Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

Historical and Cultural Context

Madame Bovary was first published in 1857 during the French Second Empire (1852-1870), under the reign of Napoleon III. This was a time of economic growth and modernisation in France.

Despite these advances, French society was deeply stratified with clearly defined classes: aristocracy, bourgeoisie (middle class), and working class. Flaubert, critical of bourgeois attitudes, presents these social divisions through his characters.

The rural setting of the novel reflects the prevalent rural life in France during this period. This contrasts with the increasing urbanisation happening in Paris and other major French cities.

The book reflects the significant role of the Catholic Church in French society. Flaubert critiques its hypocrisy, as seen in the character of the priest in the novel.

The status of women in mid-19th century France is a crucial aspect of the novel's background. Women were largely confined to domestic roles and had limited personal and economic freedom.

The romantic ideals prevalent in much of 19th century literature are contrasted with the harsh realities of provincial life in Madame Bovary, Flaubert's realism was a deliberate reaction against romanticism.

The cultural milieu of the time included the growing popularity of novels, particularly those that appealed to middle-class women, reflecting Emma's fascination with romantic novels.

The impact of the Industrial Revolution and capitalism is visible in the novel through themes of debt and consumerism.

The novel also reflects changes in the medical field during this era, with Charles Bovary depicted as an inept but well-meaning country doctor, a symbol of the transitional state of medicine in the mid-19th century.

Flaubert's novel, in part, reflects the period's societal concern about the 'woman question'—a widespread debate about the changing roles and rights of women. Emma Bovary's dissatisfaction symbolises the discontent many women felt within the domestic sphere.

A. 1867 

B. 1857 

C. 1877 

D. 1847

A. Romanticism

B. Gothic

C. Realism

D. Surrealism

A. The French Revolution

B. The French Second Empire

C. The Bourbon Restoration

D. The French Third Republic

A. The bustling city setting

B. The gloomy forest setting

C. The tranquil seaside setting

D. The rural setting

DISCUSSION:  How do you think Emma Bovary's pursuit of love and personal satisfaction might have been different if the story was set in modern-day Japan? 

Further reading