Madame Bovary (1857), by Gustave Flaubert, PART II

© 2021, by M. Keith Booker

Part I ends as Charles and Emma move away from Tostes to the still small, but less provincial, town of Yonville-l’Abbaye, which most scholars have identified as a stand-in for the real town of Ry in the Normandy region of northern France, only 12 miles northeast of the city of Rouen, a large regional center. Rouen, incidentally, is only 80 miles from Paris, and yet, to Emma, Paris will remain an impossibly distant dream, which indicates how confined her life really is. And, of course, our knowledge that Emma will be pregnant when she arrives in Yonville makes it clear that, in a nineteenth-century France where Catholicism remains strong (and under a morally prudish Louis Bonaparte regime), Emma is now more trapped than ever in what for her is a loveless marriage. That Emma loses her beloved dog en route to Yonville can be taken as another sign that the new setting will not be a good one for her.

Part II of Madame Bovary will continue to focus on Emma and her unfulfilled dreams. It does, however, introduce a number of important new characters, most of whom serve allegorical functions that allow Flaubert to satirize various aspects of his contemporary French society. For example, one of the first citizens of Yonville that we meet is the “chemist” (i.e., pharmacist) Monsieur Homais. It quickly becomes clear that Homais is a pompous and pretentious figure, who delights in displaying his superior scientific knowledge to the other townspeople. He thus serves as an emblem of the growing importance of science in modern French society. His negative portrayal should not, however, be taken as a rejection of science itself. The problem with Homais is that he actually knows very little about science but is simply able to take advantage of the ignorance of those around him to make himself seem more knowledgeable than he really is. He thus exists very much in the lineage of figures such as Pangloss in Candide, who serve as warnings of the dangers of false knowledge but should not be taken as rejections of true knowledge.

That Homais is an incompetent “scientist” can be seen in a number of ways. For example, the fact that he cites Voltaire as one of his heroes shows his complete lack of awareness that he himself is exactly the sort of misguided pedant that Voltaire satirized in Pangloss. In addition, early in the second chapter of Part II, he launches into a long speech in an attempt to impress the newcomers Charles and Emma with his vast knowledge of the region into which they are moving. In the midst of this speech, he mentions the local weather, noting (according to the translation we are reading on-line) that he himself has made measurements to determine that the temperature is quite mild, and that it “falls in winter to 4 degrees Centigrade at the outside, which gives us 24 degrees Reaumur as the maximum, or otherwise 54 degrees Fahrenheit (English scale).” 4 degrees Centigrade is certainly a rather mild low winter temperature, much milder, in fact, than the real weather in Ry, where the average low temperature in December (the coldest month there) is about -7 ˚C. It seems safe to assume that the weather in the nineteenth century was, if anything, colder than now, which suggests that Homais is such a bad scientist that he is unable even to measure temperatures accurately, surely one of the simplest of all scientific data-gathering activities. Meanwhile, the Réaumur scale is quite similar to the Centigrade scale, with differences that have to do with the fact that the inventor of the Réaumur scale used an alcohol-based thermometer to measure temperature, rather than the more common (and accurate) mercury. Both scales start with the stipulation that water freezes at 0 ˚C, but water boils at 80 ºR, rather than 100 ºC, with the result that 1 ˚R converts to 1.25 ˚C. As a result, 24 ˚R, cited by Homais as the hottest temperature typically reached in Yonville, is equal to 30 ˚C, though the typical high temperature in Ry today in July and August (the hottest months), is 23 ˚C, roughly the same as the Réaumur high stated by Homais. Thus, either Homais confused Centigrade temperatures with Réaumur temperatures, or he again mis-measured the temperature by a number of degrees. To top things off, Homais notes that 24 ºR/ 30 ˚C  is equivalent to 54 ˚F, making sure that he cites all three of the most commonly used temperature scales at the time, which surely represents nothing but an unnecessary attempt to demonstrate his superior knowledge. What he demonstrates, though, is ignorance. Anyone with any feel for Fahrenheit temperatures could immediately see that 54 ˚F is an impossibly cool high summer temperature for this part of the world. 54 ˚F, in fact, is a mere 12.2 ˚C, or 19.76 ˚R. One might speculate that Homais has vaguely, but incompletely, remembered something about converting temperature scales—to convert Centigrade temperatures to Fahrenheit ones, it is necessary to multiply the Centigrade number by 9/5 and then add 32. He has then multiplied 30 ˚C by 9/5 to obtain 54 ˚F, but then neglected to add 32 to reach 86 ˚F, the correct number. In short, Homais has gotten a poor knowledge of the facts of temperature conversions completely scrambled in his head, producing nonsense—though it is also telling that none of his listeners (including Charles, who has at least a small amount of training in science) seem to have any idea that Homais has no idea what he is talking about.

