?To state that Emma Bovary, the heroine of Flaubert’s epic Madame Bovary, looks for oranges on apple trees and refuses to eat apples is a gross over-simplification. Emma would be no happier with oranges than she would be with apples. In fact, if her taste in fruit is anything like her taste in men, she would probably insist on a fruit with all of her desired qualities – perhaps a cross between the consistency of an apple, the fibre of an orange, the vitamins of a blackcurrant and the taste of a strawberry.
In saying this, however, the statement is entirely accurate in that Emma is searching for the wrong things in the wrong places and is bitterly disappointed in not finding them as she desires.
To analyse Emma Bovary is a difficult assignment, due to the very complex and often contradictory nature of her character, and the many opposing critical theories that have been written since her death’ over 150 years ago.
Flaubert’s determination to “remain outside of his book and to assume the role of a manipulator of marionettes” adds to this sense of mystery surrounding Emma Bovary, who is essentially a confused young woman, trapped in a stifling society who tries so desperately to be something she is not. She is a woman so fixated on creating the life she dreams of that she eventually self-destructs, a broken and dejected victim.
Before discussing in detail the various elements of her personality, it is necessary to highlight the social position she is involuntarily placed in. This will in turn give rise to, and in many cases explanation for, the way in which she responds to various events in her life, and therein revealing her true colours.
Emma is born a woman in France during the early 19th Century, and as such is doomed from the start to be a victim of the misogynistic bourgeoisie. As was the case for all women at the time, Emma was completely reliant on Charles to provide the quality of life she desired – and indeed her very identity – as she was not in a position that she could exercise such control herself. In marrying Charles, she ceased to exist as Mademoiselle Emma Rouault, and simply became Madame Charles Bovary, the doctor’s wife. Emma realised that she had blown her only chance to pursue the life she felt she deserved. “Pourquoi, mon Dieu! me suis-je mariee?” Emma feels so strongly that life would be better had she been born male, that when she is pregnant she hopes for a boy. “Cette idee d’avoir pour enfant un male etait comme la revanche en espoir de toutes ses impuissances passees. Un homme, au moins, est libre.” Her reaction to Charles’ gleeful announcement of a young girl is indicative of the strength of her disappointment. “Elle accoucha un dimanche, vers six heures, au soleil levant. C’est une fille!’ dit Charles. Elle tourna la tete et s’evanouit.” Emma is often depressed and confused throughout the novel. She snaps at Charles over nothing, for example at the ball at Vaubyessard, she complains that he is creasing her dress when he bends down to kiss her cheek. She repeatedly pushes her innocent daughter away, and goes for long periods without even bothering to dress or interact with other people. Her profligate spending is in many ways an attempt to stifle this depression with beautiful objects, such as the trinkets she buys simply because the ladies in Rouen have bought them. This spending continues to worsen, with Emma borrowing larger sums at higher interest rates from M. Lhereux as the novel goes on.
Emma’s various methods of coping with her stifled existence have been widely viewed as immoral and selfish, as indeed they are. They are not, however, consciously evil. The main motivating factor behind Emma’s adultery, profligate spending and self-obsession is her desire to lead the life she dreams of. She does not intend to hurt Charles or Berthe, as can be seen by her spasmodic yet genuine attempts to become a good mother and loving wife. She simply cannot shake the deep conviction that she deserves a life of mystery, romance and excitement like those she reads and dreams of so often. During Part Three, however, Emma becomes more and more of an accomplished liar and causes huge pain and suffering through her actions.
Emma is a prolific reader of romance novels, a la Mills and Boon, such as Paul et Virginie. This reading, and the dreaming that follows, is the underlying reason behind her every action. In trying to get everything, Emma ends up with nothing. She is so determined to fill an empty space inside her that she neglects to see the beauty that exists all around her. An example of this is Emma’s constant lamenting of Charles’ lack of genius and clumsiness, which turns to outright disgust after the dismal failure of the clubfoot operation. “Elle fixait sur Charles la pointe ardente de ses prunelles, comme deux fleches de feu pretes a partir.” In all of this complaining, she fails to ever notice Charles’ good points, such as the way he unfailingly adores her, his generosity with money and the freedom he permits her, of a far greater extent than most housewives of the period. Emma expects men to measure up to her impossibly high standards, not dissimilar to her standards for every other aspect in her life, to such an extent that there has been a psychological condition named after her. “Le bovarysme” is defined by Le Petit Larousse as “insatisfaction romanesque consistant a vouloir s’evader de sa condition en se creant une personnalite idealisee” – a sort of “concentrated repressed romanticism that has no wings to soar and ends up more often than not in utter nihilism.” Each of the men she pursues extra-marital relationships with appear to her, at different times to be everything she hoped for: Rodolphe because he is rich, entertaining, cultured, and articulate; and Leon because he is educated, well read and, to begin with at least, a pushover. Emma believes both men can offer her a better life than the one she shares with Charles, but in both cases she discovers they are not the perfect men she believed. Rodolphe never loved her, and ditches her, while Leon simply cannot satisfy her completely, despite being almost her equal in his romanticism.
Even if they cannot fulfil her ultimate desires, these relationships are important to Emma, as she is extremely sensual. Even at the convent, during Mass, she had replaced the real God in her heart with the God she felt through her senses and imagination and she derives such extreme pleasure from sensual contact that it equates to some form of a religious ecstasy. In this regard, both Rodolphe and Leon made her temporarily happy, while Emma continued on her downward spiral.
Her pursuit of perfection in an imperfect world means Emma Bovary could never be satisfied, and it is the recognition that her life cannot fulfil her expectations that causes her to commit suicide. It has been claimed that Emma is “brought to her ruin by her love of material luxury.” This is entirely incorrect. Her love of material luxury is a symptom of her problems, not a problem in it’s own entity. The life of Emma Bovary is one of prolonged, tortuous disappointment, and her suicide is the outcome of “a long bruising of dreams.” When her romantic soul dies, Emma dies. At the time of Emma’s suicide, she owes 8000 F due to her uninhibited spending, a very significant sum, yet it is not just the money that leads her to kill herself. Emma is well aware, however, that her spending had not only caused her ruination, but that of her husband and daughter as well.
Despite remaining externally beautiful, or perhaps even growing in beauty – “Elle s’epanouit dans le peche” – Emma leads a life that becomes uglier and darker symbolised by the blind beggar she encounters on her way home from her visits with Leon. Her life, through lying and deceit, has become as ugly and offensive as that beggar she finds so disgusting. It is fitting that the beggar’s song is the last sound she hears. In summary, Emma is a sensual, romantic, beautiful, free-spirited woman suffocating under the oppressive blankets of her mundane bourgeois life who strives to be free to achieve an impossible dream. When she finally realises her dreams will never be fulfilled, she eats arsenic in Homais’ attic and hopes to float away in a peaceful and beautiful death scene, much like the “peace of the grave” that she and Leon used to talk about. That her death is anything but romantic is a device of Flaubert’s authorial sadism. “Une convulsion la rabattit sur le matelas elle n’existait plus.” Emma Bovary was a victim, not just of her sex, class, time or place; but a victim of herself. The final tragedy for Emma was that she was not even permitted to die in the manner she so desperately wanted to live.
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