Emma Bovary: The Rebellious Housewife In Madame Bovary 

French writer Gustave Flaubert’s debut novel, Madame Bovary, was first published in 1857. This novel portrays how a woman’s provincial middle-class life becomes an expansive commentary on gender, class, and social rules during the nineteenth-century France. Emma Bovary, the novel’s anti-heroine, uses deviant behavior and deliberate acts of indiscretion to abandon a lifestyle imposed on her by a domineering patriarchal society. Her struggle to circumvent and defeat social roles reflects a cultural and a subjective critique of class and gender boundaries, and her unwillingness to accept the cliché’s of the nineteenth century housewife represents her defiance. Emma Bovary challenges the traditional cultural values during the nineteenth century such as consumerism, masculinity, social mobility, and most importantly, marriage to create a satire of the imperfect and oppressive society of which she is a product and a prisoner. This essay will portray how Emma Bovary is a character molded by and against the societal world around her. 

Throughout Flaubert’s novel, Emma can be identified as the anti-heroine, and she is an easily relatable character among most modern readers. Her character is romantic, willful, impulsive, idealistic, and passionate. Emma represents the modern perception of the bored, neglected housewife that is dying to escape the banalities of her overbearing society she resides within. She was raised on romantic novels and these novels become a main source of attraction for her character as she becomes obsessed with romantic clichés rather than the man she married to be her husband, Charles Bovary. For Emma’s character, entering into a marriage with Charles Bovary was the start of a disappointing, restrictive, and unhappy domestic life. Charles and Emma live in a world of multigenerational social stratification that believe a man’s upbringing, family, occupation, and wealth are the determining factors for his children’s place in the strict social hierarchy. Charles and Emma face the constraints of conventional middle-class integrity and the expectations held upon them by the social hierarchy as Charles is the respective child of a “former assistant army surgeon” (Flaubert 5). 

While the reader may grasp a better understanding of Emma’s character and her role in Flaubert’s novel, making her a sympathetic character to the modern day reader, the reader may need to take a deeper look into the character of her husband, Charles. His character and role as her husband is the very person Emma is desperately trying to rebel against and get away from. Charles represents an almost empty contentment in life. He avoids pleasure and any adventure that life may take him. He goes the whole novel of Madame Bovary without recognizing that he missed opportunities to have a great adventure and life with his wife if he had appreciated her as a human. It is not until after her death that he realizes what he may have missed out on, and begins to mourn her death deeper. In the end, he collapses under the realization that he lost the only person he ever loved, his dear wife Emma. Emma becomes very frustrated with an unhappy marriage, no career opportunities, and low socioeconomic standing leads to an inclination for emotional fantasy and the creation of an unrealistic and imaginative lifestyle by the romantic novels she read. Emma became fueled by these romance novels and the cheap lascivious literature that is often adored by bored and tired housewives, and her romanticized perception of romantic love manifests to two adulterous affairs with Rodolphe Boulanger and Leon. Her husband is not the dashing hero of whom she has read and adored in her romantic novels. Emma begins to adventure outside of her marriage, and Charles fails to notice. Her relationship with the charming and wealthy Rodolphe is only a diversion from the dull country life, and also an intentional rebellion against the foundation of her marriage and an attempt to challenge her husband, Charles’, authority. After Emma’s first affair transgression, she does not experience guilt. Instead, she almost feels relieved. Flaubert says, “Emma was experiencing the satisfaction of revenger. Hadn’t she suffered enough? . . . She savored it without remorse, without uneasiness, without distress”. 

Additionally, Charles is guiltless of cruelty as his character is the representation of a patriarchy that is careless of the psychological, intellectual, emotional, and physical needs of a women and is instead, assertive of his power and authority. His wife, Emma, is expected to fulfill the duties of a submissive, naïve, and sexless individual that is supposed to be devoted to the care of her family and maintenance of their home. By Emma pursuing an affair with Rodolphe, Emma undermines the influence of the restrictive government institution with her actions and demands independence in the face of a stereotypical provincial life. Moreover, material belongings are a comfort and a preoccupation for Emma. She attends a ball at Marquis de Andervilliers’ home, which is one of the defining moments in Emma’s life that shows a glimpse to her of the life of the aristocracy, and she experiences a brief sense of contentment that she spends the rest of her life attempting to replicate this feeling. She almost obsessed over this feeling as “remembering the ball became an occupation for Emma. Each time Wednesday returned, she would say to herself as she woke: ‘Ah! A week ago . . . two weeks ago . . . three weeks ago, I was there!’”. The mansion of de Andervilliers is so beautiful, and Emma admires the elegance and wealth of the mansion. Even though “some of the details vanishes, her longing remained”. Emma’s attention to detail in surveillance and appearance reveals an obsessive devotion to material possessions, and her experience at the mansion and “contact with wealth has laid something over [her heart] that would not be wiped away”. 

