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In spring, when Charles’s mourning period for his first
wife has ended, he marries Emma. The wedding is a huge event all
around Rouault’s farm, and the guests come dressed in fancy clothes
that they are not used to. After the wedding, they all return to
the farm in a long and festive procession that stretches out “like
one long coloured scarf that undulated across the fields.” They
consume a massive all-night feast that includes an incredibly elaborate
three-tiered wedding cake. The next day, after the wedding night,
Charles is obviously overjoyed. Emma takes her loss of virginity
calmly and coolly in stride. As the couple departs for their home
in Tostes, Rouault reminisces about the happiness of his own wedding
Back in Tostes, Emma inspects her new home, where she
makes Charles remove his dead wife’s dried bridal bouquet from the
bedroom. As Emma plans further small improvements to the house, Charles
dotes on her in a daze of love and happiness. Emma, on the other
hand, feels strangely dissatisfied by her new life—she always expected
marriage to lead her to romantic bliss. Instead, she feels that
her life has fallen short of the high expectations she received from
romantic novels: “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. And 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.”
Emma remembers life in the convent where she was educated.
At first, she threw herself into religious life, treating religion
with the same passion she devoted to reading romantic novels and
listening to ballads of love. When her mother died, she immersed
herself even more passionately into her grief. It pleased her to
think of herself as an example of pure melancholy. But she soon
grew tired of mourning and eventually left the convent. For a while,
she enjoyed life on her father’s farm, but she soon found herself
bored and disgusted with her life. In this state of disillusionment,
she first met Charles, but he did not provide the happy escape for
which she had hoped.
Flaubert’s shifting of the point of view from character
to character follows the pattern of the novel’s plot. After Charles
marries Emma, her point of view takes over. This shift in perspective
begins at the end of Chapter V and coincides with the contrast between
Charles’s blind love for Emma and her own disillusionment. In Emma’s
meditation on her marital dissatisfaction, we catch our first real
glimpse of her thoughts, and the stage is set for the escalating
crisis of personality that will eventually claim her life.
A third-person narrator tells the story throughout most
of Madame Bovary, focusing primarily on Emma’s
thoughts and actions. However, the narrator’s point of view does
change, and the narrator adopts several different tones. The narrator
frequently speaks as an outsider, commenting objectively, but also
shows us things subjectively through the characters’ eyes, telling
us what they feel and think. Flaubert often employs free indirect
discourse, a technique in which the narrator’s words sound very
much like the thoughts and speech patterns of one of the characters,
even when the narrator is not directly quoting the character. For
example, when Rouault remembers his wedding in Chapter IV, Flaubert writes,
“How long ago it all was! Their son would have been thirty by now.
Then he looked back and saw nothing on the road.” The narration
moves directly from transcription of Rouault’s thought to description
of his action, without setting the thought apart in quotation marks.
As a result, we must often stop to consider whether we are hearing
the voice of the narrator or that of a character.
One of Emma’s most important characteristics is the conflict between
her romantic nature and her tendency toward discontent. Emma’s flashback
shows how far back her taste for romance extends. Even at age thirteen,
she was unable to resist the melancholy, romantic atmosphere of
the convent and steeped herself in romantic novels and songs, whose
stories she desperately wished would be realized in her own life.
Emma, however, is easily discontented. Things that she believes
will save her, such as the convent, the farm, and married life,
always fail to fulfill her desires. Her high spirits after the wedding,
for instance, fall the moment she encounters Heloise’s bridal bouquet
in Charles’s house, and she immediately begins to wonder why her
life does not match the sentimental fictions she had expected to
Flaubert is often considered a realist writer. Realists
challenged their romantic predecessors by writing books that focused
on the details of everyday life without turning a blind eye to their
dreary aspects. Flaubert participates in this movement by describing
his characters’ emotions, actions, and settings vividly and without romantic
or fantastic embellishment. The wedding scene that takes up almost
all of Chapter IV is a classic example of what makes Flaubert a
realist. The wedding is a setting that Flaubert describes painstakingly.
He writes about every part of the celebration, often merely listing
item after item. He tells what kinds of vehicles the guests arrive
in, how they wear their hair, what fabrics their clothes are made
of, and how they appear physically. His description of the feast
is so elaborate that it seems like there’s far too much food for just
forty-three guests to eat. Flaubert doesn’t just rattle off details. He
also implicitly comments on their social value. When he tells us about
the young girls, “their hair greasy with rose-pomade, and very much
afraid of dirtying their gloves,” we can see how awkward and unrefined
they are. In describing the country people’s attempts to dress up,
Flaubert pokes fun at their efforts.
Such subtle commentary on the traits of minor characters
is just one of the ways in which Flaubert frames Madame
Bovary as a critical portrait of bourgeois life. In Chapter
VI, he writes that Emma loves the flowers and icons of her religion,
but that real spiritual faith is “alien to her constitution.” This
statement shows that Emma, for all her pretensions to great sentiment,
is really incapable of deep feeling. The narrator’s remark also
satirizes bourgeois churchgoers who make a great show of religion
but possess little genuine piety.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Madame Bovary!