Madame Bovary is about the life of Emma Bovary whose unhappy marital life has thrust her into illegitimate relationships with other men. Emma’s character serves to stand for the women of 19th century who found themselves in the web of unhappy life from which they failed to free themselves. The dominant theme of the novel is about the search of a woman for true happiness and independence but the irony of the novel is that she is deceived by the interplay of illusion and reality.
Emma Bovary struggles to free herself from the conventions of the society through escapades in illusionary world and relationships which give her nothing in return. Emma’s character is criticized as that of a lustful woman but the way the author of the novel portrays and treats her is as important as the interpretation of the critics. The attitude of the author, however, has a considerable impact on the reader’s perception of Emma’s character and the readers come to see the character of Emma through the eyes of Flaubert.
The novel is an admixture of ‘rebellion, violence, melodrama and sex, expertly combined in a compact plot’ (Llosa). What Flaubert thinks of his heroine is clear with his statement, ‘Madame Bovary, C’est Moi? ’ that implies that he can never think to imagine of the sufferings of Emma (Zarin). The story of Emma commences as she is married to Charles Bovary who is a physician. Charles undergoes an unhappy marital life before Emma where ‘his wife was a master’ (Flaubert 10).
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The author treats the character of Emma with a delicacy and sensitivity as she is presented as a romantic woman whose dreams are devastated as soon as she realizes that her choice to marry a physician was fatuous, ‘What exasperated her was that Charles did not seem to notice her anguish. His conviction that he was making her happy seemed to her an imbecile insult and his sureness on this point ingratitude’ (Flaubert 101). It seems that the author himself sympathyzes with Emma and wants to capture the reader’s attention towards her pitiful condition that is an excuse for the life she chose for herself.
Another dominant theme of the novel is the interplay of illusion and reality which makes Emma to take decisions for her life. The callousness of her husband pushes her towards rebellion and she asks, ‘for whose sake, then was she virtuous? ’ (Flaubert 101). Emma finds escape in lascivious affairs with Leon Dupius and Rodolphe Boulanger. She ‘could not think that the calm in which she lived was the happiness she had dreamed’ (Flaubert 35). The sad fact is that Charles realizes his wife’s worth in his life after her death.
Even when he has discovered the love letter of Rodolphe he admits that everyone ‘must have adored her’ and ‘all men assuredly must have coveted her’ (Flaubert 342). The attitude of Charles seems odd as well as he adores her as if a goddess and ‘she seemed but the more beautiful to him for this’ (Flaubert 342). But it is the choice of Flaubert who himself is found in love with his character that even after the enormous loss in the life of Emma she is treated with sympathy by the novelist.
During her life the sole concern of Charles is ‘his reputation’, ‘fortune’ and ‘berth’s future’ (Flaubert 313). Emma commits suicide and does not realize her mistakes even after she is left by her lovers. The rites of passage does not appear in her life as she felt to be ‘disillusioed’ with ‘nothing’ to ‘learn , and nothing more to feel’ (Flaubert 35). The dilemma of Emma’s life, though, is that she fails to achieve perfect happiness and the victim of her rebellion was her daughter, Berth, who is bound to work in factory after the demise of her parents.
Flaubert treats Emma as a woman who craves for wealth, joy and the superficial side of the things. The luscious style of life attracts her as the novelists describe ‘the silver dish covers’ that reflect ‘the lighted wax candles in the candlebra’ and the silk linen were the things that made her eyes glimmed (Flaubert 43). The ambitions of Emma lead her to sin and death are a part of western history of morality and religion (Llosa). The important aspect of Emma’s treatment of Flaubert is that the novelist portrays her character as a rebellious soul who is heroic in her own sense. Rebellion in Emma’s case’, says Llosa, ‘does not have the epic dimensions of that of the masculine heroes of the 19th century novel, yet it is no less heroic’ (Llosa). The attitude of the novelist towards the pivotal character is positive and he treats her as an Amazon of her own life but the fact is that Flaubert’s attitude inserts inverse impact on the perceptions of the readers as they come to see her character as that of a lusty woman who bears no fidelity like that of women in other 19th century novels who came to compromise with the circumstances of their lives.
The critics also criticize Emma Bovary for her impulses, her ‘incurable materialism’, her ‘predilection for the pleasures of the body’ than ‘soul’ and her ‘preference for earthly life’ which are also a part of a modern western woman (Llosa). ‘Here is the rebellion of an individual’, ushers Llosa, ‘and to all appearances a self centered one’ (Llosa). Emma Bavory represents women in 19th century society who are caught in unhappy marriages and aspire to obtain their wishes at every cost. Her story is that of a ‘blind, stubborn, desperate rebellion against the social violence’ (Llosa).
She ‘violates the codes of her milieu’ only because she is ‘driven’ to act in the way as a consequence of her problems which she undergoes in her life (Llosa). The mastery of Flaubert lies in the fact that he links the thematic garb of the story with that of characterization. As the dominant themes of the novel include the struggle for independence by a woman, interplay between illusion and reality, theme of infidelity and betrayal. The interesting fact of Flaubert’s novel is that all of the themes are associated with the character of Emma Bovary who enjoys pivotal importance in the plot of the novel.
This fact emphaizes the need to have a closer look at how is Flaubert’s own attitude towards the heroine of the novel and what he wants to imply through the portrayal of Emma. Emma is regarded as among the heroines about whose ‘appearance’ readers are ‘most likely to diagree’ (Barnes). Moreover Barnes finds it impossible to forgive Thackery for calling Bovary as heartless and callous. She is to be sympathized when she realizes that she is betrayed as she says to Rodolhe, ‘You never loved me. You are no better than the others’ (Flaubert 310).
She was ;betraying, ruining herself’ for her ambitions (Flaubert 310). Flaubert shows that Emma’s engagements with the other men were due to the problems in which she was trapped and she was not disloyal to any one as Emma herself resolves to help her lovers when they needed, ‘I would have given you every thing. I would have sold all’ for the eternal love (Flaubert 310). Charles remains in the illusion that he had made her happy throughout her life, ‘Weren’t you happy? Is it my fault? I did all I could’ (Flaubert 316).
The end of Emma’s life is presented with a divinity as ‘now’ a ‘twilight dimness was settling upon her thoughts’ (Flaubert 317) and she filled with joy on the ‘visions of eternal beatitude that were beginning’ (Flaubert 323). It was the ‘treachery’, ‘meanness’ and numberless ‘desires that had tortured her’, so she is rid of all the blames by the author (Flaubert 317). The character of Emma is presented by the author with such a sensitivity that it arouses the sympathies of the readers towards Emma’s character.
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