The nineteenth century was a difficult and dynamic period for the French nation, as citizens of all classes and philosophical persuasions struggled to come to terms with modernity. These struggles are reflected in Gustave Flaubert’s first novel, Madame Bovary, published as a complete text in 1857. The story is well-known: Emma Bovary finds herself in a surprisingly loveless marriage (albeit one she freely consented to) to her conventional but devoted husband, Charles, and seeks passion and fulfillment in material luxuries, a bourgeois social status, and eventual adulteries with two men. These ultimately leave her unfulfilled and heavily in debt, and in an act of desperation she swallows arsenic, from which she meets her death.

Madame Bovary was greeted with no little controversy on its release, the French government going so far as to charge the author with having “offen[ded] public and religious morality and decency.” After a day-long trial, Flaubert was acquitted, the court noting that although “the work referred to court deserves a harsh rebuke, for the task of literature must be to embellish and to amuse the mind, by elevating understanding and by refining morals,” Flaubert had “declare[d] his respect for the accepted standards of good behavior and all that relates to religious morality;” and had “only . . . made the mistake of sometimes losing sight of the rules that every writer who respects himself must never transgress.” The Catholic Church was less forgiving: In 1864, Madame Bovary was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, where it remained until 1966, the Vatican evidently agreeing with literary critic Susanna Lee that “for Flaubert, the absence of God and the rise of science signify the denial of a last word, a negation of transcendence and determination. . . . God’s absence or indifference . . . is a foundational event in Madame Bovary.”

Thankfully, Catholics have never ascribed the charism of infallibility to ecclesiastical censorship, because, pace Ms. Lee, Madame Bovary is arguably one of the great apologias for Christianity in modern French literature.

An overview of the historical background is in order. The definitive break of the French people with the medieval political order began in 1789, with the revolutionary overthrow of the monarchy, aristocracy, nobility, and Church. This overthrow was not peaceful or restrained. The Revolutionaries pillaged and burned châteus, nobles were forced to relinquish their traditional privileges, religious orders were suppressed and church property nationalized, and clergy were made to take an oath of allegiance to the new Constitution, relinquishing their ties to the Pope of Rome. Eventually, the monarchy itself was dissolved and the nation was ruled by a republican dictatorship. Those who refused these measures were brutally put to death in the most barbarous fashions, especially by guillotine. King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were beheaded in 1793, and scores of royal sympathizers were similarly massacred, along with thousands of orthodox Catholic bishops, priests, monks, nuns, and laypeople, culminating in modernity’s first genocide during the War in the Vendée.[1] Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the republican Directory in 1799 and assumed the title “Emperor of the French.”

It was under Napoleon I (as he would come to be known) that the Church began to reclaim some of her former standing and privilege. Such concessions were not made easily. Italy’s Papal States were ceased and the popes held prisoner under two succeeding pontificates.[2] But by the 1850s, and after a succession of short-lived governments, the Church’s traditional, if more spiritualized, position was consolidated under Bonaparte’s nephew, Napoleon III. Originally president of the French Second Republic, as emperor he recognized, as did his uncle, the need to work with the Church in building a stable France. Napoleon III was not devout, but his wife was, and the majority of the French people had retained an attachment, even a loyalty, to their traditional religion.[3] Consequently, Napoleon III

was kind to the Church; restored the Panthéon to worship; wanted Sunday kept quietly; was willing for a tighter control of alcohol and the wine bars; arranged that cardinals should have seats in the Senate; made it easier for nunneries to be founded; exempted [candidates for ordination] from serving in the army; allotted money to raise the very poor pay of the curates [i.e., parish priests]; decorated bishops; stiffened the censorship of anti-Catholic books and tracts; exiled opponents. . . . [U]nder these conditions, with an emperor friendly to Catholics, the Church prospered. The number of monks and nuns increased rapidly. . . . Towards the end of the time of [Napoleon III] the number of children being educated by the Church approached the number educated in public schools.[4]

But all was not well. Below these signs of spiritual resurgence lay the simmering anticlericalism, and outright anti-Catholicism, of the rationalists:

In Paris the radical tradition of the French Revolution was strong. Hardly anyone went to church in some areas of the city. The absence of religious practice was accompanied, no doubt because of the long folk-memory of revolution, by an anticlericalism that was usually contemptuous, sometimes bitter, and at times ran to violence against demonstrations of religion in public. . . . If these anticlerical areas were industrial, which several of them were, the division became a class division. The working man might not say he was not a Christian, but he had no use whatsoever for the Church. He – but less so his wife – was alienated, and no amount of evangelism, missions, or public processions, could do anything to shake his conviction that the Church was not for him.[5]

“Still, what was clear in the 1850s and even 1860s was religious revival,” and it is in this world, torn between the mysteries of faith and the certitudes of pure reason, that Flaubert sets his novel, and where Emma Bovary tries to find her place.[6]

