Flaubert’s Madame Bovary presents the effects of a woman’s destructive desires on the society around her. From the beginning of Emma’s entrance into the novel it is clear that she is obsessed with romance. Her marriage to Charles Bovary does nothing to satisfy those desires. Throughout the novel, Emma is disillusioned by her ultimate dream of style, love, and nobility. When it is clear to Emma that Charles is too dense to realize her unhappiness, she turns twice to adultery to satisfy her romantic desires and obsessions.
She becomes ruthless in her endeavors, harming anybody and anything in her path toward nobility. She secretly leeches upon Charles to finance her dreams and drives him into poverty. By the end, Emma commits suicide to save face and to avoid a life of poverty. Flaubert is a master at using motifs and minor characters to delineate the different castes of society and Emma’s subsequent struggle for greatness in nobility. In particular, Flaubert uses the trite Homais to symbolize the bourgeoisie, to represent the male counterpart of Emma, and to achieve what Emma could not.
Flaubert’s contempt and ridicule for the bourgeoisie are embodied in the apothecary’s uncaring and ambitious attitude. Homais’s ambition is first traceable when he argues with the priest over the morality of going to the theater and reading literature such as Voltaire. In order to claim complete victory, the pharmacist jabs the clergyman about priests who go see dancing girls. After the priest leaves, he turns to Charles and tells him how he won the battle over the clergyman: “That’s what I call a real argument! Did you see how I won!” (212; pt. 2, ch. 14). Flaubert ridicules the bourgeoisie by portraying Homais as a man who cares about the most trivial things.
His intent to win the argument causes him to disgrace the priest, a classic example of the ruthless attitude that Flaubert detests. Homais’s drive toward success becomes extremely apparent near the end of the novel. He is a content father and a successful pharmacist, but he feels the need to obtain the Legion of Honor as a sign of nobility: “He was the happiest of fathers, the most fortunate of men. But a secret ambition was gnawing at him. Homais wanted the cross of the Legion of Honor.” (320; pt. 3, ch. 10). Even though Homais has achieved what some men dream of, the apothecary can never be satisfied until his ambitions are appeased. Through Homais, Flaubert derides the bourgeoisie’s aspirations toward nobility.
Closely linked to his ambition is the pharmacist’s uncaring attitude. Homais’s indifference toward other people is first noticeable in his involvement in the clubfoot incident. So that he might become famous and elevate his position in society, he tricks Hippolyte into having a useless operation. When Hippolyte’s foot becomes gangrenous from the operation, a doctor is summoned to amputate his leg and who then reproaches an apathetic Homais for concocting the clubfoot operation. During the doctor’s speech, Homais can only think about himself and his business: “Homais suffered as he listened to this speech, hiding his discomfort under an obsequious smile. It was necessary to curry favor with Monsieur Canivet, whose prescriptions were sometimes brought to Yonville to be filled . . .” (180; pt. 2, ch. 11). Clearly Homais is only interested with himself and not the well being of Hippolyte, whom he has ruined.
In addition, Homais’s indifferent attitude toward others is evident during the scene of Emma’s death. The apothecary and two other doctors have been summoned to heal Emma. When the doctors decide that nothing more can be done to save her, Homais decides to have lunch while Emma is dying: “The pharmacist joined them in the square. He was temperamentally unable to keep away from famous people. So he invited Doctor Lariviï¿½re to do him the signal honor of having lunch with him” (298; pt. 3, ch. 8). Instead of eating lunch, Homais and the doctors, to whom he ingratiates, should be comforting Charles while he watches his wife die. Flaubert constructs this scene as the ultimate ridicule of the middle class as the doctors and Homais represent their caste’s constant preoccupation with themselves.
Interestingly, Flaubert also mocks the bourgeoisie’s lack of spirituality through Homais. After Emma has died, the priest and the pharmacist watch over her body. The apothecary and the priest quickly get into a heated discourse over religion. Homais blasphemously claims that praying to God is a waste of time: “‘But,’ the pharmacist objected, ‘since god knows all our needs, what’s the use of prayer?'” (305; pt. 3, ch. 9). It is apparent from this comment that Homais is an agnostic since he questions the use of prayer, which is the pillar of religion. In the same heated conversation with the priest, he states his belief that the Jesuits have fabricated some accounts of history: “Texts, bah! Open up the history books. We know they were falsified by the Jesuits.” (305; pt. 3, ch. 9). Homais’s contempt for the Church is apparent from his cynical view of the Jesuits, who represent a part of that institution. Flaubert scoffs at the bourgeoisie’s lack of spirituality through this key discussion between Homais and the priest.
Flaubert not only employs Homais as a symbol of the bourgeoisie; he uses him to represent the male counterpart of Emma. The apothecary and Emma both share the common goal to become a member of the upper class. Emma becomes obsessed with the image of nobility after the ball at the Marquis’s chateau. It is clear that Emma is in love with the aristocracy, and thus dreams to be a part of it. Homais also feels similar to Emma about the higher caste and, just as she obsesses over nobleness, so too does Homais. Their passion for social mobility leads them to commit very despicable acts. Emma constantly reminisces about the nobles that she met at the ball. She always looks at the cigar case from the party to remind herself of the viscount: “She would look at it, open it, and even sniff the lining.
A blend of verbena and tobacco. To whom did it belong? To the viscount. Perhaps it was a gift from his mistress.” (74; pt. 1, ch. 9). Emma escapes from her present life that she despises through these illusions grandeur. Her obsession with the nobility causes her to commit adultery since she feels that it is the only way to become a part of it. In her hope of infidelity, she attempts to meet someone who is her personification of a nobleman in order to leave her current condition for her dream of aristocracy. In the end, as Emma is in her second affair, she borrows huge sums of money in order to finance her idealistic visions, driving her family into debt and eventual poverty. Thus, Emma and Homais both sacrifice the well being of others in order to elevate their status.
On the other hand, Flaubert creates irony when he ends the novel with Homais a member of the upper class and Emma buried in the graveyard. For some time Homais has been striving toward nobility and in the end achieves his dream through the awarding of the Legion of Honor and turns into a demagogue: “He has an enormous clientele. The authorities cultivate him and public opinion protects him. He has just received the Legion of Honor.” (322; pt. 3, ch. 10).
It is conspicuous that Homais meets his goals of eminence and becomes a prominent village leader while Emma, who has spent her life struggling to join the nobility, ends up dead and her family in ruin. Flaubert purposely creates this contrasting situation in order to add irony to the ending of his novel. He portrays the difference between the likelihood of a woman succeeding into the upper class versus a man’s and clearly asserts through this irony that women are either born or married into the nobility, rather than a man who must labor into the higher caste.
Yet there is more that Flaubert communicates to the reader in his ending. Although, Homais and Emma both yearned for grandeur and eminence, they sought after their dreams in two divergent manners. Emma can be summed up as a dreamer and idealist who yearned for escape from her life into the fanciful and romantic arms of Rodolphe and Leon. Conversely, Homais is a pragmatic and realistic man who sought affirmation of his lifestyle by seeking fame and fortune from his schemes. Thus, the key difference between Homais and Emma is that the first was content with his existence while the latter was discontent and hence is the primary reason for Emma’s eventual self-destruction versus Homais’s self-gratification.
As can be seen, Homais is one the most important minor characters in Madame Bovary. Flaubert uses him critically to characterize the hated bourgeoisie, to appear as a counterpart to Emma, and to contrast her demise with irony. Yet overall, Flaubert delineates the destructive potential that unrequited dreams can have on a discontented person as Emma versus a contented person as Homais.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Trans. Mildred Marmur. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1964.