12 December 2000Social 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 upappearances but they would never quite make it to the full rankof bourgeois. Because the level of one’s social class status isdetermined so much by appearances, an individual can keep up agood front and be accepted into the circle when they are out oftown where no-one knows the truth. Both Emma and Homais followedthis practice in their pursuits to really belong. “Madame Bovary”is about a sense of self, a search for personal identity andreality versus illusion. The symbolism throughout the story isclearly indicative of this fact (Nadiau 136).
Charles Bovary moves between two classes: working andmiddle. He comes from a middle class home but he does not seem tocare what his social status is. Both his mother and his wife, onthe other hand, want to move up in class status. His second wife,Emma Bovary becomes obsessed with becoming part of the bourgeoisand is sorely disappointed when she finds she has married a manthat might have the potential to do so but lacks the ambition(Galenet.com). Charles, at the urging of his mother, an upper-middle classwoman, attends medical school, which will give him the means bywhich to move into the bourgeois, but it takes him two attemptsto pass. Undaunted, his mother, the elder Madame Bovary, whobelieves she can change her own class status thorough her son’ssuccess, sets up a medical practice for him in the rural town ofTostes. Since he is the only physician in the town, his successshould be assured.
Mother Bovary also arranges a marriage to awidow she believes is wealthy with an already established socialstanding. However, Madame Dubuc is a fake. Still, Madame Dubuc,who is bourgeois in behavior and idealism, but who is middleclass in reality, helps Charles give the appearance of a higherclass standing by expertly managing his finances and teaching himhow to dress and speak. Madame Duboc believes that her husband’spatients 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 movinginto the bourgeoisie. Emma, as the new Madame Bovary, becomeseven more acutely aware of class differences when they attend anaffair at the Marquis d’Andervilliers estate. Here, in thecompany of the rich, she sees the bourgeois life she wants andbelieves she deserves. She becomes so unhappy with her life, shebecomes ill. Charles moves them to Yonville, a city, but her lifeis still not transformed as she wants it (Galenet.com). Emma’s obsession with the bourgeois and her realization thather husband is never going to move up, sends her in search of apseudo-bourgeois life by borrowing money to buy the latestfashions, hiring a “ladies” maid and having affairs with men whoare of the higher social class (Ringrose 7). After Emma’s suicide, Charles is so distraught nothingmatters, he becomes even less ambitious, if that were possible,he becomes impoverished and he slips into the working class(Brombert 36).
Rodolphe Boulanger, a gentleman, owns the estate, La Huchet.He is the man of Emma’s dreams and becomes her first lover. Hebelongs to the country gentry but he is a scoundrel and anopportunist. 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 exampleof the peasant or working class. His job involves phsysical laborand the type of work does not earn him much respect. He earnslittle money, even though his two jobs gives him double earningsfrom each death in town. He earns extra money from takingother jobs, including caring for the gardens at principalgardens, including the Bovarys’.
Lestiboudois’ remains in the same social class status throughout the story (Flaubert).Monsieur Homais, the pharmacist, does change his statusduring the novel. He begins in the upper-middle class but aspiresto move into the bourgeois. He finally succeeds in his quest whenhe receives the “Legion of Honor” medal (p. 303). Prior to thatauspicious occasion, Homais does everything he can to give theappearance of being bourgeois. Remember his initial meeting withthe Bovarys – he was wearing “green leather slippers and a velvetfez with a gold tassel” (p. 879).
In his conversations heconsistently attempts to make himself look better than he is. Heis the one who convinced Charles to perform surgery onHippolyte’s club foot. This act was not out of compassion forHippolyte, but rather, he thought it would give him a great storyfor the newspaper and gain him more fame (Flaubert 878). Homais even names his children after “great men, illustriousdeeds or noble ideas”. Homais may look the part, and theprestigious award may even give him an even greater appearance ofthe bourgeoisie, but he will never really be part of that status(Flaubert 880). Flaubert’s attitude toward Madame Bovary and her world isambiguous. He generally treats her with contempt and a bit ofirony.
She reflects romanticism and striving to better herself.These contradictions, leave the reader feeling sympathetictowards her one minute, and feeling pity or disgust for the nextBased 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.Works CitedPrimary sourceFlaubert, 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.Secondary sourcesBrombert, Victor. “Madame Bovary: The Tragedy of Deams.
” Gustave Flaubert. Ed. Bloom, Harold. New York: Chelsa House Publishers, 1966.
23-43.Nadeau, Maurice. The Greatness of Flaubert. New York: The Library Press, 1972. 134-137.
Unknown. “Overview: Madam Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert.” <http://www.galenet.com>Unknown.
“Social Class.” <http://www.britannica.com>