Emma’s struggle with her conscience, as she tries to do her best to become a dutiful wife and mother even as she is tempted by a romance with Leon, ultimately amounts to her indulgence of the romantic role of the martyr. But when she shoves her infant daughter away from her in a fit of annoyance, she can no longer pretend to be a dutiful family woman. She is saved from an infidelity with Leon only by his decision to leave for Paris. The incident with Berthe demonstrates Emma’s inability to embrace maternal instincts. Just before she pushes her daughter, she stares at her with disgust, regarding her more as a foreign object—a piece of furniture or an animal—than as her own child.
The conversation between Emma and the priest offers Flaubert a chance to poke fun at the superficial nature of religion among the bourgeoisie. When Emma turns to the priest, she is in real need of help. But the Abbé Bournisien is preoccupied not with spiritual matters but with petty banalities: the rowdiness of his pupils and his daily rounds. When Emma says, “I am suffering,” he misunderstands her, and assumes that she is referring to the summer heat. The scene is humorous, but it also criticizes the church sharply, implying that it can only provide surface comforts and cannot minister to Emma’s very real spiritual need.
Madame Bovary became so famous in part because of its innovative narrative technique. Flaubert matches his prose style to his narrative subject with remarkable accuracy. When Emma is bored, the text seems to crawl; when she is engaged, it flies. Flaubert widens the symbolic reach of his novel with the development of Homais, a character perfectly conceived to represent all that Flaubert hates about the new bourgeoisie. And he introduces foreshadowing when the sinister Lheureux hints to Emma that he is a moneylender.