Compare the theme of boredom in Madame Bovary and Therese Raquin. Through a close-reading of specific scenes, discuss the different ways in which Emma and Therese experience and cope with boredom. What role do marriage and setting (Paris v the country) play in their respective boredoms?
Emma Bovary and Therese Raquin are both unable to maintain an enthusiasm and engagement in their lives, their respective marriages or their surroundings. This essay will argue that boredom is a mental element in Madame Bovary, as Emma experiences and copes with her boredom within her mind. In contrast, boredom is experienced as a physical phenomenon in Therese Raquin and coped with in a physical way. This essay will then go on to argue that boredom as a mental element in Madame Bovary is important for a truthful, realist reflection of the world, while boredom as a physical phenomenon in Therese Raquin is a necessary element in Zola’s naturalist experiment.
In Madame Bovary Emma experiences boredom mentally. Faubert uses the imperfect verb to create a feeling of boredom and repetition. When the imperfect verb appears alongside free indirect speech, where the third person narrator begins to narrate in the words and tones of the character being discussed, this feeling of boredom and repetition is created within that character’s mind. The narrator says The same series of identical days recommenced. So now they would keep following one another, always the same, immovable, and bringing nothing new … nothing had happened to her; God had willed it so! The future was a dark corridor; with its door at the end shut tight. She gave up music. What was the good of playing?
Who would hear her? (54) Here, use of the imperfect verb “would keep following” creates the feeling of a habitual, repetitious sequence of day following day. The use of free indirect speech when the narrator says, “God had willed it so!” and “What was the good of playing? Who would hear her?” places the reader inside Emma’s thoughts and mind. In this way, Flaubert has demonstrated that this sense of boredom is experienced mentally for Emma.
In Therese Raquin boredom is experienced as a physical phenomenon. When Therese first sees the shop where she is to spend the rest of her days, the narrator describes reaction to the boredom she feels will ensue by saying “When Therese entered the shop where she was to spend the rest of her life she felt as though she were going down into the clammy earth of a pit. She shuddered with fear and a feeling of nausea rose in her throat” (20). Here, Therese’s reaction is purely physical. Zola describes her body “shuddering,” and draws attention to the physicality of “nausea” by saying it “rose in her throat.” Use of the word “clammy” to describe the earth of the pit that the shop is compared to also heightens this focus on the physicality of Therese’s body. “Clammy” could just as easily be used alongside “shuddering” and “nauseous” to describe her physical state.
Once Therese’s fear of being trapped in a life of boredom has set in, the narrator says “For three years, the days went on, one like the next. Camille was not absent from his office for a single day; his mother and wife hardly left the shop. Therese, living in this dank darkness, in this dreary, depressing silence, would see life stretching in front of her, quite empty, bringing her each evening to the same cold bed and each morning to the same featureless day” (22). The imperfect verb “would see” implies that Therese goes through this feeling of boredom habitually. Again, Therese experiences the repetitious boredom physically as her body is physically brought to bed each night. Describing the bed as “cold” heightens the physicality of how it would feel to the skin on her body. Instead of having access to what Therese’s internally thinks, like in Madame Bovary, we are shown her boredom through a description of her what she can metaphorically ‘see;’ her life stretching out. This likens her feeling of boredom to the physical act of ‘seeing.’
In order to cope with the boredom of their marriages, both Emma and Therese have affairs with other men. As Emma experiences boredom mentally, her coping mechanism, the affairs, is also a mental experience. Her first love affair with Leon is in fact not even physically carried out – it is acted out in her mind as a mental relief of her mental boredom. The narrator describes her infatuation – Looking from her bed at the clean fire that was burning, she still saw, as she had down there, Leon standing up with one hand behind his cane … Is he not in love?” she asked herself; “but with whom? With me?” All the proofs arose before her at once; her heart leapt.
The flame of the fire threw a joyous light upon the ceiling (128). The fact that Emma is mentally hallucinating Leon emphasises the fact that this love affair is a coping mechanism of her mental experience of boredom. Emma’s ‘fire that was burning’ and the ‘flame of the fire’ throwing a ‘joyous light’ is symbolic of the fire of her love burning in her mind. While her mind is occupied with this passionate fire, she has relief from her boredom.
Emma’s first physical affair is also experienced mentally. The physical act of committing adultery with Rodolphe for the first time is described as nothing more than “she gave herself up to him” (200). The act is then analysed mentally; “she repeated, “I have a lover! a lover!” delighting at the idea as if a second puberty had come to her. So at last she was to know those joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired!” (202). The act of having sex is discussed in mental terms of ‘joy,’ ‘love,’ and ‘happiness,’ instead of physical feelings.
In stark contrast to this is the physical way Therese experiences the affair she has to relieve her boredom. The first time Therese and Laurent commit adultery the physicality of the act is highlighted. The narrator says They looked at each other for a few seconds. Then, with a violent gesture, Laurent leaned down and pulled the young woman against his chest. He bent her head back, crushing her lips with his. She recoiled, wildly, furiously, then suddenly, gave in, slipping down on to the floor. They did not exchange a word. The act was silent and brutal. (34). Use of the words ‘violent,’ ‘pulled,’ ‘bent,’ ‘crushing,’ ‘wildly,’ ‘furiously’ and ‘brutal’ highlight the raw, animalistic physicality of the act of sex. The narrator points out that no words are exchanged.
Not only do the characters not speak, they also don’t think, or at least their thoughts of the act (if there are any) are not revealed to the reader. There is no mental capacity for analysing the affair – it is a purely physical thing. To emphasise this, Zola draws our attention to the character’s bodies by pointing out their anatomy when saying, “his chest,” “her head” and “her lips.” While it is true that both Therese and Emma use affairs to cope with the boredom they feel in their marriages, their coping mechanisms are experienced as differently as their boredoms.
One of the reasons for Emma and Therese’s different experiences of boredom can be found when examining the subtle difference between the purposes of each novel. In Madame Bovary Flaubert attempted to draw attention to the harsh realities of everyday life. In order to reflect the reality of life as accurately as possible, establishing a sense of routine was necessary. Some people react well to routine. Like Charles, routine gives these people a feeling of control and stability. However, like Emma, in some people being trapped in an unstimulating routine can feel imprisoning. Without mental stimulation, this boredom appears mentally. The reason that Emma experiences her boredom mentally, and copes with her boredom mentally, is simply because Flaubert aimed to accurately reflect a common mental state of real human life.
In Therese Raquin, Zola aimed to present a naturalist representation of the world. With a naturalist representation comes a denial of “free will.” This is one of the reasons it was necessary for Zola draw focus away from the mental element of his characters and focus instead on their physicality. Zola’s naturalist experiment also required a particular set of circumstances to cause the murder of Camille. Zola attempted to show that murder was the natural result of a woman with a nervous temperament and a man with a sanguine, full-blooded temperament, being put together in the right set of environmental factors. Some of the elements in the character’s environment necessary cause the murder were boredom and dissatisfaction. In this way Zola understood boredom as almost a physical thing – a scientific phenomenon that was an essential ingredient to his experiment. It can be argued that this is why Therese experienced her sense of boredom physically, and then attempted to cope with it through an affair that was emphasised as a physical thing.
It is clear that Emma Bovary and Therese Raquin both experience a strong sense of boredom. As Flaubert attempted to depict a realist representation of the world, Emma’s boredom is experienced mentally and coped with mentally. However, as Zola attempted a naturalist experiment with his novel, Therese’s boredom was experienced as a physical element and coped with in a physical way. While boredom was required for different reasons, Flaubert required boredom for accuracy and Zola required it for a chain of cause and effect, in both novels it plays an equally important role.