Study Guide

Emma Bovary in Madame Bovary

By Gustave Flaubert

Emma Bovary

So, the book is called Madame Bovary. It’s pretty straightforward. The book really is Madame Bovary; without Emma, it’s nothing. She provides its plot, much of its perspective, and she is the absolute center of the novel at all times. For this reason, we can’t really hate her, despite her many flaws. Sure, she can be selfish, greedy, arrogant, and totally irrational…but we still don’t give up on her entirely. We’re so involved in Emma’s inner life that it’s impossible to totally write her off.

This is the genius of Flaubert’s book: in Emma, he creates a character that’s so real and so amazingly close to us that she can’t totally alienate us, no matter what she does, and no matter how often he skewers her romantic ideas and roasts them on the fires of sarcasm. Heck, even after she pushes her own poor little infant child to the ground, we still go back for more. We don’t exactly forgive Emma for the things she does, but we stick with her story to the end, regardless of how we feel about her actions. By the novel’s end, we feel like we know her pretty darn well. But what do we really know about her? Let’s explore some aspects of her personality…

Emma the Dreamer

Sometimes it seems like Emma’s "real" life is actually the one she lives in her imagination. She’s a compulsive dreamer, and she truly seems to believe that the fantasy worlds she experiences in novels should be – and can be – real, given the right resources (as in, vast wealth). The problem with Emma’s active imaginary life is that it doesn’t quite jive with the world outside her mind; she simply refuses to believe that her idealistic, unrealistic, and childishly romantic conceptions of things like love, marriage, and, well, life in general aren’t real. The vast difference between the world she longs to live in and the world she actually lives in gradually makes her bitter and cynical, but no wiser.

Emma the Wife

Though Emma is fully capable of being a good wife and responsible mother on the outside, she just refuses to acknowledge that that’s all her life is destined to be. She genuinely feels as though her marriage with Charles is what ruined her entire life, and blames him for ever coming along and marrying her. She periodically settles down and attempts (often with adequate results) to be docile and domestic, but it never really catches hold – she always drifts off and wonders what other directions her life could go in.

What really disturbs Emma about married life is how consistent it is – which proves that she could never have been happy, regardless of who she married, or where she lived. The constant sense of intrigue and excitement she longs for is difficult to sustain in any walk of life, but she’s sure that it’s marriage that’s keeping her down. The baby, Berthe, makes matters even worse – Emma feels even more pressured and entrapped by the child, and has difficulty mustering up even the slightest smidgeon of genuine affection for the poor kid.

Emma the Mistress

In an attempt to board the thrilling, non-stop-roller-coaster of Life that she hopes to ride all the way to Unending Bliss, Emma becomes an enthusiastic mistress, first to Rodolphe, then to Léon. However, even adultery isn’t satisfactory for her after a while. The initial thrill of cheating gives way to the anxieties and nerve-wracking tensions of…well, real relationships.

Clearly Emma is not interested in real relationships of any kind – what she wants is the kind of adultery you read about in Harlequin Romances, the steamy affairs that never lose their risqué qualities and over-the-top passions. For this reason, Emma ends up just being an annoying mistress to both of her lovers; they’re irritated by her carping demands, and by her childish view of love.

However, we’re forgetting the thing that makes it possible for Emma go blundering through life as well as she does – she’s gorgeous. Her beauty is really her greatest asset, and it allows people to forgive her time and time again for her mistakes. She’s also charming and quite charismatic when she wants to be…she just doesn’t always want to be.

Emma the Financial Planner

This is by far the most infuriating aspect of Emma’s personality. Her comprehension of commerce is truly abysmal, yet Charles, ever conciliatory, allows her to take care of their affairs. What? Really? However you add it up, Emma’s money troubles are unavoidable. She makes matters worse by simply pretending that nothing’s going on, which is never a good idea.

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