“The priest….dipped his right thumb in the oil,and began the unctions :first upon the eyes,which had coveted worldly splendours ;then upon the nostrils,so greedy for warm breezes and amorous perfumes; then upon the mouth,which had uttered lying words,which had groaned with pride and cried out in lustfulness; then upon the hands,which had found delight in sensual touches; and finally upon the soles of the feet,so swift ere now in running towards the satisfaction of her desires...“
Flaubert’s masterpiece Madame Bovary traces the story of a capricious but complexly irresistible woman,named Emma.He paints the perfect picture of the provincial society with it’s unpleasant reality,in his famous painstaking style.It’s a fact that much has been written about Flaubert’s attitude to Emma;also his use of free indirect discourse entering into the consciousness of his characters.Flaubert doesn’t tell,he ‘shows’.
Emma,the amazingly charming woman,who grows up on a romantic diet is shattered when her marriage to a country doctor doesn’t approximate to her thought of happiness.She’s left lonely and utterly dissatisfied with her banal life with an unambitious and gormless man:
“Before marriage she thought herself in love; but since the happiness that should have followed failed to come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words bliss, passion, ecstasy, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.”
|A depiction of Madame Bovary|
She’s a total misfit in the society and the time period in which she’s born.For her,her world of imagination is far more pleasing than the reality.Thus,she simply refuses to grow out of her fanciful world to the cruel reality.As Henry James puts it,she’s “a victim of of her imaginative habit”. The foolishly romantic books she read affirm her belief in her fancies.On the other hand,is her boorish husband,an imaginative simpleton who is complacent with his monotonous life.Now,Emma isn’t a demure lady.Undoubtedly,it’s a lollapalooza of a ride for the readers,immersed in Flaubert’s style as he describes Emma’s journey.
Charles is smitten by his angelic wife,but fails to look into her soul,to dig deep beneath the pretty exterior.
Emma is fed up of her mundane life.Her scorn is actually the writer’s scorn for the bourgeoise,the selfish,hypocritical,vulgar and corrupt bourgeoise.A free thinking and adventurous woman,she feels stifled in a society that is rigid,restrictive and unforgiving.
Charles Augustin Saint-Beuve describes it,”..in this milieu,she feels alien and oppressed;she suffers so much in solitude that she’s altered and degraded.In pursuing the false dream and absent beauty she gradually reaches ruin and depravation.” After attending an extravagant ball,the dreariness of her life becomes even more apparent and her health and temperament starts deteriorating.Albeit,mentally incompatible,Charles and Emma have physical affinity.Thus,for the better health of now pregnant Emma,they opt for a change of setting and shift to another town,named Yonville-l’Abbaye.This is where the real action of the story begins.Here,they meet Homais,the manipulative and self-serving pharmacist and Leon,the young law clerk,who turns out to be Emma’s kindred spirit.They discover mutual love for passion and romance and find each others company a pleasant change from the otherswise dull routine.Rumours spread about their affair but it’s hardy a deterrent.
Soon,Emma gives birth to a girl,Berthe,but even this cannot arouse any maternal tenderness in her.Berthe is merely a thing to be showed off on occasions.Emma’s intimacy with Leon grows but their sexual innocency and inhibitions prevent them from having a full-fledged affair.Consequently,there’s a turnabout in Emma’s behaviour,who starts becomes obsequious and play-acts the role of a good wife,trying to develop feelings of a martyr.
Emma tries her best to revive her unhappy marriage,but only gets more repulsed by Charles.She feels like she’s stuck in a quagmire of despondency:
“What exasperates her more than anything was that her husband seemed totally oblivious of her torture.”
Even the priest cannot be of any help to her.
Leon,thereafter,leaves Yonville,leaving Emma restless,tormented and burning in desire.
But soon enough,she meets another handsome bachelor,a suave pseudo-aristocratic,Rodolphe Boulanger de la Huchette,who notices quickly Emma’s pulchritude and seduces her on the day of agricultural fair.
Rodolphe is a man of the world,and rightly makes out Emma’s loneliness and vulnerability.He plans to exploit this naive woman and exhibits himself as a melancholy man;abhorrent of the complacent bourgeoise.It’s conspicuous that Rodolphe’s winning over Emma is just another sexual conquest for him.
But Emma is ignorant of Rodolphe’s deceptions.She’s completely besotted by his smooth talk about “passion”,”dreams” and their “destiny” to be together.Rodolphe,almost obtrusively,expresses his love to Emma,something Leon could never do.Emma’s flights of fancy find a strong base in Rodolphe’s oaths of love.They have a tumultuous and sexually aggressive affair,which proves to be a transformative experience for Emma.She is no more pusillanimous in her approach towards adultery as her romantic aspirations are joined with sexual satisfaction.She thinks herself to be in love and that she has got her due.There are no qualms of conscience in her even in this precarious situation.She decided to elope with him,but her suffocating desires make Rodolphe flinch,who abandons her,leaving her in a state of unmitigated despair.She reads Rodolphe’s “masterpiece of insincerity” and falls terribly ill,making Charles distraught.
But Emma’s romantic aspirations don’t abate.
After three years,Emma and Charles happen to meet Leon on a visit to Rouen and henceforth,Leon and Emma rekindle their liaison,but this time,both of them are bolder and soon enough,their relationship turns carnal.
Emma is quite proactive in this relationship as she’s strategically inclined,almost treating him like a play thing,often calling him “child”.Their amative activities are blatant and Emma turns even more thrifty,eventually falling in a debt-trap.
Nevertheless,they get bored of each other and look for ways to put an end to their adulterous relationship that has started to seem a lot like a prosaic marriage, inspite of the passionate love making sessions.
Till now,Emma has borrowed a great deal from Lhereux and unable to repay,tries to use her feminine guiles to charm anyone who’s willing to give her money-Lhereux,bankers,Leon,Rodolphe,the notary,but she receives no help,just scornful comments from the town women.
Thus,at time of need, no one is with Emma,except her husband,with a cow-like devotion.Emma realises the double-standard of the provincial society and her lowly position as a woman.Emma,finding no way, commits suicide to end her problems.She’s a victim of a string of disappointments and “her death is her final disappointment”.Her whole being,full of senses,finally find tranquillity.Swallowing of arsenic satisfies her hungers.
Her frantic efforts to fulfil her sensual desires are her ruin.But she definitely leaves an indelible imprint on the reader’s mind.
One obviously has an ambivalent towards towards Emma.
We are greatly contemptuous towards her schizophrenic behaviour,immaturity and whimsical disposition.
But we sympathise with her,against the narrow-minded outlook and ruthlessness of bourgeoise,her desires to get more out of the life than she is probably allowed.
Flaubert‘s realistic powers reach their pinnacle during the description of Emma‘s death.His unattached narrative strips the glamour off adultery and Emma‘s sensibility.But he doesn’t punish Emma for it either.She dies to escape the debt trap.
It’s on this character that the English term “bovarism” has been coined.
Lastly,as Flaubert insisted ‘Madame Bovary,c’est moi‘,all of us have a bit of Madame Bovary ,whether we like to admit it or not;and that is the reason Flaubert is still widely read.