Collected thoughts on the life and death of Emma Bovary
“One way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy,” Flaubert wrote in 1858.
Consider this passage from Madame Bovary: “You forget everything. The hours slip by. You travel in your chair through centuries you seem to see before you, your thoughts are caught up in the story, dallying with the details or following the course of the plot, you enter into characters, so that it seems as if it were your own heart beating beneath their costumes.”
It is not lovelessness or adultery or debt that destroys poor Emma, but this way of living her life as though it were literature. Her dissatisfaction with life emerges because the activities of the daily world don’t in any way match the wild ecstasy promised in novels. Emma enters into her first adulterous relationship with the shallow and unworthy Rodolphe and immediately recalls “the heroines of novels she had read, and the lyrical legend of those adulterous women began to sing in her memory with sisterly voices that enchanted her. It was as though she were becoming part of that imaginary world, as though she were making the long dream of her youth come true by placing herself in the category of those amorous women she had envied so much.”
Emma’s transports in Rodolphe’s arms are attempts to replicate the transgressive experience of reading novels—forbidden in the convent where she was educated. It’s not sexual fulfilment that drives Emma but the idea of becoming the heroine of a romance in her own right.
Long before Emma Bovary was born in Flaubert’s imagination, Chaucer’s plucky Wife of Bath observed that women in literature influence the attitudes of readers, which is why she tore the pages from her husband’s book (an anti-marriage manual cautioning against ‘worthless wives’).
More recently, Erica Jong weighed in: “Emma Bovary is deluded by literature. We identify with her because we too look to fantasy for salvation. If Emma Bovary, with all her self-delusion, still stirs our hearts, it is because she wants something authentic and important: for her life to have meaning, for her life to bring transcendence.” “Emma’s drama is the gap between illusion and reality, the distance between desire and its fulfilment. On two occasions she is persuaded that adultery can give her the splendid life that her imagination strains toward, and both times she is left feeling ‘bitterly disappointed,’” wrote Mario Vargas Llosa.
Edmund Wilson said that what made Flaubert a social critic was his “grim realisation of the futility of dreaming of splendours that can never be achieved. Emma Bovary did not face her situation as it was, and the result was that she was undone by the realities she had tried to ignore.” Henry James asserted that the reality and beauty in which Emma’s consciousness and play of mind are invested does not represent this state of romanticism as only her state, but as the state of all people who are romantically determined.