Furthermore, Charles and Emma moved to Yonville as an attempt by Madame Bovary to build a better life. However, Emma began to lose control of her money spending and acquiring belongings. What began with a need to appear content and to “fit in” with her peers quickly became a means for Emma to fabricate happiness and fill an emotional void with material belongings. She abandons practicality and reason in the purchase of items which symbolize her insincere, hollow, and meaningless domestic existence. Flaubert says about Emma’s spending: “In Rouen she saw some ladies wearing clusters of charms on their watches; she bought some watch charms. She wanted two large cases of blue glass on her mantelpiece and, sometime after, an ivory sewing box, with silver-gilt thimble. The less Charles understood these refinements, the more captivating he found them. They added something to the pleasure of his senses and to the sweetness of his home. They were like gold dust sprinkles all along the little path of his life.” As Emma’s character thinks, “the less Charles understood these refinements, the more captivating he found them” only further proves her hatred of her husband, her weakness as a woman, and her carelessness as a wife. Purchasing material belongings at the cost her friends, marriage, home, and (eventually) her own life is a perverse rebellion against a materialist culture. Emma’s suicide is the ultimate act of rebellion and defiance against the society and culture that deprived her of emotional satisfaction and constrained her to a life and a responsibility she never desired. The bureaucratic and domineering masculine forces, which she tests through her adulterous affairs, returns at the end of Madame Bovary that is her ultimate downfall. She is forsaken by Rodolphe and Leon to endure the burden of her own debt. 

Characteristically, death of the hero or heroine in novels who have suffered greatly can be a romantic ending. However, the appeal of self-sacrifice for Emma arrives at the end of a life interrupted at every turn by compromise and misery. Rebelling against her husband, spending enough of her money to place her in debt, and taking her own life are all actions that Emma plans to seize control of her life that she, at one time, had no authority to dictate. Committing suicide is an act against religious, ethical, and social conduct in which her society believes, and indicates her dismissal of an external moral or spiritual authority upon her death. The repulsiveness of Emma’s death is in some ways an interpretation on the underlying breakdown of her life: her deceptive and materialistic personality in which she spends her whole life protruding cannot hide her true character as she follows this clear to her death. To achieve the arsenic ingested that ultimately takes her life, Emma says she “needed to kill the rats that were stopping her from sleeping”. This deliberate and distressed act in the midst of a fit of insanity represents Emma’s mindset she constantly lived in between impulse and reality. Her desire to silence the troubling and unbearable consciousness of her unfulfilled expectations and life goals ultimately drives Emma to ending her own life like the bothersome and deprived animal she has been treated her entire marriage. Emma’s suicide is an irreversible statement of independence that is ultimately ignored by her aristocrat society and distorted to suit the agendas of her survivors. Despite her lifelong hatred and spitefulness for her husband Charles and their unfulfilling marriage, Emma is buried in her wedding dress as per the wishes of Charles. He says: “I want her to be buried in her wedding dress, with white shoes on, and a wreath. Her hair to be spread over her shoulders; three coffins, one of oak, one of mahogany, one of lead. No one is to say anything to me, I will be strong enough. Cover her entirely with a large piece of green velvet. I want this. Do it.” Because Charles was not known for his emotional values in his relationship with his wife, even the caregiver was surprised by Charles’ “romantic ideas” and his demands for his wife’s burial. However, while Charles was “continually thinking of Emma, he was forgetting her”. This also shows the lack of emotional attention he had towards his wife. Even after her death, Emma is ironically stuck to Charles and her hated domestic life with the wedding dress. Additionally, the white of her wedding dress symbolizes her purity as his wife. However, he has doesn’t realize his wife is, in fact, not pure as has yet to discover her marital transgressions with Leon and Rodolphe. 

In both life and death, Emma Bovary is a creation of the culture that shaped her and the traditional morals and values that her society forced upon her. The character of Emma Bovary continues to intrigue, fascinate, and relate to modern readers. The explanation is simple: her character is obsessed with fantasy. She desires to escape contentment because they are as imaginary as the dreams she pursues. However, her dreams are more exciting, but she gives herself over to them not recognizing they are as damaging as the ones propagated by her husband, Charles, and the society he resides. In contrast, Charles cannot perform the suitable role of the husband because he cannot recognize reality. He doesn’t understand that which is luring his wife from him. Charles cannot comprehend it because it is not provincial. His character chooses to remain his serene and simplistic worldview even as his world is crumbling around him, such as his possessions being sold off due to his debt and his daughter being sent to the cotton mill. Ultimately, he is unrealistic to think any women would life a happy, fulfilled life with the emotionless life he gives to others. 

The novel of Madame Bovary portrays the personal, provincial, and emotional background of human relationships to shape an assessment of humanity that displaces individuals with their society. Though Emma belongs to specific time and place as a nineteenth century character, her struggles she faces and overcomes are universal. Her character’s actions are a representation of the underrepresented, dissatisfied, unfulfilled, and deprived individuals who must find a way to overcome the tyrannical, obsessive, and overbearing social hierarchies and dismantle them in the process. Flaubert does an excellent job as using the character of Emma Bovary to explore the ramification of human emotional, psychological, and emotional desires and satirizes the heartlessness of modern materialist cultures and societies.  

16 December 2021
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