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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
Ace your assignments with our guide to Madame Bovary!