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

© 2021, by M. Keith Booker

As Part III begins, we already know that Emma is headed for more trouble. This is especially the case when we realize that Léon, who had once seemed as if he might be Emma’s soulmate, has been changed enough by his time in Paris that he, too, has begun to objectivize her. We thus quickly learn that “seeing her again after three years of absence his passion reawakened. He must, he thought, at last make up his mind to possess her.” This statement, of course, is partly just the language of the time, but it soon becomes clear that Léon does think of Emma as an object to be taken possession of. And his subsequent discourse with Emma seems almost as calculated to achieve this end as Rodolphe’s had been. For example, knowing how Emma romanticizes suffering, he attempts to impress her with an account of all he has suffered because he has missed her so much:

“And I! Oh, I too have suffered! Often I went out; I went away. I dragged myself along the quays, seeking distraction amid the din of the crowd without being able to banish the heaviness that weighed upon me. In an engraver’s shop on the boulevard there is an Italian print of one of the Muses. She is draped in a tunic, and she is looking at the moon, with forget-me-nots in her flowing hair. Something drove me there continually; I stayed there hours together.”

Then, “in a trembling voice” (that seems carefully calculated), he delivers the punch-line: “She resembled you a little.”

Emma, of course, would like nothing more than to be compared with a romantic painting of a Muse, one of the Greek goddesses who traditionally inspired poets and artists. Meanwhile, Léon even goes on to suggest that he has dreamed of dying in order to escape the pain and suffering of not being able to be with her. For her part, Emma puts up a token resistance and even composes a letter refusing his advances. She thinks of giving the letter to him when they go to tour the Notre Dame cathedral (in Rouen—this is not the famous one in Paris, but it is still impressive), which is presented here as a sort of tourist attraction, marking the decline of religion and the growing commercialism and commodification of everything in contemporary France. Emma even thinks of the church as a “huge boudoir spread around her,” suggesting its fallen nature.

Emma and Léon leave the church with the letter still in Emma’s possession. Then, in another of the book’s most famous scenes, they ride about Rouen in a closed cab. Flaubert very subtly makes it clear that Léon’s seduction of Emma is completed during this cab ride, signaled as Emma tears up the letter and drops it out the window of the cab, the indirect free style shifting into poetic language to indicate her elevated romantic mood: “Once in the middle of the day, in the open country, just as the sun beat most fiercely against the old plated lanterns, a bared hand passed beneath the small blinds of yellow canvas, and threw out some scraps of paper that scattered in the wind, and farther off lighted like white butterflies on a field of red clover all in bloom.” After the cab ride, Emma walks away, head down, veiled in anonymity, having once again begun an adulterous affair.

All of this action has occurred in a single chapter at the beginning of Part III. Chapter Two is filled with action as well, as Emma begins to hurtle inexorably toward her doom. Back in Yonville, in a moment that seems relatively unimportant at the time (but that will turn out to be quite significant), Emma observes Homais abusing his helper Justin over his careless handling of arsenic, a deadly poison, typically used to kill rats. We also get another look at Homais’ lack of concern for others when he informs Emma of the death of Charles’ father in a matter-of-fact way that makes it clear that he himself is unconcerned with the death.

Going forward, though, the most important events of this segment of the novel involve Emma’s evolving affair with Léon, as she establishes a pattern of regular visits to Rouen to visit her new lover, eventually gaining Charles’ approval by claiming that she is going there for piano lessons. For his part, Léon is still no Rodolphe, and (at least at first) he seems as romantically involved in the affair as is Emma. Showing himself still to be a sort of male bovaryst, he scrambles to make his involvement with Emma seem as poetic as possible, so that he can feel as much as possible like a romantic lover from a book and not just a man having an affair with another man’s wife. The indirect-free-style narration makes clear his viewpoint: “Often looking at her, it seemed to him that his soul, escaping towards her, spread like a wave about the outline of her head, and descended drawn down into the whiteness of her breast. He knelt on the ground before her, and with both elbows on her knees looked at her with a smile, his face upturned.”

Emma does much the same, though sometimes reality kicks in. At one point, when she is riding the coach to Rouen, she observes a blind beggar singing on the side of the road, hoping that the passengers will toss him some coins.

