“She was the amoureuse of all the novels, the heroine of all the plays, the vague ‘she’ of all the poetry books.“
These words are enough to describe, in all her complexity, one of the best built characters ever, a character that has always amazed me: Emma Bovary.
The other day, I ended up thinking about this book again, which led me to revise a kind of essay I wrote about the book some time ago.
I’m not gonna post the whole thing here cause it’s three pages long and maybe can be boring, I’m just going to write a little summary about my thoughts on the book so far.
Madame Bovary, written by Gustave Flaubert, was published in 1857 and it was’ a reference for the literary realism. As it is a master piece, it’s possible to look at this book from different sights: it can be taken as a critique to romantic novels, it can be a reflection about life and happiness, a complaint to provincial French society in the XIX century… But anyway, it always remains a good story, although it’s a really, really sad one. It brings the reader the life of an exceptional woman whom the collision between her fantasies and reality lead to destruction.
One of the aspects of the book that first caught my attention was the great influence and the important paper that literature plays in Emma’s life, until the point she can be described through it. Indeed, at the begining of the book, the author provides a few details about Emma’s personality, only vague references to her dreamy character, which are almost unnoticed.
It’s not until chapter five when the writer gives a description of Emma, her hopes and her dreams, but not in an usual way. To describe Emma, he takes the reader to the past, to the childhood and teenage of the character when her personality was forming, and talks about her readings, almost of all them romantic novels, that filled her time back then. This love for literature combine with her confinement in a convent during those years, formed in Emma a concept of the world that would crash against reality over and over.
So, when the story starts, Emma is a naive young woman who dreams with great passions, luxury and romantic adventures. So that she agrees marry Charles because she thinks he would bring her all of those things. But she’s wrong, Charles Bovary is not a very exciting person and his cultural level is lower than Emma’s, so that soon she starts to be fed up and realizes she’s never been in love with him:
“Before her marriage she had thought that she had love within her grasp but since the happiness which she had expected this love to bring her hadn’t come, she supposed she must have been mistaken. And Emma tried to imagine just what was meant, in life, by the words “bliss,” “passion,” and “rapture” — words that had seemed so beautiful to her in books.“
After this first collision between her expectations and reality, Emma adopts a conciliatory attitude and tries to produce inside of her feelings like the ones that appears in her books. In order to do it, she tries to recite passionate poems to Charles, be a model wife, etc.
Maybe if things had gone on other way, she would had kept that attitude, but then something happens that changes Emma forever: she attends a dance at marquis of Anvervilliers’ house. There, Emma sees that the world of luxury about which she has read in her novels can exist, although it’s far away from her, and also the passionate love that she glimpses in the figure of the viscount. Since this moment, Emma abandons her previous attitude, which is replaced by a deep feeling of insatisfaction with her life that leads her into a period of major depression.
“But her life was as cold as an attic facing north; and boredom, like a silent spider, was weaving its web in the shadows, in every corner of her heart.”
These feelings, mixed with the imposibility of reach the world she dreams with, sets in Emma the need of recreate around her the romantic fantasies from her novels. This is reflected in her obsession with buying luxury products and in her relationships with her lovers.
Of course, in her adulterous relationships, Emma doesn’t look for the joy of loving antother person, she just wants to experiment the excessive feelings she dreams with, so, when the passion of the beginning of a relationship ends, the feeling of dissatisfaction returns to her heart and she starts to abandon the relationship, that eventually becomes a burden.
Regarding the relationship of Emma with her first lover, Rodolf, it is clearly based in a lie, because Rodolf’s feelings aren’t true, he just wants to make her his and Emma, blinded again by her fantasies, doesn’t realize it. Rodolf is an intelligent man used to deal with women, so that with only look at her, he guess what she’s lacking, and use it to take advantage:
“Poor little thing! She’s gasping for love like a carp on a kitchen table gasping for water.“
So he says to her all the things she was dying to listen, making her fall in love. During the time this relationship lasts, Madame Bovary becomes more and more daring and vivacious. But all ends because of a new crash between Emma’s desires and reality: when she plans to run away with Rodolf, like in a romantic book, he decides that she’s going too far, and abandons her, breaking her heart and leaving her in the same hell in which she lived before him.
The adultery that she comits with León is more sentimental, because both had been in love with each other while León lived in Yonville, but this love doesn’t come to light until they meet again in Rouen, once León has overcome his shyness. León and Emma were destined to love since the beggining. This is because León is a male version of Madame Bovary: as her, he loves literature, poetry in his case, which for him is a way to scape reality:
“Noble characters and pure affections and happy scenes are very comforting things. They’re a refuge from life’s disillusionments.“
León, as Emma, has a romantic personality and also miss the great feelings and the life in the city. While living in Yonville, León is too innocent and inexperienced to tell Emma about his feelings:
“He was in agony trying to think of a way of “declaring himself” to her. He was constantly torn between the fear of offending her and shame at his own cowardice; he shed tears of despair and frustrated desire.“
But, as he is man, he has the chance to reach the world he had dreamed with and moves to Rouen, leaving Emma. There, he contemplates the shadows of that kind of life and gets enough of it. When Emma and him meet again, he’s not that naive any more, he has known other women and has changed a lot, so immediately Emma and him start a relationship. But it is too passionate since the beginning, thus it wears out quickly.
Emma’s tragic ending occurs when the romantic world she was trying to recreate crumbles around her: hounded by debts caused by her exorbitant purchases and abandoned by her lovers, she just have to face the truth: the excessive feelings and the luxury that appears in her novels aren’t possible in real life, at least for her, so that she decides that, if she cannot live like the romantic heroine she wanted to be, it’s preferable to die like one, and kills herself by taking arsenic.
Therefore, as has been shown, literature has a major influence in Emma Bovary’s personality and contributes to form in her a wrong concept of reality that crashes with the truth. Thus, literature is in the center of the development of the plot of this work.
To put an great end to this post, between all the interesting reflections that can be found in Madame Bovary, I would like to highlight this one, which seems to me shows the essence of the meaning of the book as a reflection about life:
“No matter: she wasn’t happy, and never had been. Why was life so unsatisfactory? Why did everything she leaned on crumble instantly to dust? . . . Besides, nothing was worth looking for: everything was a lie! Every smile concealed a yawn of boredom; every joy, a curse; every pleasure, its own surfeit; and the sweetest kisses left on one’s lips but a vain longing for a fuller delight.”