In Emma Bovary, Flaubert uses irony to criticize romanticism and to investigate the relation of beauty to corruption and of fate to free will. Emma embarks directly down a path to moral and financial ruin over the course of the novel. She is very beautiful, as we can tell by the way several men fall in love with her, but she is morally corrupt and unable to accept and appreciate the realities of her life. Since her girlhood in a convent, she has read romantic novels that feed her discontent with her ordinary life. She dreams of the purest, most impossible forms of love and wealth, ignoring whatever beauty is present in the world around her. Flaubert once said, “Madame Bovary is me,” and many scholars believe that he was referring to a weakness he shared with his character for romance, sentimental flights of fancy, and melancholy. Flaubert, however, approaches romanticism with self-conscious irony, pointing out its flaws even as he is tempted by it. Emma, on the other hand, never recognizes that her desires are unreasonable. She rails emotionally against the society that, from her perspective, makes them impossible for her to achieve.
Emma’s failure is not completely her own. Her character demonstrates the many ways in which circumstance—rather than free will—determined the position of women in the nineteenth century. If Emma were as rich as her lover, Rodolphe, for instance, she would be free to indulge the lifestyle she imagines. Flaubert suggests at times that her dissatisfaction with the bourgeois society she lives in is justified. For example, the author includes details that seem to ridicule Homais’s pompous speechmaking or Charles’s boorish table manners. These details indicate that Emma’s plight is emblematic of the difficulties of any sensitive person trapped among the French bourgeoisie. But Emma’s inability to accept her situation and her attempt to escape it through adultery and deception constitute moral errors. These mistakes bring about her ruin and, in the process, cause harm to innocent people around her. For example, though dim-witted and unable to recognize his wife’s true character, Charles loves Emma, and she deceives him. Similarly, little Berthe is but an innocent child in need of her mother’s care and love, but Emma is cold to her, and Berthe ends up working in a cotton mill because of Emma’s selfish spending and suicide, and because of Charles’s resulting death.
We can see that Emma’s role as a woman may have an even greater effect on the course of her life than her social status does. Emma is frequently portrayed as the object of a man’s gaze: her husband’s, Rodolphe’s, Leon’s, Justin’s—even Flaubert’s, since the whole novel is essentially a description of how he sees Emma. Moreover, Emma’s only power over the men in her life is sexual. Near the end of her life, when she searches desperately for money, she has to ask men for it, and the only thing she can use to persuade them to give it to her is sex. Emma’s prostitution is the result of her self-destructive spending, but the fact that, as a woman, she has no other means of finding money is a result of the misogynistic society in which she lives.
Charles represents both the society and the personal characteristics that Emma detests. He is incompetent, stupid, and unimaginative. In one of the novel’s most revelatory moments, Charles looks into Emma’s eyes and sees not her soul but rather his own image, reflected in miniature. Charles’s perception of his own reflection is not narcissistic but merely a simple, direct sensation, unmediated by romantic notions. The moment demonstrates his inability to imagine an idealized version of the world or find mystic qualities in the world’s physical aspects. Instead, he views life literally and never imbues what he sees with romantic import. Thus it is the physical aspects of Emma that delight Charles. When the narrative focuses on his point of view, we see every detail of her dress, her skin, and her hair. When it comes to her aspirations and depressions, however, Charles is at a loss. He nods and smiles dumbly as Emma conducts the same sorts of conversations with him that she does with her dog. Charles is too stupid to manage his money well or to see through Emma’s obvious lies, and he is a frighteningly incompetent doctor. In one scene, as he goes to repair Rouault’s leg, we learn that he is trying desperately to “call to mind all the fractures he [knows].” His operation on Hippolyte’s clubfoot, while it is not his idea, is a complete failure. Charles is more than merely incompetent, however. He is physically repulsive, though it’s hard to tell from Flaubert’s descriptions whether he is actually an ugly man or whether he appears disgusting only through Emma’s eyes.
Despite his unimaginative nature, Charles is one of the novel’s most moral and sincere characters. He truly loves Emma, forgiving her even when he finally recognizes her infidelities. He does everything he can to save her when she is ill, and he gives her the benefit of the doubt whenever her lies seem to fail her. Literal-minded, humble, free of temptations, and without aspirations, Charles is Emma’s opposite. While she possesses some beauty, sensitivity, and intelligence despite her moral corruption, Charles remains good-hearted despite his boorishness and stupidity.
Although Homais is not central to the plot of Madame Bovary, he is an absolutely essential part of its atmosphere. He is a pompous speechmaker, endlessly rattling on about medical techniques and theories that he really knows nothing about. His presence serves, in part, to heighten our sense of Emma’s frustration with her life. Flaubert relates Homais’s speeches in full, forcing us to read them just as Emma is forced to listen to them. Homais is also an extremely selfish man. When the Bovarys first arrive in Yonville, we learn that he is only befriending Charles because he wants Charles to turn a blind eye to his disreputable medical practices.
In the last sentence of the book, Homais receives the Legion of Honor, a medal he has always dreamed of attaining, after Emma and Charles are both dead. Meanwhile, Charles—who loved his wife as deeply as he was capable—and Emma—who yearned to live an exceptional life—are both punished. By rewarding Homais, Flaubert does not advocate his kind of life. Instead, he shows us a realistic portrayal of one of the most disappointing aspects of the world—that the mediocre and the selfish often fare better than either those who live passionately and try to be exceptional or those who live humbly and treat others with kind generosity.
Emma's behaviour could be explored as an effect of sexual selection, which is a form of selection that drives Evolution. Similar to Peacocks, where teh females choose the most attractive mate for reproduction, Emma wants a more attractive and intresting man to pass on her genetic inheritance.
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