILER WARNING:
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

Questions composed by MPPL Staff

1. In what ways is Emma Bovary the quintessential “desperate housewife”?

2. Is Emma believable as a real woman, rather than only as a literary character? How well does Flaubert portray the emotions of a woman?

3. What did you like about Emma? Did you need to like her? Did you understand her?

4. What paths did Emma try to find escape? In your opinion, is there anything that may have brought her lasting satisfaction or happiness?

5. What is Emma’s attitude toward motherhood? How do her attentions to Berthe change throughout the story?

6. Who is to blame for what happens to Madame Bovary?

7. What role does fate — or the mention thereof — play at significant points of Madame Bovary?

8. Was Emma victimized by Rodolphe?  How did her affair with Rodolphe differ from that with Leon? What do these differences reveal about Emma?

9. At which point(s) could Emma have turned back or changed course?

10. What did you think of Emma’s funeral arrangements? What would Emma have thought? Why did Charles make the choices he did?

11. Is Charles so bad? Couldn’t the very things that frustrate Emma about him be considered desirable in a steady partner?

12. Do you think Charles would have been as enamored of Emma had it not been for his first wife? How do they contrast?

13. Is the story claiming that Emma’s ruin was due to her reading of books?

14. The time between the onset of the French Revolution (1789) and WWI is often described as the era of the middle class. How is this central to the commentary of Madame Bovary?

15. Would you characterize this novel as a satire?

16. What does the character of Homais contribute to the narrative? What might he represent? What is the significance to the very end of the book?

17. This work has been noted for its ushering in a new age of realism in literature. Can you think of any examples of startlingly realistic events or descriptions?

18. Did it surprise you that a book entitled Madame Bovary actually begins and ends with others? Why do you think Flaubert makes those choices?

19. Madame Bovary is known for its controversial content, but it “is as heavily financial as it is erotic. It’s full of scenes of buying and selling, borrowing and lending. It’s not Emma’s adultery, but the financial debts she incurs, that disgraces her.” Does this characterization make it more timeless, more universal?

20. Do you consider this novel a work of feminist literature?  Could Emma have survived as a single woman?

21. “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” (Italo Calvino) What does Madame Bovary have to say?

22. How essential is the setting to the story? Could the story have taken place anywhere else?

23. Flaubert once famously declared, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”. Given that their respective biographies have nothing in common, what do you think he meant by this?

24. Many point to the precision of Flaubert’s language choices, how the prose plods during descriptions of the townspeople or daily routine but then becomes more flowing and urgent during romantic interludes. Did you notice this at all? Do you think we lose some of the power of language in translation?

25. Does this read like a first novel?

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OTHER RESOURCES:

Knee-Deep in Bovary with Lydia Davis, author of 2010 translation (pictured above)
author A.S. Byatt examines how Madame Bovary resonates today
Australian Broadcasting Network video book club
Slate’s DoubleX Audio Book Club discussion of Madame Bovary
Encyclopaedia Britannica biography of Gustave Flaubert
critique of two recent film adaptations
read, listen, or watch via hoopla

READALIKES:

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Madame Bovary’s Daughter  by Linda Urbach
The Awakening  by Kate Chopin
Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero  by William Makepeace Thackeray