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Essay: Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

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  • Published: 15 March 2023*
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Romanticism has been read as a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment’s desire to acquire knowledge and it has influenced many mediums of literature and art. Some attempt to emulate the romantic current and such a lot of the imagery and symbolism of romanticism become cliché. As we have seen throughout the semester, many of the authors we studied struggle with this convention and attempt to break away from it all while negatively commenting on it. Clichés, according to the Oxford Dictionary, are phrases or opinions that are overused and betray a lack of original thought. This being said, this subject interested me a great deal because cliché are also a thing of the present and we contribute to them by acknowledging them and overusing expressions that come to lose their original meaning with time. The book I have decided to focus my thought on is Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary which is an amusing read on a woman who wholly embodied some of the romantic clichés she had encountered in her childhood and attempts to emulate them through speech and action. In this light, I will argue that Emma Bovary’s adulterous relationships and her eventual suicide are directly linked to the romantic clichés she championed, which demonstrates the outdated fashion of romanticism.

Like many of the authors we have looked at this term, Flaubert wants to do away with romanticism and as such he ridicules it in many ways throughout the book. He over exaggerates his descriptions of romantic landscapes and demonstrates the disconnect between what she claims to see and what is really there all while also referring to romantic authors which really demonstrates the intent to attack and the ridicule the tradition:

“So she drifted with the meanderings of Lamartine, listened to harps on lakes, the songs of dying swans, the fa herself slip into the meandering Lamartine, listened to the harps on the lakes , the songs of dying swans, the falling of leaves, the virgin hearts rising to heaven, and the voice of the eternal speaking softly in the valleys” (Part 1, Chapter 6, p. 36).

Emma Bovary is the vehicle that Flaubert uses to ridicule and demonstrate the dangers of upholding the romantic current. Emma is a naive woman who wants to be romanced and experience love like the Parisian elite while she is a mere country girl who was pressured to marry so that she may secure a future for herself like many women did at the time. She finds her marriage lacking and lacklustre so she takes to daydreaming about great love affairs through a naive lens. This championing of romanticism, stems from the childhood Emma spent at a convent where she read christian works and romantic literature which she conflated and as such it has skewed her perception. Don Quixote is an interesting parallel to Emma Bovary because he, similar to her, had ready too many chivalric novels which completely skewed his perception of the world he lived in and rendered him mad. Further, the circumstances and conditions Emma is born in to are not conducive to pursuing romantic ideals of love, but because she cannot distance herself from the books she reads she is doomed to live a life of dissatisfaction which inevitably lead her to commit the ultimate act of selfishness or perhaps agency: her suicide.
Looking at the men Emma has affairs with it is clear there is a pattern on how they go about romancing her and eventually discarding her. Emma had envisioned escaping with her lover at the time, Rodolphe and her daughter. At the time Rodolphe had readily agreed to running away and they had set a tentative date for when they would execute their plans, but Rodolphe was never serious, Emma was merely another one of his mistresses. So the day of their elope Emma envisions their romantic escape and the imagery she evokes is very exotic and overly influenced by romanticism:

“Behind four galloping horses, she had been carried seven days into a new land, whence they would never return … Often from a mountain-top, they suddenly glimpsed some splendid city of domes, bridges, ships, groves of lemon trees and cathedrals of white marble” (Part 2, Chapter 12, p. 182).

Emma is always trying to escape from the annoying world that suffocates her, this instance was in her dreams which says a lot about the ennui she is feeling, and as such she tends to over embellish the world around her which Flaubert makes fun of as we get brought back into the reality of her real life. Rodolphe having no intention of really loving Emma, he claims that all women are the same and he has barely any recollection of them but Emma just so happens to be exceptionally beautiful so he humours her some more: “playing with his souvenirs, he examined the handwriting and the style of the letters, as diverse as their spelling… From a single word he conjured faces, from certain gestures, the sound of a voice; sometimes, though, he could remember nothing” (Part 2, Chapter 13, p. 187). In the end, Rodolphe breaks off his promise by writing Emma a “heartfelt” letter so as to dissuade her by using all of the romantic clichés that seem to be the only language that gets through to her:

“Have you thoroughly pondered your intention? Do you realize what an abyss I was dragging you, poor angel? No you don’t, do you? You were going along in blind confidence, believing in the future … Ah! Wretched things that we are, senseless!” (Part 2, Chapter 13, p. 187).

