Madame Bovary, Part Two

21st October 2010

I am sorry for posting this a bit late. I meant to do it early this morning, but A. I had a lot going on and B. I had no idea what I planned to write. I was tempted to write: “Emma, shut up and stop bitching” but thought surely I could come up with something more literary than that.

I have stewed most of the day about it and have come to a conclusion. The older Emma gets, the more angry she becomes. Her anger bubbles over, and she snaps at her child, her husband, her maid, everyone around her (that’s not the conclusion part). Frances focuses on the web of lies Flaubert spins for his characters, and though I think it’s a significant part of the book, I think the worst lie is the abstract one Emma focuses on. Emma thinks the world has lied to her, and she hates life because of it (there it is).

Life isn’t supposed to be like this, she thinks. Every moment leading up to her marriage, she lived in anticipation of that fulfillment, that idea of love she has carried around. She tries to discover “just what was meant, in life, by the words “bliss,” “passion,” and “intoxication,” which had seemed so beautiful to her in books.” Tucked away in a convent as a young girl where she is rewarded for her spiritual ardor, all the while sneaking highly-romanticized novels, Emma lives in an alternate reality. It is a mystical place, and Emma embraces it fully. When her mother dies, she writes a letter to her father, and the contents of the letter so worry him, he visits her, and

Emma was inwardly satisfied to feel that she had, at her first attempt, reached that rare ideal of pallid lives, which mediocre hearts will never attain. And so she allowed herself to slip into Lamartinean meanderings, listened to harps on lakes, to the song of every dying swan, to the falling of every leaf … [until] [s]he became bored with this, did not want to admit it … and was at last surprised to find … that there was no more sadness in her heart than there were wrinkles on her forehead.

Her dramatic nature has never been curbed, and through the ever-disappointed Emma and her love of novels, Flaubert swiftly eviscerates romanticism and its dangers. Emma acts her life; she doesn’t live it. When she attempts to be a good mother and wife, it’s draining, yet she feels better having almost (at least on pretext) been a loving wife and mother. Flaubert does not allow the reader any illusions, though. When Emma pushes her daughter Berthe away from her and Berthe cuts her cheek, Emma seems suddenly maternal. She insists on remaining with the child, but in her quiet moment she looks at

a few large teardrops … gathered in the corners of her half-closed eyelids, through whose lashes one could glimpse two pale, sunken pupils; the adhesive plaster, stuck to her cheek, pulled the stretched skin to one side.

“How strange,” though Emma. “The child is so ugly!”

She is detached, even in that second, and cannot make herself feel as she should. She is an actress, never fully involved in her own life and therefore, she is unable to enjoy it as well. Upon receiving a letter from her father, she becomes nostalgic, and again, it’s almost as if she’s viewing her life on a stage:

How happy those days had been! How free! How full of hope! How rich in illusions! There were none left now! She had spent them in all the different adventures of her soul, in all those successive stages she had gone through, in her virginity, her marriage, and her love; — losing them continuously as her life went on, like a traveler who leaves some part of his wealth at every inn along his road.

But what was making her so unhappy? Where was the extraordinary catastrophe that had overturned her life? And she lifted her head and looked around, as though seeking the cause of what hurt her so.

Here she recognizes the illusion and in almost the same instant, pushes the blame away from herself, looking around to identify who or what is to blame for her intense displeasure. Finding no one, she places the blame squarely on her husband, who, to her, represents her entrapment. Flaubert tells us, though, to be prepared for this. In Part One, he describes Emma as

Accustomed to the calm aspect of things, she turned, instead, toward the more tumultuous. She loved the sea only for its storms, and greenery only when it grew up here and there among ruins. She needed to derive from things a sort of personal gain; and she rejected as useless everything that did not contribute to the immediate gratification of her heart, — being by temperament more sentimental than artistic, in search of emotions and not landscapes.

Emma seeks something fleeting, something on the air she cannot quite grasp. I fear it will remain ever elusive and that Emma’s hatred of her life and the world can only turn inward.

*But that’s just what I think. Check out Frances at nonsuch book and all the other links to see what other readers thought of Part 2. And thanks, Frances! I am finding the conversation most interesting.

