Justification Of Emma’s Actions In Madame Bovary By Gustave Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert wrote his novel Madame Bovary to entail a woman’s obsession with the bourgeois life and give insight and commentary on gender, and socioeconomic roles in nineteenth-century France. Emma Bovary is an antiheroine who uses transgressed behaviour and conscious acts of indiscretion to reject a lifestyle imposed on her by the oppressive patriarchal and stereotyped society. Flaubert’s novel is written in a realistic style, which highlights his opinion of the bourgeoisie and portrays the nature of provincial life, even where it may not be appreciated. He used his main character, Emma Bovary, to portray how the corrupt and misplaced values of the bourgeoisie could only lead to the breakdown of a previously stable life. Throughout the novel, Emma searches for passion and pleasure as well as a way to escape the monotony and drabness of ‘small-town life’, which is the catalyst for her affairs (both emotional and physical). Her yearning for passion and pleasure can be attributed to misguided beliefs instilled in her as a child brought up in a secluded convent. Emma’s actions throughout the novel are seen as morally ambiguous; these manifest themselves as her unfaithfulness to Charles, lack of dedication to Berthe and her drastic mood changes. Flaubert’s novel, especially in modern times has raised the question of sympathy towards Emma Bovary and whether her actions were justifiable, possibly even relatable (in terms of what might be deemed acceptable) in modern-day society. Previously women had far more constraints on who they could be, what jobs they had to do and what was expected of them, but in the modern-day society, Emma Bovary might be seen as a heroine instead of an antiheroine.

Emma Bovary’s actions can be explained as the result of intense disillusionment from her childhood fantasies. Flaubert’s literary construct exhibits Emma’s thoughts revolving purely around her notions of romance throughout the entire book: “Before her [Emma’s] marriage she thought herself in love; but since the happiness that should have followed this love not having come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life “felicity,” “passion,” and “rapture” - words that had seemed so beautiful to her in books.” After marrying Charles, Emma initially finds happiness; however, this slowly morphs into discontent when her romantic expectations aren’t met: “But as the intimacy of their life became deeper, the greater became the gulf that separated her from him”. Emma discovered Charles to be particularly boring and ordinary - the life she had begun living in marriage was a stark contrast to her expectations. Charles did not understand Emma’s feelings - this continued to separate them even more: “He thought her happy; and she resented this easy calm, this serene happiness, the very happiness she gave him”. Emma failed to realise that the romantic ideals she had read about were unattainable, or at least fleeting, in the real world. She delved deep into her daydreams and spent her waking hours seeking the extremes in emotion present in these fantasies. After being unable to attain the passion and pleasure extremes, she instead turned to the other of residing in exaggerated misery. “The lusts of the flesh, the longing for money, and the melancholy of passion all blended themselves into one suffering, and instead of turning her thoughts away from it she clave to it the more, urging herself into the pain, and seeking everywhere occasions for it'. Had the books she had read as a child not only been about “Love, lovers, sweethearts, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely pavilions, postilions killed at every stage, horses ridden to death on every page, sombre forests, heartaches, vows, sobs, tears and kisses” (page 28), she would not have mistaken her fantasies for reality; thus, her life would have turned out differently. Her romantic disposition caused her to look for happiness in accumulating physical possessions and exaggerated emotions. Having read only romance and sentimental fiction, it is hard for the reader to not sympathise with her. Due to not only her upbringing and lack of freedom but also lack of guidance in the areas applicable after she left the convent.

Upon further examination, one finds that Emma’s problems are hers and hers alone, in the aspect of her conscious decisions and her mindset. In the novel, Flaubert demonstrates Emma’s growing dislike of Charles as a need for more wealth. When she has an affair with Rodolphe, she imagines herself living in the lushness of his wealth - a life where she could buy and have whatever she wanted. This is another driving force toward Emma seeking out other men. Not only is Emma unfaithful to her husband, she gathers a large amount of debt, expecting him to pay it. Charles did everything to make her feel loved and happy but yet she still perceived him as boring and plain, even going as far as to move from where he had set up his life to ensure her happiness and health. “It cost Charles much to give up Tostes after living there for nearly four years and ‘when he was beginning to get on there’. Yet if it must be!”. Unbeknownst to him, Emma’s unhappiness was sourced of her own fantasies. While it has been established that Charles is quite dull “, he still makes an effort and is a dutiful husband to her. Emma repays him by starting both emotional and physical affairs with people he might have considered friends. Emma is a victim of her own foolish desires and her need for change. A large contributor to Emma’s suicide was her constant waiting for her fantasies to materialise, her romantic mindset and her exaggerated moods. These, in turn, led her to a more realistic ending rather than a fairytale ending. Emma’s own foolishness and emotional extremes led to the breakdown of her once-stable and comfortable life.

Madame Bovary exhibits many characteristics of a tragedy, where the tragedies of the novel are based on Emma’s relationships, including the relationship of Emma to herself, to her romantic partners and to her daughter. One tragedy to be noted is that Emma never truly understood or was truly honest with herself. She was unable to perceive that her own attitude was the issue preventing her from happiness. Her constant searching for a romanticised love was the cause of her falling into depression in the first place, which in turn began her turning from a sweet child to a deceitful and shallow adult, wholly corrupted by her own desires. Emma’s whole life was based around pleasing herself; she understood the weight of her adultery towards Charles, but never took a moment in the book to self reflect on her actions. Charles spent his married days aiming to please her; he loved her blindly with a great consequence to himself - the depth of his devotion was his downfall. After Emma committed suicide, he submitted himself unto grief. The tragedy of the relationship Emma had with her lovers is that of her expecting that they would fulfil her romanticised view which her husband had not been able to do; both physical and emotional affairs that once began with perceived legitimate love (and lust) ended horribly with disgust and apathy. Another tragedy is the relationship between Emma and her daughter; Emma neglected her and left her to be raised by a nurse, unhappy that she had had a daughter instead of a son; That, however, can be attributed to her view of the confines of being a woman in that day and age; she believed that a son would be happier in the world and did not want a daughter to have the same obligations and views placed upon her as she had. The final tragedy in the novel is Emma’s lack of relationship with God, even after growing up in a convent, she never really knew God and tried to fill the hole that religion may have filled, with other desires and passions. A tragedy in terms of literature can mean where the main character is brought to suffering or extreme sorrow because of a tragic flaw or moral weakness. Using this definition then Madame Bovary is a tragedy.

With an in-depth study of both sides of sympathy and blame, it can only be concluded that no one person can be blamed for the actions of Emma Bovary; henceforth, sympathy should be shown towards her. While her actions were of her own volition, the influence of her early life has shown to be the cause of her tunnel vision in terms of her marriage and relationships. However, the extent of that sympathy is quite short, her actions were still her own - she made a conscious decision to commit adultery, start an emotional affair and neglect her daughter based on her gender (whether or not she had a valid reason for wishing for a son, it does not excuse her neglect). Flaubert’s literary construct of Madame Bovary provides insight into the challenges women face in terms of being confined to the expectations of society.  

16 December 2021
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