Which of these two world views, if either, is endorsed in the novel? The answer would seem obvious. Flaubert’s world is not one of miracles and mysteries, but of a quaint naturalism intellectually tangible for the average reader. There are dozens of literary allusions throughout the novel, the vast majority of them to secular works. Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris is a particularly recurring one (with an allusion in each of the three parts of the book), to which can be added other novels and artistic works of non-Christian character. The physician Homais is the novel’s spokesman for rationalism, and its certainty to replace the functions hitherto served by traditional religion. He boasts:

Despite the prejudices which still hang like a network over a great part of the face of Europe, the light is beginning to permeate our country districts. . . . The operation was carried out with almost miraculous success. . . . Honor, then, to these great-hearted men of science! . . . Honored, thrice honored, be they! Is it not time for us to cry aloud, saying, “Lo! the blind shall see, the deaf shall hear, and the lame shall walk?” That which, in days of old, superstition promised its votaries, science now accomplishes for all mankind.[7]

Here, praise hitherto proper to Christian prayer and Biblical allusion are appropriated to medical science. In fact, every incident where Homais figures is an occasion for an anti-clerical jab. In his very first appearance, the reader is introduced to his anti-Christian deism. His dialogues with the parish priest, Monsieur Bournisien, are particularly insightful: The French Church is held up to ridicule for indiscriminately condemning all theatrical shows, even though she herself once permitted acting in her liturgy.[8]

Quite apart from the obvious ridicules by the physician, religion does not appear to come across sympathetically at all in the novel. While certainly not an actively malicious force, Catholicity doesn’t seem to serve any redeeming purpose. Emma is given a convent education, and while it does provide her some initial devotional highs, it ultimately fails to satisfy her, particularly once she begins reading secular (and forbidden) novels.[9] Later in the novel, while she is having her first affair with Rodolphe, she is reminded, by the church bells ringing the Angelus, of her days at the convent. Almost unconsciously (blindly!) she heads toward the church, to speak with the pastor, who is completely oblivious to her spiritual needs, focused instead on having the disinterested children under his tutelage memorize the rote formulas of their catechism.[10] Every serious Catholic knows this sort of priest, the sacramental vending machine who is utterly incompetent when it comes to addressing the day-to-day problems of real people. Emma’s later attempt to ward off a second adultery by arranging a prayerful rendezvous in Notre-Dame de Paris is likewise a complete failure, showing just how flaccid her prior repentance was.[11] Her religious fervors are all for naught. As Ms. Lee, citing the late scholar Ross Chambers, puts it:

“[Emma] seems not to realize that in trying to escape banality and in searching for something ‘new’ she is only condemning herself to an existence of repetitions.’ The repetitions become degradations, and the initial substance is either eliminated or degraded in turn.

Emma’s ultimate degradation, it would appear, is her self-inflicted death.

But the aforementioned facts are not the whole story. Indeed, the very first reference to religion in the novel is an early reference to a sympathetic cleric: the priest who gives the poor twelve-year-old Charles, Emma’s future husband, his rudimentary education, which will enable him to one day begin school. “It was his village curé who had taught him Latin, his parents, for economy, having only sent him to college as late as possible.”[12]  Later, the lessons are comically elaborated:

He would go up into the priest’s room, and they would settle themselves down to work. The gnats and the moths would go flitting in and out of the candle flame. Perhaps it would be hot and the child would grow sleepy, and before long the old man, dropping off into a doze with his hands folded over his stomach, would be snoring steadily, with his mouth wide open. At other times, when his reverence, returning home after giving the sacraments to some sick parishioner, saw Charles helter-skeltering about the woods and fields, he would call him, lecture him for a quarter of an hour, and seize the opportunity of making him conjugate his verb at the foot of a tree. Then, perhaps, it would begin to rain, or someone they knew would come along, and lessons would be over for that day. Howbeit, the curé always had a good word for his pupil, and even went the length of saying that the young man had a remarkable memory.[13]

The import of this passage might be lost on readers, who don’t otherwise read it taking into account the anticlerical attitudes pervasive at the time, as articulated later throughout the novel by Monsieur Homais. Here, the village priest is the enlightened agent of popular education, a busy, hard-working man willing to take the time to help a parishioner in need. The private tutoring of the young man by his priest could easily have developed into something scandalous, in keeping with the worst anti-clerical stereotypes (sadly vindicated by the daily news reports of our own day), but Flaubert has no interest in that sort of thing.

As for Monsieur Bournisien, his inability to relate to Emma’s problems is not, in fact, for lack of care or aloofness. Careful attention to the context of the incident precludes such an interpretation. Bournisien is very active in the affairs of his parish, and it is these duties (in this instance, catechizing the children) that keep him from addressing Emma’s particular problems. He does in fact begin to pick up on something, but it is Emma who rebuts him:

Then it occurred to [Fr. Bournisien]: ‘But you were asking me about something? What was it

now? I forget.’

‘Me? Nothing . . . nothing,’ repeated Emma.[14]

Flaubert has already introduced Monsieur Bournisien to his readers as someone who is actively solicitous for his parishioners’ spiritual and temporal welfare: “Last year it was, he helped our people get the straw in; he could carry six bales at once he could, he’s that strong!”[15] While this accolade in his defense is later rebuffed cynically by Homais, the physician soon finds himself ignored, his words themselves become straw in the wind. Monsieur Bournisien, a “well-endowed lad” is not the dainty, effeminate eunuch of the anticlerics, but a veritable model of masculine pastoral leadership.