  • That falsity of human action is a theme with other characters, too – certainly with Rodolphe (who is actually conscious of being an actor in his own play), and with people like Homais who may believe they’re not acting but who have learned all the clichéd lines and simply parrot them back. Maybe Emma’s tragedy is getting caught in that narrow window where she realizes the difference between falsity and authenticity, but can’t make peace with it.

    • Well, she realizes it about herself – I don’t think (at least yet) she is aware of it in others. For example, the shop owner who is charging her such exorbitant amounts. You’re right, though, she cannot make peace with it in terms of her own life.

      And Rodolphe is most certainly aware of it, and he has the literal experience with an actress. Someone’s post mentioned not understanding why Flaubert would show us Rodolphe’s thoughts in the beginning and end of the relationship, but I think that’s why. That awareness he has is so unlike the others, which is why he seems to be happy.

      • I am not so sure that she does recognize it in herself. Tend to feel that the world has lied to her in its promises of romance in her books, her convent, her father’s indulgences of her. The lies we tell women kind of thing. Who wouldn’t believe in their books, some nuns and their dad? She still strives, reaches. And is undone by her oversized failings in trying to reach her oversized dreams.

        Thanks for the thoughtful post and reading along!

        • Of course she would believe them, but when it turns out not at all like what she’s anticipated – that’s where the anger comes from, I think. She was set up to fail, and THAT I think she does realize.

          I would say inasmuch as she knows anything, she’s aware of slight acting on her part. That’s why when she first suppresses her love for Leon, she goes to such lengths to hide it in devotion to husband and family.

  • I’m finding it so hard to sympathize with Emma and I know things are about to get much worse for her!

  • I’m beginning to wonder, Jenn, if Emma is modeled on one of those people who are only happy when they’re unhappy. Her self-absorption and drama queen qualities bother me more than some other complainers in literature do, though, perhaps because Flaubert makes her inner world so believable in some ways (one reason why it’s easy to empathize with her while faulting her for her decision-making) and perhaps because she lacks a sense of humor. Her apparent lack of friends–other than her lovers–would seem to explain a lot of deficiencies in her personality and/or thinking, but I’m not sure whether we’re supposed to see that as the cause or a byproduct of her more general unhappiness.

    • Richard, you’re right, and I think your last comment re: friends is really a cycle. It is a cause, yet it’s the byproduct as well.

      That last quote I use from Part One really does sum her character up for me. As you say, she seems to almost thrive on the unhappiness – that’s when she “feels” the most, thus her brain fever when Rodolphe leaves. The pain is real to her; the happiness is out of reach, but she’s happy in the attention she gets when she is “ill.”

      I know that is an incredibly confusing way to say that, but I really think she does.

      • The pain is real to her; the happiness is out of reach, but she’s happy in the attention she gets when she is “ill.”

        This is something I did not quite get, but now that you make it explicit I find really helpful. I definitely saw Emma as manipulative enough to realize sickness got her the attention she craved, but I think you’re right that, in addition, the pain itself is also attractive to her. I had noted that passage you quoted, about greenery amid the ruins, when I was reading part I, but during part II it was sadly no longer on my mind.

        • I kept my page markers and that passage kept coming back to me. I think it sums her up quite well. I’m so glad my garbled comment made sense much less that it helped you. Thanks for the comment – I have so enjoyed the dialogue during this read.

          Sent from my iPhone

  • Well, those first few sentences were how I felt about Emma when I read the book last year (I think it was last year). It’s good to see yours and other people’s perspectives. I am definitely enjoying your posts about it! Emma is a pretty miserable lady from what I remember and I just never really was sympathetic to her. I like that all of you are discussing her inner workings. It’s helping me to understand her a little bit better. 🙂

    • Yeah – I certainly don’t like her, but I can also see why she is the way she is. She’s not at all happy with her lot in life, which I get, but I sure hope I’d have made a better go of it… Who knows?

      Sent from my iPhone

  • “Emma acts her life; she doesn’t live it.” This is such a great way to describe Emma. It touches on the hypocrisy I see in her and other characters.

    • Shelley: thanks! It really does seem an apt description. Already in Part 3, Leon seems to succumb to this as well. I can’t wait to see the wrap-ups this week.

      Sent from my iPhone