Emma Bovary  

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"Madame Bovary is like that other archetypal reading hero, Don Quixote, in that her reading habits corrupt her vision of the world and her conduct of her life. They are both Romantics. Don Quixote desires to make provincial La Mancha into a battlefield of giants, demons and ladies in distress. Emma Bovary desires to be happy in lovely clothes in swift carriages, dancing at balls, being admired. The psychoanalyst, Ignès Sodré, wrote an illuminating paper on Madame Bovary, entitled 'Death by Daydreaming' in which she used Freud's essay on 'Creative Writers and Daydreaming' to discuss the particular daydreams of Emma Bovary." --A. S. Byatt, 2002 via [1]

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Emma Bovary is a fictional and titular character in the novel Madame Bovary. She is a beautiful young woman married to a small town doctor, Charles. Dissatisfied with her marriage, Emma has a series of love affairs which eventually lead her to social disgrace, financial ruin, and suicide.

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Emma has a highly romanticized view of the world and craves beauty, wealth, passion and high society. It is the disparity between these romantic ideals and the realities of her country life that drive most of the novel, most notably leading her into two extramarital love affairs as well as causing her to accrue an insurmountable amount of debt that eventually leads to her suicide.

Emma is quite intelligent, but she never has a chance to develop her mind. As an adult, Emma's capacity for imagination is far greater than her capacity for analysis. She is observant about surface details, such as how people are dressed, but she never looks below the surface. As a result, she is easily taken in by people who are pretending to be something more than they really are (which most people in the book do for one reason or another). Emma not only believes in the false fronts other people present to her, but she despises the very few people (Charles's mother, Madame Homais, and Monsieur Binet) who are exactly as they appear to be.

Convinced that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, Emma does not realize that extreme joy, even for the wealthy and powerful, comes rarely. Not only country or bourgeois life is dull. For instance, Emma is surprised to see that aristocrats do not serve fancy food and drink at their everyday breakfasts: she'd prefer to believe that for the nobility, life is really an excitement-filled drama. Later, she fails to see that Rodolphe's wealth hasn't made him happy, despite obvious evidence of this fact.

Since Emma lives chiefly in her own fantasy world, other people's opinions or perceptions of her aren't important except to the extent that they serve some aspect of whatever drama she's trying to act out. At the ball, she's convinced that her aristocratic hosts have fully accepted her as one of their own, so much so that she expects an invitation the following year. In reality, the hosts condescended to invite Charles and Emma to the ball as reward for a favor, intending for it to be a once-in-a-lifetime treat. Indeed, Emma makes several missteps that would be embarrassing to anyone steeped in upper-class culture of the period. She waltzes so badly that she tangles her dress up with her dance partner, and she uses the gaffe as an excuse to rest her head on his chest. She is one of the few people left at the party when the hosts finally go to bed. She does not attempt to establish new social contacts at the party, nor does she write a thank-you note afterwards. She does not attempt to return the cigar-case she and Charles find later, which might have been a reasonable pretext to resume correspondence with their host. So she is far from a gracious guest, and she fails to do the things that could, under the right circumstances, lead to real social connections in high places.

Emma seldom makes an effort to cultivate friendships with other people, unless doing so serves the image she has of herself. She wants desperately to be an aristocrat, particularly after the d'Andervilliers ball, but although she's very good at aping the superficial behaviors (such as clothing and figures of speech), she lacks the manners and savoir-faire to actually operate in their culture. No matter what social group she decides she belongs to (aristocrats, the people of Yonville, people with "noble souls", adulteresses, religious martyrs, dramatic heroines, etc.), every time her role requires interaction with someone who actually is in that group Emma messes up. She doesn't go out of her way to ingratiate herself with new people, because she genuinely doesn't care what they think of her. The same indifference causes her to be rejected by most people in Tostes and Yonville, and to be very careless of her reputation once she starts having extramarital affairs. Binet, Homais, Charles's mother, and Lheureux all catch her in compromising situations, and she truly doesn't care. At some level, she wants not only the excitement of taking the risk, but possibly the drama that would result from being caught.