“On the hillside a poor devil wandered about with his stick in the midst of the diligences. A mass of rags covered his shoulders, and an old staved-in beaver, turned out like a basin, hid his face; but when he took it off he discovered in the place of eyelids empty and bloody orbits. The flesh hung in red shreds, and there flowed from it liquids that congealed into green scale down to the nose, whose black nostrils sniffed convulsively. To speak to you he threw back his head with an idiotic laugh; then his bluish eyeballs, rolling constantly, at the temples beat against the edge of the open wound. He sang a little song as he followed the carriages—

“Maids in the warmth of a summer day
Dream of love, and of love always”

The objective narrator here makes no effort to hide the abject condition of this poor soul, whose situation contrasts so sharply with Emma’s vision that she is going away to a romantic tryst that transcends physical reality. Meanwhile, the narrator’s dismissive description of the continuation of the beggar’s song (“And all the rest was about birds and sunshine and green leaves”) undermines any attempt to see it as romantic. Moreover, any attempt to see this song as romantic is also undermined by the cruel and abusive treatment meted out to the beggar by the coachman Hivert—and by the indifference to his suffering of the passengers in the coach, which is, in itself, very telling. We can, of course, easily imagine Emma herself romanticizing the beggar’s plight—and the beggar’s song, which will play an important role later in the text

In the meantime, as her affair with Léon proceeds, Emma’s life becomes a “tissue of lies.” In addition to her necessary lies to Charles, she even begins to lie to Léon. Thus, in an attempt to make herself seem a more romantic figure, she “confesses” to having had a completely invented affair (obviously derived from her reading of novels) with a ship’s captain—though she assures Léon that she had felt nothing for the captain, or at least nothing like what she feels for Léon. For his part, Léon is not entirely honest, either. At the end of Chapter Five, Emma asks Léon to write a love poem for her—because that is obviously what a lover in a romantic novel would do. Léon makes a halfhearted effort, but lacks both talent and inspiration. So he simply copies a poem from a book and presents it as his own, meanwhile possibly showing a certain resentment that she seems to be the one who is determining the texture of their relationship. We are told that “he did not question her ideas; he accepted all her tastes; he was rather becoming her mistress than she his,” though in this case, for once, there is room for interpretation of the narrative voicing. Is this the objective narrator simply conveying the dynamics of the relationship, or is this a case of indirect free style that conveys Léon’s feelings about the way the relationship is going?

Passion wanes on the part of both lovers, though Emma struggles to generate enough romantic energy to keep the affair going. At the same time, she also eventually begins privately to wish that she had a lover who was more romantic than the one she has. Léon, in fact, is so unromantic that he begins to reflect on the fact that he has a career to pursue and soon concludes that he should discontinue the affair and concentrate on more practical things. Like a good bourgeois, he vows to give up, not only Emma, but also all other trivial pursuits:

“At last Léon swore he would not see Emma again, and he reproached himself with not having kept his word, considering all the worry and lectures this woman might still draw down upon him, without reckoning the jokes made by his companions as they sat round the stove in the morning. Besides, he was soon to be head clerk; it was time to settle down. So he gave up his flute, exalted sentiments, and poetry; for every bourgeois in the flush of his youth, were it but for a day, a moment, has believed himself capable of immense passions, of lofty enterprises. The most mediocre libertine has dreamed of sultanas; every notary bears within him the debris of a poet.”

For her part, even as she struggles to continue to see her failing affair with Léon as romantic, Emma begins to experience more and more financial pressure as Lheureux tightens his web and Emma’s debts become due. Eventually, she is unable completely to hide her indebtedness from Charles, even if she does manage to hide the fact that bailiffs come to the house to inventory their possessions for possible collection as partial payment for the debts. The ruthlessness with which Lheureux and his confederates pursue the collection of the debts constitutes a critique of capitalism as powerful as anything in the thoroughly anti-capitalist Balzac, though capitalist domination of France in Balzac is a rising phenomenon, while in Flaubert it is a fait accompli.