Note, incidentally, that Homais’s confused temperature conversions are so scrambled that they seem to have mystified translators. In our translation, for example, Eleanor Marx-Aveling has dropped the information about high temperature in centigrade altogether, trying to simplify things, but possibly making them more confusing. But Flaubert was very precise about getting every word exactly right, so it seems best to try to translate exactly what he provided. Here is the French original:

“Le thermomètre (j’en ai fait les observations) descend en hiver jusqu’à quatre degrés, et, dans la forte saison, touche vingt-cinq, trente centigrades tout au plus, ce qui nous donne vingt-quatre Réaumur au maximum, ou autrement cinquante-quatre Fahrenheit (mesure anglaise), pas davantage!”

By my reading, Eleanor Marx’s translation of a 4 ˚C winter minimum is accurate, though it is useful to include Homais’s cited summer maximum of 25–30 ˚C, or 24 ˚R, which is a bit high, but does get the relationship between the centigrade and Réaumur scales right (30 ˚C = 24 ˚R). But the conversion to 54 ˚C is still the same nonsense, having still apparently been obtained by multiplying the centigrade reading of 30 by 9/5.

In any case, Homais’s lethal combination of ego and ignorance will play a crucial role in the plot going forward. Meanwhile, we also meet other figures in Part II who represent important aspects of mid-nineteenth-century French society. For example, the draper Lheureux represents the worst aspects of the emergent capitalism of the nineteenth century. An unscrupulous merchant who is willing to do anything and everything to increase his profits no matter the damage it does to others, he carefully manipulates Emma into buying more and more items from him, running up her debts and significantly exacerbating her other problems. Lheureux, in this sense, is somewhat ahead of his time. The capitalism of the nineteenth century was generally concerned mostly with production, their biggest problem being how to manufacture enough goods to meet the demand for them. It would not be until the early years of the twentieth century (with American capitalism, for the first time, being to play a lead role) that modern consumer capitalism would emerge, with an emphasis on marketing techniques to increase a demand that had, by that time, been exceeded by supply. In the same way, Emma becomes an anticipation of the twentieth-century consumer, seduced by marketing techniques to develop an unquenchable desire to consume more and more commodities in an effort to fill the perceived emptiness of their lives.

One of the most sophisticated maneuvers made by Flaubert in Madame Bovary is the careful way in which he interweaves Emma’s desire for Lheureux’s goods with her sexual desire, which clearly serves as another way that she desperately seeks to make her life feel more exciting and fulfilling—and more like the lives of characters she has read about in books. In Part II of the novel, she in fact, meets two different men for whom she develops an almost irresistible desire, both of whom again play important allegorical roles as well as making their own contributions to the literal plot: the young clerk Léon Dupuis and the worldly aristocrat Rodolphe Boulanger. Structurally, these two men serve as virtual opposites in the construction of the text, but both provide us with important insights into Emma’s desires.

Léon, young, innocent, and idealistic, is largely important because he is, in many ways, a male (but perhaps slightly less intelligent) version of Emma. Like her, many of his expectations of the world have been shaped by an unsophisticated reading of literature. Unlike her, he is able to live out some of his dreams because the society in which they live grants many more opportunities to men than to women. Emma, meanwhile, has never met a man like Léon, who shares her enthusiasm for reading and her unrealistic expectations of reality, so it is understandable that she is excited to encounter him. Indeed, she immediately recognizes a kindred spirit on their first meeting. After Homais recommends Yonville as an excellent place for gardening, Charles responds in a way clearly intended to belittle Emma’s love of reading:

“My wife doesn’t care about it,” said Charles; “although she has been advised to take exercise, she prefers always sitting in her room reading.”

Léon, however, steps in an suggests that he understands Emma’s love of reading quite well:

“Like me,” replied Léon. “And indeed, what is better than to sit by one’s fireside in the evening with a book, while the wind beats against the window and the lamp is burning?”

“What, indeed?” she said, fixing her large black eyes wide open upon him.

“One thinks of nothing,” he continued; “the hours slip by. Motionless we traverse countries we fancy we see, and your thought, blending with the fiction, playing with the details, follows the outline of the adventures. It mingles with the characters, and it seems as if it were yourself palpitating beneath their costumes.”

“That is true! That is true?” she said.

“Has it ever happened to you,” Léon went on, “to come across some vague idea of one’s own in a book, some dim image that comes back to you from afar, and as the completest expression of your own slightest sentiment?”

“I have experienced it,” she replied.