Emma seeks out the extremes in life, both positive and negative. That she seeks out positive experiences is obvious, because unless she's experiencing the peak of ecstasy, she's convinced she's miserable. She also re-writes her own history and memory, telling herself that she has "never" been happy every time it appears to her that, by indulging some whim, she can achieve the emotional experiences to which she feels entitled. Her appetite for stimulation grows to the point where she becomes jaded enough not to appreciate the small pleasures in life, simply because they are small pleasures. The more she experiences, the less she is satisfied with more normal activities. Consider, for example, her taste in literature. She starts out with romances and bourgeois women's magazines targeted to her real social and economic position. From there she graduates to high-fashion women's magazines that advocate conspicuous consumption. The next step is overwrought romantic poetry, followed by tragic opera, and culminating in the violent pornography which she reads between assignations with Léon. As Vladimir Nabokov observes, Emma "reads books emotionally, in a shallow juvenile manner, putting herself in this or that female character's place."

Emma feels entitled to seek out increasing pleasure and stimulation for herself. Her sense of entitlement grows over time, as does her belief that she has been somehow wronged by destiny or by the people around her. As a young girl, Emma was influenced by her improvident but pretentious father. She was also indulged as a teen and as a young adult, and nobody ever realized her expectations and attitudes about life were unreasonable or attempted to correct them. Emma's mother died too early, and her father let her be raised at a convent and educated like a young woman of independent means. Emma eventually comes to believe that all her wishes will come true, if she believes in them strongly enough and throws a big enough tantrum when she doesn't get her way. Although her father is aware of the problem, he never tries to address it and chooses to leave it to Charles instead.

Over the course of the book, Emma finds different ways to rationalize her feeling of entitlement at different times of her life. Before her marriage, she craves excitement because she is bored. In Tostes, particularly after the ball, she believes she was unjustly born into the wrong socioeconomic class and that everything would be better if only she were rich. Later, after being introduced to poetry, she believes she suffers because she has a noble soul. Ultimately she casts herself as a tragic heroine.

Emma's attraction to the negative extremes of the human experience is less obvious, but the signs are there. As a teenager, she's rewarded for an overblown, somewhat fake display of grief after her mother's death. Her father caters to her whims, as does Charles, who responds to Emma's ennui and psychosomatic illnesses by ignoring his patients and concentrating solely on his wife. Emma's fleeting but intense fascination with religion is much the same: people reward her pious conduct with extra attention and treat her as though she's superior, which reinforces her feelings of entitlement.

It is Emma's sense of superiority and entitlement that make her vulnerable to people who seek to use and manipulate her. Anyone who plays along with Emma's pretentiousness is assured of her good graces. Lheureux, the predatory money-lender who fleeces Emma and Charles, is obsequious to Emma in order to get her to spend more money on unnecessary purchases. He takes advantage of her sense of entitlement by treating her like a grand lady and by indicating that she deserves all the impractical luxuries he persuades her to buy. By giving Emma credit for business sense and experience she doesn't actually possess, Lheureux takes advantage of Emma's financial inexperience. He skims ridiculous sums off the top of every promissory note he has Emma sign, and bluffs her into believing that large commissions are somehow customary in business. Unwilling to admit her ignorance, Emma lets herself be conned instead.

Throughout her life, Emma selects dramatic, exaggerated depictions of human existence and adopts them as a romantic or personal ideal; moreover, she convinces herself that her ideal is somehow the norm, and that the reality she experiences is the exception to the rule. As a teenager, she seeks to emulate the romantic novels she read while at the convent. After the ball, she seeks to emulate the nobility and the wealthy and creates a new romantic ideal based on a man she met at the ball. After being introduced to poetry, she adopts a romantic martyr-like facade. After being exposed to the melodramatic opera "Lucia de Lammermoor", Emma adopts the insane fictional character Lucy Ashton as her role model and becomes convinced that the correct way to respond to adversity is to lose her mind and commit suicide, which she eventually does.

Each individual decision of Emma's seems plausible and reasonable in isolation, but her actions and decisions on the whole make her a very difficult character to like. She is too self-absorbed to consider the consequences of her actions as they affect other people. Her recklessness with money leads to financial ruin not just for herself but for her husband and child.




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