Madame Bovary: Theme Analysis

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Desire - Emma not only desires love but is impelled to feel desired herself. For this reason she pushes her lovers to continually give proof of their desire for her. She insists that both Rodolphe and Leon write her letters and poetry and she makes increasingly greater demands on both. For instance, she insists that Rodolphe think of her at a particular time of the evening. Ironically, her immense need for displays of love succeeds only in driving both men away. Although Emma's desire is most central to the novel and unique among the characters in its romantic, unattainable nature, other characters are also driven by their desires. Homais, for example, desires recognition in the form of a government award and Lheureux's passion is obviously the accumulation of capital. Charles Bovary's desires are seemingly fulfilled when he marries Emma and this, coupled to his lack of professional ambition, comprises the wedge that ultimately alienates her from him.
Consumerism - Although the modern consumer-driven society did not emerge until after the First World War, the late nineteenth-century witnessed the rise of the marketplace as a defining component of society. Flaubert foresaw what the ramifications of this would be for the individual in such a society and modern readers of the novel recognize Emma Bovary's attempt to sublimate her unfulfilled desires through a passive consumerism that not only fails to satisfy her but eventually leads to her destruction. Consider the fact that it is not her adulterous affairs but rather her financial straits that disgrace her and lead to her suicide. Central to this theme is the character of Monsieur Lheureux whose lending schemes and aggressive marketing of his items prefigure modern credit systems and advertising campaigns.
Fidelity and Passion - When the novel was first released in serial form the conservative Restoration government of France charged Flaubert and his publisher with promoting immorality. There had been works about adulterous women before but never had their actions been left to the judgment of the reader as Emma Bovary's. The absence of a narrative voice meant that Emma's infidelity was not judged on any merits or morality apart from the circumstances of her life. Moreover, the implication that she was not sexually satisfied in her marriage and that she should need such satisfaction in order to be happy flew in the face of conventional nineteenth century morality. Her constant drive to experience ever greater heights of passion touched upon the taboo idea that women were sexual creatures and not mere recipients of a man's sexual urges.