Gender Roles And Feminism In Madame Bovary

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In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, he illustrates the realistic struggle of a woman’s life in the mid-eighteen hundreds when Bourgeois women lived restricted lives. The heroine Emma Bovary rebels against the traditional behaviour of a woman, by portraying herself as the opposite. Through various masculine modes, specifically, her display of male fashion, Flaubert develops this concept. Her contrasting views of women and men aid in further understanding why she renders herself in such a manner. Flaubert describes Emma continuously with masculine traits despite her feminine way of thinking. Emma believes she will genuinely find happiness by obtaining the love of a man. Although Emma is female, she has a harsh judgement of women as she attempts to acquire freedom. Flaubert’s use of phallic symbols addresses the complexity of gender stereotypes and develops our understanding of Emma’s character. The use of symbolism and masculine modes presents not only Flaubert’s critique of the traditional gender stereotypes but the perception of masculinity, where it is vulnerable to perversion and fluid in how easily it can be lost or acquired.

Throughout the novel, Flaubert describes Emma’s clothing with strong masculine connotations. In Emma’s first description, “She had, like a man, tucked into the front of her bodice, a tortoiseshell lorgnon”. The tortoiseshell eyeglass is suggestive of masculine fashion from the beginning Flaubert instills the idea of man in association with Emma. This trend continues, when she was reminiscing of Tostes in chapter seven “often she changed her coiffure: she did her hair à la chinoise, in loose curls: she plaited her at the side and rolled it under, like a man.” Subsequently, arriving in Yonville, in a man’s hat and riding costume for the ride with Rodolphe, she stepped out of the carriage “squeezed into a tight waistcoat, looking like a man,” she dressed in masculine attire for the masked ball also. Flaubert is demonstrating the defiance of traditional gender roles in society, displaying how apathetic Emma is towards her expected role as a woman.

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Furthermore, to emphasize the representation of gender stereotyping, the main male characters all carry knives that relate to appropriate male fashion but also serve as a phallic symbol. “[Léon] kept…a special pocket knife” and “Rodolphe, a cigar between his teeth, was mending one of the two broken reins with his little knife.” However, Emma, to has a knife, “leaning on one elbow, spent time sketching lines the oilcloth with the tip of her knife.” She also expropriates what at the time was a male prerogative, smoking in public “just to vex people”, as well as playfully putting Rodolphe’s big pipe into her mouth, which is also representative of a phallic symbol. These aspects of Emma’s characterization further reinforces the idea that she is consistently displaying masculine behaviours that release her from the restraints of a woman. Flaubert plays with this feature as it subjects the readers, and most relevantly, the people from his time to question the traditional gender roles.

Frequently seen throughout the novel, Emma inspires desire, most tellingly, through her shoes. The men in the novel who are sexually interested in Emma appear fixated by the sight and sound of her shoes. Charles’ first inclination of romantic feeling towards Emma is apparent through the memory of her “little clogs on the clean-scrubbed kitchen flags,” and the sound of her “wooden soles…[that] clacked smartly on the leather boots she wore”. Léon notices her “foot clad in a small black boot”. Rodolphe admires her “dainty little foot” when expressing her beauty as well as when “walking behind her, [he] glimpsed – just… the black boot – the delicacy of her white stocking, like a snippet of her nakedness,”. While it is superficial to perceive the shoes as strictly feminine, moreover, the shoe represents both male and female. The shoes symbolize how Emma ignites the male characters’ passion and desire. While it is superficial to perceive the shoes as strictly feminine, moreover, the shoe represents masculinity. It symbolizes how Emma ignites the male characters’ passion and desire. Flaubert presents Emma’s shoe as a phallic symbol to capture how she fits in both roles.

