Author Gustave Flaubert relies on the symbol of the foot to enhance his novel Madame Bovary. Every aspect of the foot, including the types of shoes covering it, help develop the characters, plot and climax of the story, whose primary focus is on unhappily married Emma and her husband, Dr. Bovary.
When Bovary is first introduced as a boy in school, his peers immediately judge him negatively because of the shoes on his feet. “His legs, sheathed in blue stockings, protruded from his yellowish trousers, which were pulled up tight by a pair of suspenders. He wore heavy, unpolished, hob nailed shoes” (p.1). A similarly low judgment is suggested when Bovary is attending medical school, as “Every day he came in from the hospital, kicking the mud off his shoes as he ate” (p.7).
An incident with a foot brings about the doctor’s first meeting with Emma. “The letter begged Monsieur Bovary to come immediately to a farm known as Le Bertaux to set a broken leg” (p.10). As he tended the ailing lower appendage of Emma’s father, Bovary found himself becoming enthralled with the young lady, partly because of her feet. “He liked the sound of Mademoiselle Emma’s little shoes on the scrubbed flagstones of the kitchen floor. Her high heels made her a little taller, and when she walked in front of him her wooden soles made a sharp little tapping sound each time they rose against the upper leathers” (p.14). The sight of her feet so allured Bovary that he proposed marriage to Emma, of whom he noted, “Dresses that were too short revealed her ankles and the ribbons of her wide shoes criss crossing over her gray stockings” (p.16). The period of their engagement is also reflected by the concept of shoes. “Charles would put his foot on the curbstone to buckle his spurs and she would go on talking to him from above,” Flaubert wrote, “occasionally biting off a piece of a flower and blowing it down to him” (p.29).
The husband experiences much joy in the marriage, a fact reinforced by his choice of shoes. “And he finally began to esteem himself more highly for having such a wife,” Flaubert explains. “People returning from Mass saw him on his doorstep wearing a beautiful pair of carpet slippers” (P.36). Yet he fails to completely overcme his rural upbringing, a fault for which Emma could never forgive him. She resents that “He always wore heavy boots which had two deep creases running diagonally from the instep to the ankle, while the rest of the upper rose in a straight line, as taut as if it had been stretched over a boot tree. He said they were good enough for the country” (p.36).
The foot symbolizes her disappointment with her husband, as well as her infidelity. Seeking to catch the eyes of male admirers at a dance, “She had been charming, with her braids, her white dress and her open prunella slippers” (P.38). Though the event was thrilling for her, Emma suffered disappointment immediately. “She reverently put away the clothes she had worn to the ball, including her satin slippers, whose soles were yellow from the slippery wax of the dance floor,’ Flaubert explains. “Her heart was like them: contact with wealth had left something on it which would not wear away” (p.48).
Her ensuing seduction of Rodolphe is aided by her choice of shoe. Emma goes to meet him a week after the dance, “Grasping her skirt at the knees with two fingers and pulling it up to her ankles, she held out her foot, in its black high-topped shoe” (P. 69). Rodolphe himself used attractive shoes to lure Emma, who mused that “The bottoms of his broad-striped trousers revealed nankeen ankle boots gamed with patent leather so shiny that the grass was reflected in it”(P.119). He had in fact taken pains to choose just the right footwear. “Rodolphe had put on a pair of long soft boots, telling himself she had probably never seen anything like them; and Emma was indeed charmed by his appearance when he came upstairs” (p.136).
The attractive feet go a long way in maintaining his fascination with Emma. Flaubert writes, “As he walked along behind her, Rodolphe kept his eyes on the delicate white stockings which showed between her black skirt and her black shoes like part of her naked flesh” (P.138). There are also details of the shoes in several scenes of their intimacy in Rodolphe’s room “when she sat on his lap her legs, too short to touch the floor swung in the air, and the dainty slippers, open down to the tips, hung lightly from the toes of her bare feet” (P.229). In an even more intimate scene, “After she had tiptoed barefoot to the door to make sure once again that it was locked, she would let all her clothes fall in a single movement; then she would fling herself on his chest and a long tremor would run through her body” (p.244).
In order to conceal her infidelity, Emma had to consider her shoes. After making love in Rodolphe’s room, “she would set out across the plowed fields, stumbling, sinking into the soft ground and occasionally getting her light shoes stuck in it” (p.142). Then, “she walked through the streets to the Croix-Rouge, took out her overshoes, which she had hidden under a bench that morning, and squeezed herself into her seat among the impatient passengers” (P.230). She was aided in her efforts by a young admirer who worked for the neighboring pharmacist. She was likely unaware that “Justin would take Emma’s shoes from the mantelpiece. They would always be caked with mud from her last meeting with Rodolphe” (P.162).
In addition to prompting his wife’s infidelity, the foot also proved to be the downfall of Bovary’s medical career. He undertook a radical surgery to cure the disability of a farmhand, feeling that “Yonville ought to be the center of operations for talipes, commonly known as club foot”( P.150). After the operation, however, Bovary realized his grievous error when he “and the pharmacist took off the box and saw a horrible sight: the foot was a shapeless mass, so swollen that the entire skin seemed ready to burst, and it was covered with black and blue marks caused by the famous apparatus” ( P.154). They also realized that amputation would be necessary because “a livid tumescence ran up the leg, and scattered over it were pustules from which a black liquid was oozing” ( P.155).
Foot imagery is also used to describe Emma’s demise, having succumbed after both Rodolphe and second lover Leon rejected her. Flaubert describes the ritual upon the confirmation of her death: “They drew down the long, stiff veil which covered her all the way to her satin shoes” (p.286). Bovary, still lamenting the death of his wife and ignorant of her infidelity, learns the truth because of his foot. “One day, wandering aimlessly around the house, he went up to the attic,” Flaubert explains. “He felt a wad of thin paper beneath one of his slippers. He opened it and read: you must have courage, Emma, courage! I won’t let myself ruin your life. It was Rodolphe’s letter” (P.296).
The use of the foot figuratively walks readers through the action and character development of Madame Bovary. Through the various descriptions of the styles of footwear and treatments of the feet, Gustave Flaubert has enhanced his tragic tale of a woman who becomes fatally disappointed with her marriage.