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Now that we’ve had a tour of the Bovary household, it’s time for a tour of Emma’s inner landscape. Fade out to a flashback…
Emma is a dreamy, romantic child, and is perhaps too heavily influenced by Paul and Virginia, a popular and super-utopian novel about two siblings stranded on a desert island.
At age thirteen, Emma is sent to a convent school, where she quickly falls in love with the mystical, aesthetic atmosphere of the religious life; she devotes herself to the ceremonies and artistic poses of convent life.
We can see where this is heading. The things Emma likes best about religion aren’t what you’d hope or expect – you know, stuff like God or faith. Instead, she is really into the romantic aspects of it; metaphors for the nun’s relationship with God like "betrothed" and "heavenly lover" (I.6.5) really get her going.
At the convent, Emma meets an old lady with an aristocratic background (her family was ruined by the Revolution, and she worked at the convent as a seamstress). She introduces Emma to novels – and thus to a whole new world of swoony romantic dreams. As she does her work, the girls listen to her stories and read the romance novels she carries around in her apron pocket.
Soon enough, Emma’s attentions turn from religious ecstasy to dreams of historical romance. She wishes she could live the life she read about in her books.
Emma’s mother dies while Emma is away at school; the girl is dramatically sad for a little while, but is kind of secretly pleased at herself for being so sensitive.
The nuns worry that they've lost Emma – they'd assumed that she would join the sisterhood. She rebells against their attempts to draw her back in, and ends up leaving the convent. As Flaubert states pointedly, "no one was sorry to see her go" (I.VI.13).
Back home, Emma enjoys playing lady of the manor and ordering the servants around for a while. However, she gets sick of it soon enough and – surprise, surprise – misses the convent. By the time Charles appears on the scene, she feels cynical and experienced (though she really hasn’t done anything).
She actually believes that she’s in love with Charles – but we get the feeling that she would have felt the same way about any guy who happened to wander into her life at that time. Unsurprisingly, now that they’re married, she’s unsettled and discontented.