After this beginning, it comes as no surprise at all that Emma and Léon quickly strike up a friendship. It is clear that there are romantic sparks on both sides as well, especially after Emma learns that Léon plans to move to Paris in the near future, making him a very romantic figure in her eyes. However, while they spend a considerable amount of time together, Léon and Emma do not, at this time strike up a romantic relationship, partly because Léon is too shy and inexperienced to make the first move, which Emma clearly seems to hope he will do. In any case, Emma comes to find Charles more and more tiresome, while she dreams of running away with Léon, who instead moves away to Paris on his own.

During the segment of the text in which Léon fantasizes about Emma and Emma fantasizes about Léon, we also get a better idea of how impossibly romantic Emma’s expectations are. Charles might be boring, but almost anyone would be boring in comparison with the men Emma has read about in novels. At the end of Chapter Four, we get a look (via indirect free style) at Emma’s dreamy view: “Love, she thought, must come suddenly, with great outbursts and lightnings—a hurricane of the skies, which falls upon life, revolutionises it, roots up the will like a leaf, and sweeps the whole heart into the abyss.” Then, as usual, the objective narrator resumes control and undermines this vision: “She did not know that on the terrace of houses it makes lakes when the pipes are choked, and she would thus have remained in her security when she suddenly discovered a rent in the wall of it.”

In the meantime, Emma’s sense that men are supposed to take action in the world, while women are required to wait for men to invite them to come along, becomes especially clear as she awaits the birth of her child. Just as Charles’ mother seems to have attempted to live vicariously through her son, Emma dreams that her own son will live a life of adventure and accomplishment, a life she can at least share indirectly. Emma (pictured so often in the novel sitting by windows and looking longingly into the outer world), feels entirely trapped, but she feels that her son, being male, will be able to move freely in that outer world.

It is telling that, when the baby turns out to be a girl, Emma is shocked and disappointed. Her reaction is described to us by the objective narrator with his typical lack of sentimentality: “She turned her head away and fainted.” It comes as no surprise, then, that Emma subsequently takes little interest in the child, though she does choose the girl’s name, “Berthe,” after a name she had heard during her outing to Vaubyessard. She then sends the child away to be cared for by a local woman. Granted, it would not have been especially unusual at this time in French history for a bourgeois child to be breastfed by a wetnurse, the squeamish values of midcentury France tending to see breastfeeding as an activity that is too vulgarly physical for a bourgeois lady. But Emma does seem unusually uninterested in the child, who, being a girl, will likely suffer the same limitations as Emma and thus offer her few opportunities for vicarious adventure.

On the other hand, we should know Emma well enough by now not to be surprised that, at one point, she does suddenly experience a rush of maternal affection, triggered by romantic visions of the glories of motherly love:

“She took Berthe from nurse. When visitors called, Félicité brought her in, and Madame Bovary undressed her to show off her limbs. She declared she adored children; this was her consolation, her joy, her passion, and she accompanied her caresses with lyrical outburst which would have reminded anyone but the Yonville people of Sachette in ‘Notre Dame de Paris.’”

Notre-Dame de Paris is the French title of an 1831 Romantic novel by Victor Hugo that is known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a book that is best known in the English-speaking world through its numerous film (and other) adaptations, including the especially well-known 1939 film of the same title starring Charles Laughton as the hunchback of the title (and emphasizing the story’s Gothic elements) and the 1996 animated version from Disney (making the story into a children’s fantasy). Sachette is a woman in the story who is characterized primarily by her devotion to her missing daughter (whom she wrongly thinks has been killed and cannibalized), and the narrator’s reference here is clearly dripping with sarcasm, suggesting the inauthenticity of Emma’s newfound devotion to her daughter.

Not surprisingly, this devotion is short-lived, and Emma quickly grows bored with motherhood. Seeking a replacement, she briefly tries a return to a romanticized form of religion, but this also quickly fizzles, especially after she finds that Bournisien—the prosaic, self-absorbed local priest—has little interest in encouraging her lofty new religiosity. Religion comes off badly in this book, though we should understand that, just as Homais is a bad scientist and Lheureux is a bad businessman, Bournisien is a bad priest, leaving open the possibility that other scientists or businessmen or priests might be better.

Getting nowhere with religion, Emma tries other projects, including a turn to the compulsive shopping that will eventually be a huge problem for her. She finds these pursuits unsatisfying as well, so she grows more and more unhappy, leading Charles’ interfering mother to conclude that her real problem is that she just needs something to keep her busy. When Charles responds that Emma is constantly busy, his mother scoffs: “Ah! always busy at what? Reading novels, bad books, works against religion, and in which they mock at priests in speeches taken from Voltaire. But all that leads you far astray, my poor child. Anyone who has no religion always ends by turning out badly.”