Fr. Bournisien later gives as good as he gets in the aforementioned dialogue with Homais regarding the evils of theatre:

“I am well aware,” protested the curé, “that there are good books in the world, and good writers. But go and put a lot of people of different sexes into some delightful chamber, furnished and decorated in the most costly manner — and then look at all those pagan costumes, the rouge, the lights, the seductive voices — it’s all bound, I tell you, to induce an atmosphere of moral laxity, to give rise to immodest thoughts and impure temptations. The Fathers, at any rate, are all agreed on that point. Finally,” he said, suddenly adopting a mystical tone, as he rolled a pinch of snuff between his thumb and forefinger, “if the Church has condemned the stage, there’s an end of it. We must bow to her ruling.”[16]

Whether readers agree with the priest’s sentiment, in the world of the novel he couldn’t be more right. Flaubert goes to great lengths to show that Emma’s lofty, unrealistic fantasies are fed by the reading of various novels, since her days in the convent, and her meeting with, and subsequent acquiescence to, her paramour Leon occurs only after her mind is filled with the vulgar images of the opera.[17] Emma is unable to find happiness in the fulfillment of her marital and motherly vocation because her frivolous entertainments have deluded her into thinking she will only find satisfaction in the fleeting pleasures of bourgeois consumerism.

Finally, our good Fr. Bournisien will be given the near-final word at Emma’s deathbed, when he administers to her the sacramental anointing of the sick, after which she dies apparently repentant, a good Catholic:

The priest rose from his knees to take the crucifix; and then she stretched forth her neck like one athirst and, gluing her lips to the body of the God-Man, she fastened thereon, with all her failing strength, the most passionate kiss of love she had ever in her life bestowed. Then he recited the Misereatur and the Indulgentiam, dipped his right thumb in the oil, and began the unctions, anointing her, first on the eyes which had gazed so covetously on the luxuries of the world; then, on the nostrils that had delighted in the breeze’s soft caress and in all love-laden perfumes; then, on the mouth, the gateway of her lies, that had moaned in the moments of triumphant passion and cried aloud in the delirium of the senses; then, on the hands which had loved all things gentle to the touch; and, lastly, on the soles of the feet that, aforetime, had sped so swiftly to the appeasement of her desires, and now would stir no more.[18]

The significance of Emma’s meditations may be lost upon one unfamiliar with the traditional rite of anointing, wherein the priest prays, as he anoints each of six bodily members: “By this holy unction and His own most gracious mercy, may the Lord pardon you whatever sin you have committed by [sight, hearing, smell, taste and speech, touch, ability to walk].” Emma’s thoughts are more than literary flourish; they are precisely the sorts of thoughts the Church encourages Christians to entertain as they prepare to enter into eternity.

Madame Bovary’s priests are not idealized, but they are good, and their influence and their input are salutary. Flaubert’s novel is indeed realist: The heroine is flawed, as are her clerical saviors. Likewise, Flaubert’s God is not dead, or indifferent; rather, His grace operates in the real, day-to-day world of men where the dead don’t normally rise and the blind don’t normally see. Flaubert does for God and religion what he does for all his characters, placing them in their ordinary environment and letting them speak for themselves, without the contrivances of miracles and conventional hagiography. Intentionally or not, in doing so he pays these characters, even God, the highest of compliments. “For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” (Matthew 9:5)

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


Bregtje Hartendoif-Wallach, “Madame Bovary on Trial,” Madame Bovary: Norton CriticalEdition. Ed. Margaret Cohen, 313-88 (2005).

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary [MB], Trans. Geoffrey Wall. Penguin Books, (2004).

Michael Burleigh, Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from theFrench Revolution to the Great War (2006).

Owen Chadwick. A History of the Popes: 1830-1914 (2003).

Susanna Lee, “Flaubert’s Blague Supérieure: The Secular World of Madame Bovary,” Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Literatures, 54:4, 203-17 (2001)


[1] See Bill Muchlenberg, “The French Revolution, Genocide, and the Secular Left,” Culture Watch, July 15, 2017; Jaspreet Singh Boparai, “The French Genocide That Has Been Air-Brushed From History,” Quillete, March 10, 2019.

[2] Chadwick at 5, 9.

[3] Chadwick at 96-97.

[4] Chadwick at 98, 102-03.

[5] Chadwick at 104.

[6] Chadwick at 104.

[7] Madame Bovary [MB] at 164, 165.

[8] MB at 201-03.

[9] MB at 33-37.

[10] MB at 102-06.

[11] 215-29, and 198-200.

[12] MB at 5-6.

[13] MB at 8.

[14] MB 106.

[15] MB at 72.

[16] MB at 202.

[17] MB at 178, and MB at 205-13.

[18] MB at 303.

The featured image is “Young Lady in a Boat” (1870) by James Tissot (1836-1902), courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email