Category Archives: Gustave Flaubert

Thoughts: Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Black in the shadow, and a rich blue in broad daylight, they seemed to hold successive layers of colour, darkest at the depths and growing brighter and brighter towards the surface. His own eyes would lose themselves in those depths. He saw himself refelected there in miniature, down to the shoulders, with his silk hankerchief over his head and his nightshirt open at the neck.

This symbolic description of Charles Bovary and Emma Rouault interweaving in body, life and fate foreshadows a fascinating irony in the novel. But to understand this, one must understand how Flaubert explores its major theme – the pursuit of happiness. By contrasting himself to the popular French romantics of the day, Flaubert not only incorporates an essential building block into the construction of French artistry but also inspires his audience to reconsider their definitions of happiness itself. He presents different dimensions within one novel by giving it a cyclical structure while shifting the balance of sympathies and driving ahead on a straight line of realistic and believable cause and effect.

My thoughts on Charles and Emma transformed as I followed them through the plot. I felt such sympathy for Emma – a woman who wanted nothing more than to live! to experience the fullness of life, the passions of love and the wonders of the world. I could not think of an acceptable reason for scolding her for her sentiments. I disrespected Charles. I saw an apathetic coward who barely noticed how he succumbed to manipulations. Yet Flaubert chose to begin his novel with Charles as well as end it with him, as if his two hands held the line of Flaubert’s protagonist at either end of her experience.

Further down the line of Emma’s story, I disapproved of her romantic exploits but understood her motivations and viewed her as a victim of convention rather than an abominable villain. Charles does not conjure her desired fairy-tale dreams nor does he invigorate their relationship with passion. And, because I could not chastise her for having such romantic ambitions, I reserved judgement and still sympathized with the caged creature.

And then, as her pursuits consumed her, I realized that Flaubert did not concern himself with his audiences’ sympathies or judgements. His book would not pander to their romantic cravings, as other books had. As Emma destroyed her own life, I imagine how Flaubert must have hoped that a realistic reflection of life for a woman like Emma Bovary would argue for itself. Perhaps his audience would want to find a redeeming quality in Emma or witness a happy ending for her and even Charles in their respective acquisitions of happiness. But Flaubert could not give them these things because they could not happen. He had no intentions of ascending a soap box to expound on his opinions because reality would show his audience, and him, the outcome of Emma’s life and the question of pursuing happiness. And one cannot argue reality by praising Emma’s passions when they lead to destruction or condemning Charles for loving her unconditionally.

In the end, one can only see Emma sleeping in the bed she had made. But so does Charles…

Flaubert inspires me to reconsider the nature of happiness, as do so many other 19th century European authors. Emma dreamed of happiness as a realization of her romantic fantasies, an extacy of sensation and pleasurable experiences. Charles imagined it as a fulfillment of circumstances, a patriarchal idea defined by a satisfaction in achievement – both external conditions stemming from the outside world. In this respect, Charles and Emma share affinity with the concept that happiness comes from without. But how can things spontaneously spawn true happiness? I would argue that Emma does not desire the romantic circumstances of her dreams. She desires happiness and believes those conditions will bring it to her. Perhaps people illogically assume that certain circumstances will undoubtedly cultivate the happiness they desire and a true contemplation of happiness may begin by removing all prepositions associated with the word.

Emma’s romantic aspirations plague her like a curse. She chases her romantic dreams like one hunting vapor. When she imagines she has found her dream in reality, paranoia infects her and she fears losing her new-found circumstances and takes all drastic measures to secure it forever. The tighter she grasps, however, the more she loses.

A sensational and passionate person like Emma feels the inevitable doom in pursuing sensational satisfaction because they cannot realistically secure them. Once they grow accustomed to those sensations, they would need to pursue more – therefore never achieving the happiness they hoped those sensations would provide. They look to gain this feeling, always chasing it, never enjoying it. They want happiness to happen to them, not to learn that happiness already surrounds them. They run from it and not toward it. One chooses happiness. They do not accumulate it.

Her dreams may exist but once captured they transform into life, a thing recognized as something other than a dream. Then the dream beckons in the distance ready once again for the pursuit. The life Emma imagines cannot be lived because, once lived, it resembles life rather than the dream. She must change within herself so that her perception of the world might change and she may experience happiness and love the look of life rather than the dream of sensational lusts. I think this concept fueled Flaubert’s novel. People read the dreams of the romantic writers but once these dreams cross the plain into reality, they no longer exist as dreams and therefore cannot be lived.

If she wants love, then love. If she wants success, then give. If she wants passion, then do all things with fervor. Chasing these self-gratifying sensations only distracts her from the readily available happiness she hopes the dreams will provide.

I do not accuse Flaubert of pessimism or nihilism. I do accuse Flaubert of giving us a realistic image of the sensationalist’s fate. He does not indicate his judgement on the matter. He only shows the reader how unhappily they live, how they wither away clutching at their dream, chasing it, watching it transform into a dull reality. I think Flaubert believes in happiness but feels that some miss it because they want external sensations to bring it and don’t choose to live it, regardless of circumstance.

Now, if Charles holds the string of Emma’s pursuit on either end, embodying the cyclical structure of the novel while contrasting himself to Emma in the reader’s shifting sympathies, I find the ending most ironic because, though they contrast each other so completely during the story, they share the same experience at the end. When he and Emma first wed, he imagines himself happy and throughout their marriage he feels unconditional love for her. Emma, however, searches everywhere for passionate love, to feast on it, because she resented Charles’ inability to provide it the way she imagined it.

Yet at the end, he wails passionately for his loss because he cannot give his love anymore. He dreams of pursuing Emma but sees her as the vapor she chased and could never catch. At the end, Charles displayed more passionate behavior than he had throughout the story and, like Emma, his obsession leads to catastrophe.

Emma loved sensational passion and it ruined her. Charles loved Emma and it ruined him. They shared a similar fate.

How she might have adored that!

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Posted by on March 2, 2013 in Gustave Flaubert


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