Madame Bovary Senior, with the support of Charles, thus takes the lead in trying to set Emma on a proper path by cutting off all access to books, which of course does nothing but make Emma even more desperate to find some sort of diversion. That diversion soon presents itself in the person of one Rodolphe Boulanger, a local aristocrat, whom Emma (of course) finds to be a dashing and romantic figure. Boulanger is another of the book’s allegorical figures, given that he stands in for the decadent and decaying status of France’s aristocracy in a world in which they have never managed to regain their lofty pre-revolution status but have merely re-established their aristocratic titles.

And “title” is the key word heard. We have heard a great deal lately about the notion of “entitlement,” the idea that certain people seem to feel that they should automatically be granted certain advantages and privileges because they were born male, or white, or wealthy, or all three. We should recall, though, that the very word “entitlement” derives from the fact that the members of the European aristocracy tended to expect to receive privileged treatment because of their aristocratic titles. And Rodolphe is the very embodiment of this idea. Not only does he believe himself entitled to wealth and servants and a carefree life, but he also feels entitled to use other people for his own amusement.

One of those people, of course, is Emma. Rodolphe is chillingly cold-blooded in the way that he goes about seducing Emma, whom he sees as a pretty, but innocent, young thing who cannot possibly resist his charms. He even openly congratulates himself on his clever manipulation of her. Of course, what he doesn’t know is that his success in seducing Emma is not entirely due to his own suave cleverness. It is also due to the fact that she desperately wants to be seduced. Rodolphe easily overcomes her defenses, but that is largely because she essentially has none.

Rodolphe’s project of seducing Emma begins in earnest in one of the most famous scenes in all of Madame Bovary, the so-called “counterpoint” scene during the great Yonville Agricultural Fair, an annual highlight of life in this quiet village community. As the fair proceeds on the streets outside her window, Emma (who, of course, has no interest in the prosaic matters that are the substance of the fair) and Rodolphe huddle together, while he explains to her that he and she are special people to whom the rules of bourgeois propriety do not apply. As the text cuts back and forth between the speeches at the fair (on such topics as the proper application of manure), Rodolphe deftly applies his own form of manure in his deft maneuver to flatter and influence Emma. The contrast between these two settings makes very clear the dramatic difference between the real world in which Emma actually lives and the fantasy world in which she would like to live.

Rodolphe, of course, clearly believes that he, as a self-proclaimed aristocrat, really is above the rules of appropriate bourgeois behavior. It is equally clear that he has no such illusions about Emma, who is merely a recreational object to him. It is not clear, though, that he has any legitimate claim to aristocratic lineage. His aristocratic title (de La Huchette) simply indicates that he is the owner of a farm named “La Huchette,” and it is clear that he himself is the one who has appended that title to his name. He thus becomes a figure of the anachronistic nature of the contemporary French aristocracy, which had been rendered largely irrelevant and illegitimate by the revolution, even if they maintain a certain social prestige in some circles. Moreover, Rodolphe’s thinking is thoroughly bourgeois, despite his claim to be above such things, and it is only because Emma so desperately wants to view him as a dashing aristocratic figure that he is able so easily to convince her that he is just that.

In the midst of Emma’s flirtation with Rodolphe, one of the novel’s most powerful sequences estranges her even farther from her husband. Hippolyte, a groom at the local inn, is afflicted with a club foot. Reading of a new experimental surgical treatment for this condition, Homais manages to convince Charles to attempt this procedure on Hippolyte. By this time, we know Charles well enough not to be surprised when this operation goes badly wrong, causing incredible pain and suffering for Hippolyte and eventually necessitating the amputation of his leg by one Dr. Canivet, who has been called in to attempt to correct the effects of the botched operation performed by Charles. Emma feels nothing but contempt for her husband’s role in this affair, even though Charles desperately tries to make amends by buying a fancy wooden leg for poor Hippolyte, a leg that the humble young man feels is too fancy for him even to wear.

As the relationship with Rodolphe moves forward, Emma appears more and more totally smitten—though it is also clear that she is mostly just in love with the idea of being involved in a passionate, romantic affair. After finally consummating her relationship with Rodolphe, she goes back home and contemplates the situation in front of her mirror in a way that is very telling: “But when she saw herself in the glass she wondered at her face. Never had her eyes been so large, so black, or so profound a depth. Something subtle about her being transfigured her. She repeated, “I have a lover! a lover!” delighting at the idea as if a second puberty had come to her.” Here, in another case of indirect free style, the narrative shifts to Emma’s point of view as she marvels at how beautiful she looks now that she has a lover at last. But the objective narrative voice, as usual, kicks back in after this flight into Emma’s point of view, dashing cold water on her romantic bliss by suggesting sarcastically that she is acting as if she has entered a second puberty.