The loathsome Homais comes to the fore in this segment of the novel as well, displaying an ambition and a soullessness that can also be taken as a critique of certain elements of Flaubert’s contemporary bourgeois society. Homais comes off as a more and more unpleasant figure, though in some ways he comes off as a kind of reverse image of Emma, as someone who deprives everything of all romance, reducing it to a practical asset for use in his own advancement. For example, Homais is also fascinated with Paris, but as a locus of potential professional advancement, not romantic adventures. He also visits Léon in Rouen, where he thrusts himself upon Léon and tries to impress the younger man with his worldliness. For example, he discourses in a seemingly “learned” (but actually sexist and racist) fashion about the temperaments of various nationalities of women: “he pointed out the symptoms by which one could find out if a woman had passion. He even launched into an ethnographic digression: the German was vapourish, the French woman licentious, the Italian passionate.” Meanwhile, he notes that “negresses” are “an artistic taste,” displaying a complete objectification of women, but perhaps seeing nonwhite women even more as objects than white ones.

At one point, Homais joins Emma on a coach ride to Rouen, assuming, we are told, “an attitude pensive and Napoleonic,” clearly suggesting his pompous pretentiousness (but also perhaps constituting a sly dig at Napoleon, something that Flaubert could only do in the subtlest of manners, given the extent to which Louis Bonaparte attempted to legitimize his own mediocre rule through reference to his illustrious uncle). Meanwhile, we also see Homais’ lack of compassion for others when the blind beggar again appears, but Homais clearly feels no sympathy for him and his diseased condition. Still, Homais, clearly having learned nothing from the misadventure with Hippolyte, sees an opportunity and resolves to attempt to cure the beggar—not to help the beggar, but simply for his own self-aggrandizement. Not surprisingly, Homais’ attempt to cure the beggar’s blindness with a salve fails utterly. Then, to cover up the fact of his failure, the unscrupulous Homais campaigns to discredit the blind beggar and eventually has him locked up in an asylum for life.

In the meantime, Emma seeks financial help from the notary Guillaumin, not knowing that he is secretly a confederate of Lheureux. She is then horrified when Guillaumin makes a pass at her, clearly hoping to trade this financial help for sexual favors, an idea that obviously comes to him partly because Emma has developed something of a “reputation” in the town, where she has become the object of much gossip. By the end of Chapter Seven, Emma even resolves to travel to La Huchette in an attempt to rekindle her relationship with Rodolphe as a way of getting money from him to help with her debts. Emma, we are told, is “not in the least conscious of her prostitution,” but the objective narrator, so given to deflating Emma’s flights of fancy, makes it rather clear that she will be offering to Rodolphe what Guillaumin had hoped she would offer to him. The tendency of capitalism to reduce everything, even human relationships, even humans themselves, to the status of a commodity (that is, an interchangeable economic object) is one of the key targets of the satire of Madame Bovary, and Emma’s final surrender to what is essentially prostitution (the ultimate form of the commodification of human beings) makes this point particularly brutally and particularly directly.

Of course, Emma’s attempt to get economic aid from Rodolphe fails, just as her earlier attempt to get money from Léon had failed—partly because Emma has an exaggerated sense of her importance to either of these men, both of whom had regarded her as a mere object, even if Léon’s attitude was somewhat less entirely cynical. When Rodolphe pleads poverty, claiming that he has no money with which to help Emma, she points out that his home seems to be filled with expensive objects. Then she veers into another romantic narrative (which she no doubt completely believes at the moment) of how devoted she is to him and how she would have done anything for him, which makes her, in her view, a tragic victim at this point in their relationship. In her declaration, though, she switches from second-person to third-person in her references to Rodolphe, as if she cannot decide whether she is addressing him or a theatrical audience:

“But I! I would have given you everything. I would have sold all, worked for you with my hands, I would have begged on the highroads for a smile, for a look, to hear you say ‘Thanks!’ And you sit there quietly in your arm-chair, as if you had not made me suffer enough already! But for you, and you know it, I might have lived happily. What made you do it? Was it a bet? Yet you loved me—you said so. And but a moment since—Ah! it would have been better to have driven me away. My hands are hot with your kisses, and there is the spot on the carpet where at my knees you swore an eternity of love! You made me believe you; for two years you held me in the most magnificent, the sweetest dream! Eh! Our plans for the journey, do you remember? Oh, your letter! your letter! it tore my heart! And then when I come back to him—to him, rich, happy, free—to implore the help the first stranger would give, a suppliant, and bringing back to him all my tenderness, he repulses me because it would cost him three thousand francs!”

