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Rodolphe has decided not to elope with Emma. The sexual
pleasure she provides, he decides, will not be enough to offset
the inconvenience and drain of being constantly in her company.
As he contemplates the best way of telling her, he reminisces about
his former mistresses. He then writes Emma a letter in which he
says that because he loves her so much, he must break off their
affair, because all he can offer her is pain. His letter is a fabrication,
but he feels it will satisfy Emma and minimize the inconvenience
to him of ending the affair. He has the letter delivered to Emma
concealed at the bottom of a basket of apricots.
When Emma receives the letter, she is devastated. Reading
the letter in the attic, she contemplates throwing herself out the
window, but stops when she hears Charles calling her. In her agitated state,
she leaves the letter there, forgetting to conceal it. That night, as
Charles eats the apricots Rodolphe has sent, Emma sees Rodolphe’s
carriage drive by on its way out of town, and she faints. She declares
that she wants to see no one, not even her daughter. She develops
a high fever and remains close to death for the next month and a
half. Charles calls in doctors from all over the region, but none of
them can cure her. By October, however, Emma begins to recover her
Charles has a number of worries. Emma’s ill health terrifies
him, and his financial situation is becoming increasingly dire.
The doctors are very expensive, and when Lheureux presents him with
a list of Emma’s debts, Charles is forced to borrow the money from
Lheureux at very high interest in order to pay them off. Meanwhile, Emma,
who believes she has had a religious epiphany during her illness,
rediscovers the Catholic fervor of her youth. She prays devoutly
and is kinder to both Charles and Berthe. But her religion disappoints
her. Although she is as passionately devoted to religious practice
as she once was to Rodolphe, she finds it offers her none of the
same ecstasies. She maintains her practice and kind demeanor, however,
becoming friendly with the villagers, including Justin, who by now
is completely in love with her. Other frequent visitors are the tax
collector, Binet, who offers advice on uncorking cider bottles, and
Homais, who suggests that Charles take Emma to the opera in Rouen.
The priest and the pharmacist argue over whether or not the theater
is moral—Bournisien claiming that it is irreligious and Homais defending
it. Eventually, thinking it will benefit Emma’s health, Charles
decides to take her to the opera.
At the opera, Emma finds herself again embarrassed by
Charles’s unsophisticated behavior, preoccupied with the desire
to seem cosmopolitan and aristocratic. But she enjoys the opera
a great deal; it reminds her of the romantic novels of her youth
and makes her think about events in her own life. At intermission,
she is stunned to hear that Leon is in the crowd. She, Charles,
and Leon go to a café. Charles and Leon talk, and Emma is highly
impressed by the sophistication Leon has acquired since moving to
Paris. Leon begins to ridicule the opera but when he learns that
Emma might stay in Rouen in order to see the second half, he praises
it rapturously. Charles suggests that Emma stay the next day to
see the rest of the opera while he returns to Yonville.
Throughout the novel, Emma undergoes ethical development
cyclically. She tends to switch from romantic indulgence to dissatisfaction,
misery, and illness to moral resolve, and then begins the cycle again
with a new romantic indulgence. This cycle is evident in her relationship
with Rodolphe. After Rodolphe cuts off their affair, she becomes
religious. Her insincere piety gives way to romantic yearnings,
and when she meets Leon at the opera, she is ready to renew their
fledgling romance. This cycle, however, cannot last forever, and
when she receives Rodolphe’s letter, her suicidal thoughts darkly
foreshadow her future. Another element of foreshadowing in this
scene is never fully realized, however. Emma discards Rodolphe’s
note carelessly unconcealed in the attic, but trustworthy Charles
never suspects her infidelities, and, even when he later finds the
note, he naively reckons it refers to platonic friendship.
Although this emotional cycle may seem like a reason
to condemn Emma, her heartbreak and subsequent illness are in some ways
a product of the society in which she lives. Rodolphe himself blames
the end of their affair on “fate,” but Rodolphe does have control
over the end of the love affair. As a wealthy man, he has much more
power than Emma. As a woman with no way to support herself, Emma
can’t gain freedom by leaving Charles, nor does she have the means
to pursue Rodolphe. Furthermore, Rodolphe’s life of ease, combined
with his status as a man, allows him great sexual liberty. He has
had so many lovers that he is detached and cold. As a result, he
can abandon Emma with no great feelings of regret.
The scene in which Rodolphe writes his letter to Emma
exemplifies Flaubert’s ironic combination of humor and pity. The
text of the letter itself is ridiculous, full of high sentiment
and exclamation points. In a sense, it is exactly the sort of letter
that the maudlin Emma might wish for. But Flaubert emphasizes the
insincerity of the words by depicting Rodolphe’s thoughts as he
composes the letter. For example, when Rodolphe writes, “fate is
to blame!” he thinks, “that’s a word that always helps.” By contrasting
self--congratulatory comments like this one with the overblown romanticism
of the letter itself, Flaubert heightens the insincerity of Rodolphe’s
sentiments. At the same time, he points out how deceptive the written
word can be, which reflects not only on Rodolphe, but on Flaubert
himself in his role as a writer.
Flaubert’s awareness of the power of written language
to deceive makes him cautious not to imbue his descriptions with
too much heavy-handed commentary. As he describes Emma’s religious
ardor, he writes almost like a reporter, carefully describing actions
without venturing any comments on them. But Flaubert makes his thoughts understood
even while maintaining an apparently objective tone. By using the
technique of juxtaposition—that is, by putting Rodolphe’s thoughts
beside his words—Flaubert conveys the character’s malice and insincerity.
Elsewhere he deploys words ironically in unexpected contexts to
achieve similarly subtle effects. In the statement, “[Emma] fancied
herself seized with the finest Catholic melancholy,” the lighthearted
words “fancied herself” undermine the seriousness of Emma’s emotions,
making it clear that Flaubert judges his heroine’s sentiments to
be somewhat ridiculous. He uses a similar technique later, to let
us know that the opera Emma likes so much is really a mediocre production.
He writes, “Lucie bravely attacked her cavatina in G major,” and
with this simple phrase we realize that the singer is no great soprano,
but just a chorus girl trying to sing difficult opera.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Madame Bovary!