As this scene continues, Emma’s ongoing reveries make it overtly clear that her romantic view of the affair with Rodolphe derives directly from her romantic readings of literature: “Then she recalled the heroines of the books that she had read, and the lyric legion of these adulterous women began to sing in her memory with the voice of sisters that charmed her. She became herself, as it were, an actual part of these imaginings, and realised the love-dream of her youth as she saw herself in this type of amorous women whom she had so envied.” 

For his part, Rodolphe predictably soon grows tired of the relationship, especially when he realizes that Emma is taking the relationship quite seriously and even dreaming of leaving Charles and running away with Rodolphe. Perhaps Rodolphe’s most coldly calculated moment of the entire relationship occurs when he writes Emma a letter breaking off their relationship, proclaiming his sorrow at having to give her up, but insisting that it must be done for her sake. Then weirdly, he even sentimentally begs her to make sure that Berthe remembers him and prays for him:

“The world is cruel, Emma. Wherever we might have gone, it would have persecuted us. You would have had to put up with indiscreet questions, calumny, contempt, insult perhaps. Insult to you! Oh! And I, who would place you on a throne! I who bear with me your memory as a talisman! For I am going to punish myself by exile for all the ill I have done you. I am going away. Whither I know not. I am mad. Adieu! Be good always. Preserve the memory of the unfortunate who has lost you. Teach my name to your child; let her repeat it in her prayers.”

After coldly reading through the letter and finding that it lacks the pathos he had hoped to give it, he then adds one final meretricious touch, dripping a drop of water onto the paper and smearing the ink, to make it look as if he had shed a tear onto the page as he wrote.

Emma, of course, reacts badly when she receives the news, to the extent of falling physically ill and making Charles wonder whether she might have cancer. Again, though, it is clear that Emma’s reaction is fed not merely by any real feelings she might have for Rodolphe but also by her sense of having now become a tragic heroine of the kind she has read about in books. She falls physically ill largely because that is what she believes one who feels such passions is supposed to do.

In Chapter Fourteen, the Bovary family troubles mount due to debts incurred by Charles in buying various treatments for Emma’s condition from Homais, while Emma’s purchases from Lheureux (which the draper subtly inflates, given that Emma is no condition to dispute his charges) also mount up. Lheureux, meanwhile, is more than happy to lend money to Charles to tide him over, carefully weaving the web of debt in which the Bovarys have been ensnared. For her part, Emma, who has already dreamed several times in the novel of dying a dramatic and romantic death, begins to do so again. She does, however, begin to improve, buoyed by still another attempt at religion. Attempting to make a contribution to Emma’s ongoing recovery, Charles insists on taking Emma to Rouen to attend the theater.

Predictably, Emma is enthralled by the romantic opera that she and Charles attend in Rouen, though she actually makes an attempt not to be drawn in by the sufferings of the female protagonist. At the same time, she is appalled by Charles’ complete inability to appreciate the opera in the way that she does—or even to understand what is going on. Meanwhile, the opera they attend is Lucie de Lammermoor, which is not only a rather romantic story but is based on a novel (The Bride of Lammermoor) by Walter Scott, one of Emma’s favorite writers from her youthful reading. Little wonder, then, that she reacts to it strongly, or that she is disgusted by what she sees as Charles’ vulgar lack of appreciation. But then Emma herself loses interest in the opera when she learns that Léon, having now moved to Rouen, is present at the opera[1].

Charles, Emma, and Léon leave early, before the opera has even concluded. As Part II of the book ends, poor clueless Charles suggests that Emma stay over in Rouen to catch another performance. Léon, now much more sophisticated than before after his time in Paris, encourages her to do so, knowing that it will give him a chance to seduce her.


Williams, John R. “Emma Bovary and the Bride of Lammermoor.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. 20, No. ¾, Spring-Summer 1992, pp. 352-360.


[1] See Williams for a detailed discussion of the role of this opera in Madame Bovary. Williams concludes: “The influence on Emma of her early reading of Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor, and the passionate emotion she feels years later at the Rouen theater when she projects her own erotic life into that of the hapless Lucia, resound fatefully in Emma’s life. She becomes a distorted version of the woman in the text and destined to share in her love-melancholy and madness. In the case of Flaubert’s heroine, life has become a grotesque imitation of art and the kind of fictional romantic heroine she longed to be” (358).