In doing so, Rodolphe demonstrates the ease with which he can manipulate Emma and discard her all while using the romantic clichés she championed.
Similarly, Emma and Léon’s relationship is also a mockery of the romantic current. They both share a superficial love for literature and they talk about book titles (which really demonstrates the superficiality). Initially, Léon is unable to manipulate Madame Bovary with language, but after spending some time in Paris, Léon is no longer the shy bumbling person he once was and he makes his desires clear and comes at her with a new found force which allows him to begin an affair with her. Through Emma’s adulterous relationships Flaubert demonstrates the inadequacy of romanticism and also shows us the ease with which language can be manipulated.

The secondary literature I have looked at in regards to this topic has been very enlightening and each articles seems to seemingly complete one another for the purposes of my argument and really broaden the scope of my own thinking.

In Barbara Vinken’s article “Loving, Reading, Eating: The Passion of Madame Bovary” offers a feminist reading of the text and essentially claims that the portrait of Emma Bovary is a damaging one that taints our perception of her. Vinken begins with summarizing the key events of the books plot: “Madame Bovary is the story of an adultery in the provinces. Emma, the wife of the doctor Charles Bovary, betrays him first with the landowner Rodolphe, then with the law clerk, Léon. The “lifestyle” that Emma holds to be necessary for love leads to her complete financial ruin, and she eventually kills herself with the arsenic of the pharmacist Homais, in despair at being abandoned in her utter ruin by her lover” (Vinken, 759). This description is a much more palatable portrayal of the key events that took place in the book, and it does not paint Emma in a harsh light. Vinken argues that Madame Bovary is chalked full of the rampant sexual clichés of the time and the best example would be the way Flaubert sets up Emma character:

“like the adulteress in the article, Madame Bovary becomes addicted to novels and neglects her only daughter, who is confided to a loveless nurse. The realism of the novel, lies in its frank representation of the lust of the flesh, and in its unmasking of the adulterous heroine as a fallen woman, as the whore in the song of the blind beggar, in which Emma recognizes herself with her last terrible laugh” (Vinken, 761).

Most importantly, Vinken stresses that the book demonstrates the dangers of false reading, or perhaps overly invested reading through the character of Emma who has taken the words of romantic literature to heart and as such she ruins her life and the lives of those she leaves behind (her husband is left to deal with the debt she had accrued and her daughter gets sold to a cotton mill:

“Madame Bovary is also a story about the dangers of false reading, about a false relation to the world, which it illustrates by the example of novels, among others. The theme of the book is corrupted reading and corrupted love, as illustrated in the figure of adultery” (Vinken, 763).

Bjørnar Grande’s article “Desire in Madame Bovary” is focused on the aspect of desire which is what fuels Emma and her actions, and as such because of this rampant desire the story progresses towards death and dissatisfaction ultimately. Grande states:

“The very movement in Madame Bovary is a movement toward death and total undoing… Emma Bovary is a woman driven by unfulfilled longings. Her aim in life is to realize her innermost dreams—dreams of romantic love, luxury, and heroic deeds—which are beyond the reach of a farmer’s daughter in rural Normandy. Madame Bovary is a modern novel in the sense that character plays no decisive role. Everything changes and shifts in tune with desire” (Grande, 76).

I find this passage very apt when looking at the Emma’s condition, as the daughter of a farmer her life had been set when she had married the village doctor, but she wanted more for herself and she pursued her wants carelessly and selfishly and this greed is what leads to her eventual end which proves to me that Emma Bovary’s adulterous relationships and her eventual suicide are directly linked to the romantic clichés she championed, which demonstrates the outdated fashion of romanticism. Interestingly, Grande claims that in order to properly convey the desires very human desires Emma feels Flaubert moves between the romantic and the realistic, because the romantic though it is based in ideals would not comport itself the way Emma has: “In order to reveal desire, Flaubert, as a writer vacillating between romanticism and a realism in its making, creates a world where everything is strictly realistic and, at the same time, heavily laden with symbolic meaning. Most of the symbols prefigure the death and decay caused by desire” (Grande, 76). In essence the crux of Grande’s argument rests on the premise that Emma’s rampant desire is what fuels her actions but her desire is not properly focused and that is what leads to her suffering:

“Emma initial problem, and basically the cause of her suffering, seems to stem from her confusion about what to desire.In the Ursuline convent, where she has been raised from the age of thirteen, she reads romantic novels, which lead her from pious ideals to romantic ideals as depicted in works of fiction. Her childhood tendency to merge religious and romantic feelings develops into a lifelong obsession, and part of her tragedy derives from her inability to distinguish between these emotions” (Grande, 77).

Lastly Grande offers some insight on the duality Emma faces throughout the novel which could explain her struggles and even give reason for the way she comported

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