The significance of Emma’s adoption of masculine styles and the manipulation of phallic substitutes require careful consideration. Emma’s male attributes do not displace her feminine aspects. She continues to exhibit many of the traditional feminine features, such as her sentimentality and delusional pursuit of a fairytale. Emma’s adoption of masculine modes is an example of her will to achieve some resemblance of freedom that men obtain. Furthermore, Flaubert shows not only does Emma exhibit masculine traits, but there is also a symbolic exchange of these traits. Male characters go through a symbolic emasculation; “[Monsieur Rouault] had broken his leg”. Hippolyte has his amputated, “then having flatly declared that it must be amputated, he went off to the chemist’s to rail at the asses who could have reduced a poor man to such a state”. Focusing on their broken legs, it symbolizes the hindering of their ability to leave and be free. Hippolyte’s masculinity diminishes as Emma’s advances. Additionally, Emma’s ability to manipulate men seen previously with her shoes also supports the idea of Emma’s description of being masculine. Emma’s ownership of a knife displays how she can effortlessly take ownership of a masculine persona. These behaviours enable Emma to progress in attaining liberation. Flaubert criticizes the masculinity of men showing how it’s symbolically in retreat and males in various ways are shown to be defective, which causes the reader to question the circumstances of men in society.

Consequently, Emma’s impression of men plays an essential role in her pursuit of freedom. Men appear to have more freedom and control, especially in terms of marriage. When stepping out of marriage, it is commonly the man. The act of Emma’s betrayal to her marriage is an example of her rebellion to her expected role. Likewise, its Faluberts portrayal of Emma becoming masculine. While marriage is according to the man’s convenience, this is perhaps one of the reasons why “Emma[’s] found again in adultery.” Emma has a glorified perception of men as “a man, surely, ought to know everything, ought to excel in a host of activities, ought to initiate you into the energies passion, the refinements of life [and] all its mysteries”. Contrastingly her perception of women is correspondingly low; she complains to Rodolphe that women do not have the right to roam the world, deprived, and to Léon that they live useless lives. Notably, Emma also wishes to give birth to a boy:

A man, at least, is free; he can explore each passion and every kingdom, conquer obstacles, feast upon the most exotic pleasures. But a woman is continually thwarted. Both inert and yielding, against her ranged weakness of the flesh and the inequity of the law. Her will, like the veil strung to her bonnet, flutters in every breeze; always there is desire urging, always the convention restraining.

This naive perspective of the sexes gave rise to Emmas’ exalted notion of what it is to be a man, and, unsurprisingly, Emma repeatedly wishes she were a man. Her misguided delusions conceptualize such thoughts. It follows that she would create a persona of such to allow her to be free of her restraining convention. Emma gives birth to a girl despite her wishes such that she neglects her child. Why is it that Emma is made to be negligent and indifferent to her daughter? Why could Flaubert not have made Emma be both defiant of her role and a genuine mother? During Flaubert’s time, although rebelling against her position would have caused controversy regardless of the impersonal behaviour she has towards her daughter and relationships made much more of an impact. Flaubert broke away from the romantic fantasy genre and the radical nature of Emma’s character not only appalled people but also had them learning to empathize with her.

Flaubert’s use of masculine modes, the association of men and freedom, influences how Emma presents herself in a society that benefits men over women. Fashion plays a significant role as it affects how the reader perceives Emma and questions her femininity and the realistic life of a woman’s struggles. Flaubert emphasizes the idea of romanticism with Emma. Emma expresses her thoughts openly while others conceal theirs. Nevertheless, representative of you and I. Knives and Shoes act as phallic symbols, Emma’s possession of a knife represents her taking on masculine traits that extend to physical objects. The shoes represent the passion stored within Emma, which she then ignites in the male characters, allowing her to acquire some of their freedom. Emma’s views of women are inferior to men, influence why she thinks men equal freedom. All these aspects of Emma’s characterization help the reader understand how Flaubert is displaying her masculine traits, showing the conflict of where true freedom is unattainable for women.

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Gender Roles And Feminism In Madame Bovary. (2021, August 28). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 1, 2021, from
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