Feeling that she is now out of options, Emma concludes that her only remaining choice is to commit suicide, which she believes will at least allow her to go out as a tragic heroine, especially if she does it in dramatic enough fashion. Remembering the arsenic, she immediately goes to Justin and browbeats him into giving her a supply of the poison. Then, above the young man’s horrified objections, she immediately sets to work. Opening the jar of rat poison, she “seized the blue jar, tore out the cork, plunged in her hand, and withdrawing it full of a white powder, she began eating it.” Marx-Aveling’s translation here is a bit conservative, as the French original, “elle se mit à manger à même,” suggests that she eats the poison hastily, or even “greedily,” as some English translations have it.

Gulping down rat poison, of course, is hardly a romantic way to go, but that is nothing compared with what happens next. Rather than suddenly and dramatically dropping dead, as she had apparently envisioned, Emma instead gradually falls ill, then gets sicker and sicker, leading to a painful and protracted death, marked by intense pain and prolific vomiting of blood. This reminder of physical reality contrasts dramatically with Emma’s romantic expectations, though it does not entirely eliminate her ability to think romantically. As she finally nears death, she hears, of all things, the blind beggar singing outside her window.

At first, the words to the song again seem romantic:

“Maids in the warmth of a summer day
Dream of love and of love always.”

Emma’s reaction, however, is related to us by the objective narrator in a way that is anything but romantic:

“Emma raised herself like a galvanised corpse, her hair undone, her eyes fixed, staring.”

The reference here is to nineteenth-century experiments with electricity, in which electrified (“galvanised”) corpses were found to respond to electrical current with muscle contractions that cause spasmodic movements. Then, after another seemingly romantic stanza of the song, Emma recognizes that the singer is the same blind beggar she had encountered earlier. Her reaction to this realization is again related to us in very unromantic terms, sounding more like something from a horror story than a romantic one: “And Emma began to laugh, an atrocious, frantic, despairing laugh, thinking she saw the hideous face of the poor wretch that stood out against the eternal night like a menace.”

To top things off, we finally hear the final lines of the beggar’s song, which undercut all that had come before, converting the song into a bawdy ditty as the wind comes along and blows away the clothing of the girl in the song. Indeed, in one of this relentless text’s most chilling moves, the last thing Emma hears before she dies is the unromantic end of the song, which rhymes with her own unromantic end:

“The wind is strong this summer day,
Her petticoat has flown away.”

Emma then dies, a fact of which the objective narrator informs us with what is perhaps his most devastating bit of reporting in the entire novel. In Marx-Aveling’s delicate Victorian translation, the narrator simply reports that “she was dead,” which is aloof enough, but not nearly as strong as the true sense of the French original, which is “Elle n’existait plus”: “she existed no more,” often very effectively rendered in later translations as “she had ceased to exist,” which is about as far as one can get from the dramatic and flamboyant death that Emma had imagined would be her end. From internal evidence, scholars have estimated that she is twenty-eight years old when she dies.

Charles does suffer greatly in the wake of Emma’s death, restoring some of the drama to her death, but the irony here is that she is, of course, not around to observe any of his grief. Meanwhile, Flaubert continues his satirical treatment of the other characters in the text. In one telling scene, Homais and Bournisien sit together with Emma’s body as it awaits burial. Homais, the supposed humanist, and Bournisien, the supposedly devout clergyman, might both be expected to show genuine grief for the deceased Emma. Instead, though, the two men simply ignore Emma and her fate altogether and become involved in a conversation that shows their continuing self-absorption in their own concerns, Homais proclaiming the value of rational philosophers such as Voltaire for dealing with such situations, while Bournisien suggests that such matters are best dealt with by religion, eventually leading to a heated argument.

