Mademoiselle Emma Rouault’s ultimate companions were the great writers of the romantic era in the most crucial periods of her development. They fashioned a world for her in which passion, sensuality, ecstasy were the pillars upon which the forlorn romantic heroine stood; waiting for her savior, the ultimate man, whose love would not be that of suffocating husbands, but a love like a “great clap of thunder, (…), a devastation that scatters your ideals and hurls your very soul into the abyss. (p. 93)”
It was this characterization of love (which is ultimately unachievable), that accelerated Emma’s illusion-building, an act which she was already prone to because of the way she processed the world with her senses and emotions and not necessarily with her intellect. In other words, one could say that romanticism was the missing “intellectual” component with which Emma tried to fulfill her desires (both carnal and idealistic). This is an endless vicious cycle, of course, as the romantic ideas both create and aim to satisfy that impossible dream which takes Emma as its helpless prey. Emma’s tragedy is therefore, ultimately about a tension with the reality that surrounds her and her inability to become aware of it, as she lacks self-knowledge. She walks around the periphery of self-realization, but she can never reach it.
She wonders what “stupid mania” is “driving her like this into wrecking her existence by continual self-sacrifice?” (p. 171), she knows that “such happiness was, of course, the merest fraud, contrived to tease her into despair. For now she knew the pettiness of the passions that are exaggerated.” (p. 209). One almost wants to sob, scream and tear out the book, because the tragedy of her situation (in that she thinks she knows what fooled her but in reality has no idea) is coupled with the most masterful irony. She will never gather enough intellectual prowess to climb out of her emotional and idealistic prison. It is unbearable to read.
It is not only Emma’s outward glance that is dangerous and distorted. Throughout the novel, she is continually stuck between the intimate sphere of Emma and the public sphere of “Madame Bovary.” Her body is idealized; her boots peak out from under her skirt, Leon’s gift slippers dangle on her feet, her hair is ruffled with the ongoings of her adultery – a change which Charles, in his blindness, finds irresistible- the soles of her boots “curl up” while layed in front of Maitre Guillaumin’s fireplace. She is “the Angel” (p. 247), “the siren, the fantastical monster,” (p. 270). She is never just an ordinary, normal body; but always idealized to a certain extent: that is until she is dead and black and vile fluids stream out of her mouth. There is no image sadder or more poignant than a dead Madame Bovary vomiting on her wedding dress. It demonstrates the most horrific results of Emma’s own idealization and acts as a stark metaphor for the constraints of that were put upon her by society: purity, whiteness and marriage.
In conclusion, one can argue that there were three factors at work as “Emma” first became “Madame Bovary” and then “the shadowy ‘she’ of all poetry books,” the ideology of romanticism, her own tendencies (which always chose passion, fire, emotion over long-term gratification) and the de-personalization imposed upon her by every member of her community. It is also worth noting that while romanticism can be seen as the ultimate culprit, the other gigantic ideology, that of the enlightenment and scientific belief (which are the other pillars of the book, can be seen embodied in the character Homais) also fail to save Emma in the end.
Written for my “Typologies of the Novel II: 20th Century” class in 13.12.2017
I find it difficult to say much about the book, because I loved it so deeply. One can write pages about the beauty of the language, the construction of the themes, the book’s prophetic insights about mental illness, the masterful use of metaphor and irony and so on. As literature students, we are often instructed to identify the structure and notice how the changes in it relate to the content. This is often not an easy task, with the unreliable narrators and cryptic metaphors. In Madame Bovary, the text does this for you as it carefully lays out the themes and metaphors and repeats them in the necessary places. You don’t feel as though you are working on an assignment and enjoy the process in its entirety.
Alongside its technical brilliance, what struck me the most was the way Flaubert handles how Emma’s delusions correspond to her reality. I find that her proclivity and hunger towards the world of fantasy is a characteristic we all share, to different extents; her unquenchable thirst to be loved and cared for in the most luxurious way is embedded in all of us; her inability to cope with the disappointments in her life is an universal weakness. I feel as though we would only have to change a couple of dramatic events in our lives and we could all end up as Madame Bovary. We are all but a few steps away from suffocating to death with circumstances we cannot bear.
I should also note that I was lucky enough to have the Penguin Classics edition of the novel, which includes an amazing introduction by Geoffrey Wall (who is also the editor and translator of the book) and a brilliant preface by Michele Roberts. These two readings beforehand really helped shape my understanding of the text.
Image: Ilze Liepa, in a production of “Memories” by Micheal Shannon .