At the time of this story, the annual Agricultural Show for the Prefecture of the Seine-Inferieure was held at Yonville. Everyone looked forward to the fair with great enthusiasm; when the long-awaited day finally arrived, Yonville was crowded with visitors from all the surrounding farms and towns. There were exhibits and contests of many kinds, and everything had a carnival aspect. The most important event of the day was the speech and presentation of awards by a representative of the Prefect.
According to his carefully calculated plan, Rodolphe took advantage of the excitement of the day to renew his acquaintance with Emma. They went walking together and spoke about a variety of things. Rodolphe took every opportunity to drop some hint about his love for Emma. He gradually leads her toward the city hall so that they can be alone.
Meanwhile the representative from the Prefect arrived, and even though the people expected the Prefect himself, they were still honored by this man. However, in trying to pay homage to him, the battalion of men confused their orders and everything ended in confusion. While he spoke about the government, Rodolphe begins to hint to Emma his affections for her. And while the speech is going on in the background about morality and government, Rodolphe begins to declare his love for Emma and to insist that his feelings are nobler than common morality. He continues to declare his love for her in high-sounding language while the representative of the Prefect awards prizes to various people.
After the awarding of the prices, Emma separates from Rodolphe and does not see him again until that night at the banquet and later at the fireworks. She was complimented by his attention but had constantly acted as she thought proper for a respectable, married woman. As the fireworks were being set off, Emma watched Rodolphe. She was not even aware that the fireworks had gotten wet and wouldn't go off. Later, however, Homais wrote a glowing account of the entire day's activities.
The inexperienced reader will often overlook the greatness of this particular chapter. It is often referred to when the subject of Flaubert's greatness is being discussed. It will profit the reader to reread the chapter and observe many of the following factors: the number of things that are contrasted — the use of subtle irony, especially in passages that seem to be simply description; the elaborately described show, the gold medal won by the old peasant woman, and the subtle but damning description of the pompous dignitaries; and the use of foreshadowing, especially in the way in which Emma is able to see unknowingly her whole pathetic life unfold before her in symbolic events.
Use of Contrast and Description: There are so many masterfully descriptive passages, it will suffice to point out only one. In the first part of the chapter, Flaubert is describing all the animals that are gathered together for the show. Most of the details of this description suggest symbolically that this animal world is the same world in which the action of the entire novel is being played.
The animals are described in the same manner in which people will later be described. For example, later in the chapter, when Flaubert is describing the feast, the same type of description is used for both the animals and the people. They were both herded into a small place with noses together, sweating and stuffing themselves. One could even maintain that the animals are described in terms of people and the people are described in terms of animals, emphasizing the nature of the people that Flaubert is dealing with.
Use of Irony: The speech of the representative of the Prefect is filled with cliches and pompous platitudes. The speaker says only what every other speaker has been saying for years, yet his speech is highly praised.
Rodolphe's speech to Emma, delivered against the background of the general prizes being awarded, is a masterpiece of irony. First, we hear about the old peasant woman who is winning a prize for fifty-four years of faithful service and fidelity as a servant. At the same time, Emma is planning on being unfaithful and on beginning a love affair with Rodolphe, whom we know can never be faithful to any person very long.
It is a further stroke of irony that his false speeches of passion such as "I stayed with you, because I couldn't tear myself away" are spoken during the awarding of the first prize in manure. Subtly speaking, Rodolphe's speech is just so much manure, but Emma is not capable of recognizing it.
Foreshadowing: In the discussion of Lheureux's being the cause of the downfall of a certain man, we are warned that Emma will herself get into trouble because of her dealings with this man. He is even described here as a wheedling, grovelling creature.
The tremendous waste of human energy in preparing for the show indicates how the energies of Emma are wasted throughout the entire novel.
Emma's view of the ancient Hirondelle as it approaches the town, foreshadows her degradation and involvement with Leon later in the novel, as this coach will be instrumental in her love affair.
Homais' role in the entire pageant and his essay sent to the paper afterwards reaches the height of the comic absurd. First of all, from all of the description, the entire day was a failure if not a fiasco. The dignitary was late and when he finally arrived he was only a representative of the Prefect; the presentation of arms was sloppy, confused, and ridiculous; the speeches were dull; there were not enough seats; the feast was long and noisy and badly served and too crowded; the fireworks were damp and would not go off, and it rained during the proceedings. But Homais' account of the day written for the newspaper was so frankly false that his exaggerations seem the height of the comic. And ironically speaking, an earlier description of Homais says that he "had the right form of words for every conceivable occasion."