12 December 2000
Social Classes in “Madam Bovary”
Striving for higher social status has been the downfall of many people just as it was the destruction of Emma Bovary. In Nineteenth Century France, several class existed: peasant or working class, middle class, upper-middle class, bourgeois, and aristocrats. In the story, “Madame Bovary,” we see a number of individuals striving to move themselves up to the bourgeois, a status that is higher than the working class but not as high as nobility. The bourgeois are characterized by being educated and wealthy but unlike the aristocracy, they earned their money through hard work and kept it through frugality (Britannica).
Our bourgeois strivers in “Madame Bovary” kept up
appearances but they would never quite make it to the full rank
of bourgeois. Because the level of one’s social class status is
determined so much by appearances, an individual can keep up a
good front and be accepted into the circle when they are out of
town where no-one knows the truth. Both Emma and Homais followed
this practice in their pursuits to really belong. “Madame Bovary”
is about a sense of self, a search for personal identity and
reality versus illusion. The symbolism throughout the story is
clearly indicative of this fact (Nadiau 136).
Charles Bovary moves between two classes: working and
middle. He comes from a middle class home but he does not seem to
care what his social status is. Both his mother and his wife, on
the other hand, want to move up in class status. His second wife,
Emma Bovary becomes obsessed with becoming part of the bourgeois
and is sorely disappointed when she finds she has married a man
that might have the potential to do so but lacks the ambition
Charles, at the urging of his mother, an upper-middle class
woman, attends medical school, which will give him the means by
which to move into the bourgeois, but it takes him two attempts
to pass. Undaunted, his mother, the elder Madame Bovary, who
believes she can change her own class status thorough her son’s
success, sets up a medical practice for him in the rural town of
Tostes. Since he is the only physician in the town, his success
should be assured. Mother Bovary also arranges a marriage to a
widow she believes is wealthy with an already established social
standing. However, Madame Dubuc is a fake. Still, Madame Dubuc,
who is bourgeois in behavior and idealism, but who is middle
class in reality, helps Charles give the appearance of a higher
class standing by expertly managing his finances and teaching him
how to dress and speak. Madame Duboc believes that her husband’s
patients can help them move up in status. The introduction of Monsieur Roualt encourages the new wife; he is a rich farmer, part of the upper-middle class; in her mind, this patient can aid in her efforts to move up the social ladder. As we see, the relationship between Charles and Roualt backfires because seemingly rich farmer isn’t so rich and because Charles becomes infatuated with Roualt’s daughter, Emma.
Madame Dubuc dies never having realized her dream of moving
into the bourgeoisie. Emma, as the new Madame Bovary, becomes
even more acutely aware of class differences when they attend an
affair at the Marquis d’Andervilliers estate. Here, in the
company of the rich, she sees the bourgeois life she wants and
believes she deserves. She becomes so unhappy with her life, she
becomes ill. Charles moves them to Yonville, a city, but her life
is still not transformed as she wants it (Galenet.com).
Emma’s obsession with the bourgeois and her realization that
her husband is never going to move up, sends her in search of a
pseudo-bourgeois life by borrowing money to buy the latest
fashions, hiring a “ladies” maid and having affairs with men who
are of the higher social class (Ringrose 7).
After Emma’s suicide, Charles is so distraught nothing
matters, he becomes even less ambitious, if that were possible,
he becomes impoverished and he slips into the working class
Rodolphe Boulanger, a gentleman, owns the estate, La Huchet.
He is the man of Emma’s dreams and becomes her first lover. He
belongs to the country gentry but he is a scoundrel and an
opportunist. He is manipulative, shallow, and cold-hearted. Emma is nothing more than a “conquest” to him and he throws her away when he tires of her. His social status remains constant throughout the story (Galenet.com).
Lestiboudois, the Yonville cemetery caretaker is an example
of the peasant or working class. His job involves phsysical labor
and the type of work does not earn him much respect. He earns
little money, even though his two jobs gives him double earnings
from each death in town. He earns extra money from taking
other jobs, including caring for the gardens at principal
gardens, including the Bovarys’. Lestiboudois’ remains in the same social class status throughout the story (Flaubert).
Monsieur Homais, the pharmacist, does change his status
during the novel. He begins in the upper-middle class but aspires
to move into the bourgeois. He finally succeeds in his quest when
he receives the “Legion of Honor” medal (p. 303). Prior to that
auspicious occasion, Homais does everything he can to give the
appearance of being bourgeois. Remember his initial meeting with
the Bovarys – he was wearing “green leather slippers and a velvet
fez with a gold tassel” (p. 879). In his conversations he
consistently attempts to make himself look better than he is. He
is the one who convinced Charles to perform surgery on
Hippolyte’s club foot. This act was not out of compassion for
Hippolyte, but rather, he thought it would give him a great story
for the newspaper and gain him more fame (Flaubert 878).
Homais even names his children after “great men, illustrious
deeds or noble ideas”. Homais may look the part, and the
prestigious award may even give him an even greater appearance of
the bourgeoisie, but he will never really be part of that status
Flaubert’s attitude toward Madame Bovary and her world is
ambiguous. He generally treats her with contempt and a bit of
irony. She reflects romanticism and striving to better herself.
These contradictions, leave the reader feeling sympathetic
towards her one minute, and feeling pity or disgust for the next
Based on the evidence presented in previous pages, it is concluded that Flaubert saw Madame Bovary’s world as being in the middle-class. She was never able to move to the bourgeois no matter how hard she tried or what ruses she used to give the appearance of being there. Although there is at least one character representing each of the social classes, most of the characters belong to the middle and upper-middle class society.
Flaubert, Gustave. “Madam Bovary.” Vol I of The Norton Anthology of
World Masterpieces. Ed. Maynard Mack, et al. 6th ed. 2 vols. New
York, Norton 1985: 1991.
Brombert, Victor. “Madame Bovary: The Tragedy of Deams.” Gustave
Flaubert. Ed. Bloom, Harold. New York: Chelsa House Publishers,
Nadeau, Maurice. The Greatness of Flaubert. New York: The Library
Press, 1972. 134-137.
Unknown. “Overview: Madam Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert.”
Unknown. “Social Class.” <http://www.britannica.com>