Subsequently, Bournisien sinks more and more into fanaticism, slandering Voltaire by repeating a scurrilous rumor that the writer had died while eating his own excrement. It is not clear whether this rumor is entirely Flaubert’s invention or whether it was, in fact, something Flaubert knew to have been repeated by the French clergy, who were known to spread misinformation about Voltaire, whom they viewed as a mortal enemy and hoped to discredit any way they could. Voltaire, incidentally, is mentioned by name seven times in Madame Bovary. Four times he is cited by Homais as a hero; twice he is cited by Bournisien and once by Charles’ mother as a dangerous enemy of religion. Given that all three of the characters who cite Voltaire are presented in the text as unsympathetic figures, then, it is clear that the text does not endorse either the positive or the negative view of Voltaire, though Flaubert elsewhere expressed skepticism toward the value of the legacy of the Enlightenment in general. For example, his posthumously-published novel Bouvard et Pécuchet (1881), features two bumbling would-be scholars who are great admirers of Voltaire, though the satire seems aimed more at those who misuse Voltaire’s ideas than at the ideas themselves[1].

Perhaps surprisingly, Madame Bovary extends for a significant period beyond the death of its heroine—as if to further de-romanticize her death. The world and the novel have both gone on, even in her absence. In this final segment, Flaubert introduces an extra dose of pathos as Hippolyte dons his fancy leg to attend Emma’s funeral. He introduces another element of satire when he shows Charles’ mother essentially gloating over Emma’s death, glad to be back at the center of her son’s life. Women clearly do not come off well in this novel, which has sometimes been accused of misogyny, though it should also be pointed out that almost all of the questionable conduct engaged in by women in this novel can be attributed to the restrictions placed on them by contemporary French society.

Charles continues to struggle with the debts incurred by Emma, which are still due, then encounters even more sorrow when he discovers Emma’s love letters from both Léon and Rodolphe, which she had secreted in a desk. After this , he declines into depression. Flaubert delivers another merciless blow when he shows us Charles in an encounter with Rodolphe, for whom he expresses envy, but no ill will. Rodolphe, of course, feels nothing but contempt for poor Charles, who comes off as a pathetic figure, indeed. Soon afterward, Charles collapses and dies, his body discovered by young Berthe. He is (scholars have estimated) thirty-two years old. Canivet performs an autopsy, given Charles’s surprising death, but we learn that it “found nothing,” which suggests that Charles died of sorrow rather than a physical ailment, but also suggests the extent to which Charles has been a nonentity throughout the text.

Berthe, now an orphan, goes to live with Charles’ mother, but the mother soon dies as well, forcing Berthe to go to live with an aunt who puts her to work in a cotton mill, one of the most difficult and grueling kinds of labor that children in the nineteenth century were often forced to do as part of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution, a key manifestation of the growth of capitalism. There is an added irony here, though, in that, in such work, Berthe will be contributing to the manufacture of precisely the kinds of goods that drove her mother into ruinous debt and eventually to suicide.

This heartbreaking information, conveyed without sentimentality in the matter-of-fact voice of the objective narrator, is then followed by one last chilling note. We learn that Homais has continued his tireless self-promotion throughout the latter part of the text, including his campaign to undermine the blind beggar. We now learn at the end that he has also undercut three successive doctors who have come to Yonville to replace Charles, and has now succeeded in his own career to the point that he has (as we learn in the final sentence of the novel) been awarded the cross of the Legion of Honour, one of France’s highest awards. This is a society, Flaubert clearly wants to say, in which ruthlessness and selfishness are more likely to be rewarded and appreciated than are genuine achievements.

Madame Bovary, as a whole, is a powerful indictment of the mediocrity and hypocrisy of the society in which it is set, so it is understandable that Flaubert would seek to protect himself by locating the action outside the reign of Louis Bonaparte. Subsequent generations of readers, though, have tended to ignore the ruse and to read the novel precisely as it was intended to be read—as a thorough denunciation of the French society of Louis Bonaparte. In that sense, the novel is very effective as a social and political critique, in addition to its immense artistic achievements. If the novel has a major shortcoming, though, it would surely be that it includes no positive alternatives to the negative examples that it presents so brilliantly.


Sumberg, Theodore A. “Flaubert Against the Enlightenment.” CLA Journal, Vol. 26, No. 2, December 1982, pp. 241-250.


[1] See Sumberg for an argument that Bouvard et Pécuchet should indeed to read as Flaubert’s reactionary denunciation of the principles of the Enlightenment.