Examine the portrayal of boredom in Madame Bovary and Therese Raquin, focusing on specific scenes to explore how Emma and Therese both encounter and deal with their experience of boredom. Additionally, consider the impact of marriage and the setting (Paris versus the countryside) on their individual feelings of boredom.
Both Emma Bovary and Therese Raquin struggle to find excitement and fulfillment in their lives, marriages, and surroundings. The main focus of this essay is to highlight the different interpretations of boredom in these two novels. In Madame Bovary, boredom is portrayed as a mental struggle that Emma experiences and copes with internally. On the other hand, in Therese Raquin, boredom manifests as a physical phenomenon and is dealt with in a more tangible manner. This essay aims to argue that the depiction of boredom as a mental element in Madame Bovary adds to its realist reflection of the world, while the portrayal of boredom as a physical phenomenon in Therese Raquin contributes to Zola’s naturalist experiment.
In Madame Bovary, Emma experiences mental boredom. Flaubert utilizes the imperfect verb to establish a sense of monotony and repetition. This feeling of monotony and repetition is formed within the character’s mind when the imperfect verb is coupled with free indirect speech, where the third-person narrator adopts the language and demeanor of the character being discussed. The narrator states, “The same series of identical days recommenced. So now they would keep following one another, always the same, unchanging, and offering no novelty…nothing had happened to her; it was God’s will! The future was a dark corridor; its door at the end tightly closed.” She abandons playing music, asking, “What was the point in playing?”
The use of the imperfect verb “would keep following” creates a sense of repetitious habit, with one day following the next. The narrator’s use of free indirect speech, such as “God had willed it so!” and “What was the good of playing? Who would hear her?”, allows the reader to experience Emma’s thoughts and mindset. This demonstrates that Emma’s boredom is not only physical, but also mental.
, the experience of boredom is depicted as a physical sensation. When Therese first lays eyes on the shop where she will spend the remainder of her life, the narrator illustrates her reaction to the impending boredom by stating, “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). The description emphasizes the physical aspect of Therese’s response. Zola portrays her body as “shuddering” and draws attention to the physical nature of her “nausea” by emphasizing that it “rose in her throat.” The use of the word “clammy” to describe the earth resembles the physicality of Therese’s body, which can also be described using words like “shuddering” and “nauseous.”
Therese’s fear of being trapped in a monotonous life is described by the narrator as her days pass by indistinguishably for three years. Camille never misses a day of work, while his mother and wife rarely leave the shop. Living in the damp darkness and depressing silence, Therese sees her life as empty, leading her to the same cold bed every evening and the same mundane day every morning. The use of the imperfect verb “would see” suggests that Therese habitually experiences this sense of boredom. The description of the bed as “cold” enhances the physicality of her nightly routine. Unlike in Madame Bovary, where we have insight into Emma’s internal thoughts, Therese’s boredom is depicted through a metaphorical “sight” of her life stretching ahead. This emphasizes how her boredom is felt as a physical act of perception.
Both Emma and Therese engage in extramarital affairs as a means to counteract the monotony of their marriages. However, while Emma’s boredom is primarily mental, her coping mechanism takes the form of mental affairs. Her first affair with Leon is not actually physical but rather a figment of her imagination, providing a mental escape from her mental ennui. The narrator describes Emma’s infatuation, recounting how she envisions Leon while lying in bed and ponders his potential love for her.
The flame of the fire casts a happy glow on the ceiling (128). Emma’s hallucination of Leon serves as a reminder that her affair with him serves as a way to cope with her boredom. The burning fire and its joyful light symbolize the passionate love in her mind. By focusing on this intense fire, she finds relief from her boredom.
Emma’s initial affair with Rodolphe encompasses both physical and mental experiences. The first instance of committing adultery with him is simply described as surrendering herself to him (200). However, the mental aspect of the act is then described in detail. She exclaims joyfully, “I have a lover! A lover!” as if she is undergoing a second puberty. Finally, she will experience the pleasures of love and the intense happiness that she had given up hope for (202). Instead of focusing on physical sensations, the discussion revolves around mental concepts such as joy, love, and happiness.
Contrary to this, Therese perceives the affair as a means to alleviate her boredom. When Therese and Laurent engage in adultery for the first time, the physical nature of the act is emphasized. The narrator describes the scene, stating, “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 and furiously, then suddenly gave in, slipping down onto the floor. They did not exchange a word.” The words ‘violent,’ ‘pulled,’ ‘bent,’ ‘crushing,’ ‘wildly,’ ‘furiously,’ and ‘brutal’ highlight the unrefined, primal physicality of sex. The narrator emphasizes the absence of verbal communication during the act.
The characters in the text neither speak nor think. Their thoughts about the act, if they have any, are not disclosed. Analyzing the affair does not occur mentally; it is solely a physical matter. Zola highlights this by mentioning the characters’ bodies, such as “his chest,” “her head,” and “her lips.” Although Therese and Emma both use affairs to deal with their marital boredom, their coping mechanisms and boredom experiences differ.
The difference in Emma and Therese’s experiences of boredom can be attributed to the contrasting purposes of their respective novels. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary aimed to showcase the harsh realities of everyday life, warranting the establishment of a routine to capture its accurate depiction. Routine can be reassuring for individuals like Charles, providing a sense of control and stability. However, for people like Emma, being trapped in an unstimulating routine can feel imprisoning. This mental boredom arises from a lack of intellectual stimulation. Flaubert intended to faithfully represent the common mental state experienced in real human life, which explains why Emma’s boredom is predominantly mental and how she copes with it.
In Therese Raquin, Zola’s objective was to depict a naturalistic representation of the world. This approach denies the existence of “free will,” which explains why Zola chose to divert attention from the characters’ mental aspect and concentrate on their physicality instead. Zola’s naturalistic experiment also necessitated specific circumstances for the murder of Camille to occur. He aimed to demonstrate that murder naturally occurs when a woman with a nervous temperament and a man with a sanguine, passionate temperament are placed in the right environment. Boredom and dissatisfaction were crucial elements in the characters’ environment that facilitated the murder. Zola perceived boredom as a tangible, scientific phenomenon – a fundamental component of his experiment. Consequently, Therese physically experienced her boredom and sought to alleviate it through an affair that was portrayed as heavily physical in nature.
Both Emma Bovary and Thérèse Raquin share a common feeling of boredom. Flaubert and Zola aimed to portray realistic experiences in their novels, resulting in Emma coping with her boredom mentally while Thérèse deals with it physically. While Flaubert emphasizes the accuracy of his portrayal, Zola focuses on cause and effect. Regardless of their motives, boredom plays a significant role in both novels.