Study Guide

Madame Bovary Dissatisfaction

By Gustave Flaubert

Dissatisfaction

She had bought herself a blotter, a writing case, a pen and some envelopes, although she had no one to write to; she would dust off her whatnot, look at herself in the mirror, pick up a book, then begin to daydream between the lines and let it fall to her lap. She longed to travel, or to go back and live in the convent. She wanted both to die and to live in Paris. (I.9.13)

Bored with married life, Emma can’t focus enough to commit to any hobbies. Her longing to live in Paris, which she thinks is the only place for her, is only rivaled by her melodramatic (and insincere) death wish.

[…] in the depths of her soul, she was waiting for something to happen. Like a sailor in distress, she kept scanning the solitude of her life with anxious eyes, straining to sight some far-off white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know how it would come to her, what wind would bring it to her, to what shores it would carry her, whether it would be a launch or a towering three-decker, laden with sorrow or filled to the gunwales with bliss. But every morning when she awoke she expected it to arrive that day; she listened to every sound, periodically leapt to her feet with a start and was surprised when she saw it had not come; then, at sundown, sadder than ever, she longed for the next day. (I.9.19)

Emma is certain that something great is destined to happen to her. However, day after day, nothing ever happens. We are forced to wonder how long she can maintain this futile optimism for…

This was the fourth time she had gone to bed in a strange place. The first was the day she entered the convent, the second was the day she arrived in Tostes, the third at La Vaubyessard, and now the fourth; and each one had marked the beginning of a new phase of her life. She did not believe that things could be the same in different places; and since her life so far had been bad, the remainder of it would surely be better. (II.2.17)

Reflecting upon her short life so far, Emma is sure that the worst is over (even though nothing particularly horrible has happened to her so far) – she’s sure that her life is still waiting to really begin.

Léon was tired of loving without having anything to show for it; and then he was beginning to feel that dejection which comes from a routine life when there is no interest to guide it or hope to sustain it. He was so bored with Yonville that the sight of certain people and certain houses irritated him almost to the breaking point; and the pharmacist, good-natured though he might be, was becoming completely unbearable to him. And yet the prospect of a new situation frightened him as much as it delighted him. (II.6.34)

Emma’s not the only dissatisfied one in this book. Dissatisfaction, it seems, not so terribly uncommon in small-town life. Léon, who is, like Emma, young, romantic, and a little foolish, has the same longing for something new, but is afraid to go out and get it.

What happiness there had been in those days! What freedom! What hope! What an abundance of illusions! She had none left now. Each new venture had cost her some of them, each of her successive conditions: as virgin, wife and mistress; she had lost them all along the course of her life, like a traveler who leaves some of his wealth at every inn along the road. (II.10.35)

Again, Emma finds herself at a crossroads. She’s lost the optimism of her early youth, and now just feels a dull resignation.

This was how they wished they had been: each was creating an ideal into which he was now fitting his past life. Speech is a rolling mill which always stretches out the feelings that go into it. (III.1.15)

Upon their reunion, Emma and Léon both try to create new versions of the past few years, narrating things the way they want to see them, rather than how they really happened.

[Charles] seemed to her contemptible, weak and insignificant, a poor man in every sense of the word. How could she get rid of him? What an endless evening! She felt numb, as though she had been overcome by opium fumes. (III.2.35)

Emma is overwhelmed with disgust anew by Charles, after her blissful reunion with Léon. Her marriage is compared here to the dulling effect of opium…seriously not a good thing for any relationship.

She always assured herself that her next trip would bring her profound bliss, but afterward she would have to admit that she had felt nothing extraordinary. Her disappointment would soon be wiped away by new hope, and she would come back to him more ardent and avid than ever. She would eagerly throw off her clothes, pulling her thin corset string so violently that it hissed like a snake winding itself around her hips. After she had tiptoed barefoot to the door to make sure once again that it was locked, she would let all her clothes fall in a single movement; then, pale, silent and solemn, she would fling herself on his chest and a long tremor would run through her body.

And yet, in that forehead covered with beads of cold sweat, in those stammering lips, those wild eyes and those clutching arms, Léon felt the presence of something mad, shadowy, and ominous, something that seemed to be subtly slipping between them, as though to separate them. (III.6.23-24)

Léon and Emma both seem to know that things are not right with their relationship – Emma tries to cover it up by simply trying to convince herself otherwise, but Léon can see the real cracks in the foundation.

The first months of her marriage, her rides in the forest, her waltzes with the viscount, Lagardy singing – everything passed before her eyes […] And Léon suddenly appeared to her as remote as the others.

"But I do love him!" she said to herself.

No matter: she was not happy, and never had been. Why was life so unsatisfying? Why did everything she leaned on instantly crumble into dust? […] nothing was worth seeking – everything was a lie! Each smile hid a yawn of boredom, each joy a curse, each pleasure its own disgust; and the sweetest kisses only left on one’s lips a hopeless longing for a higher ecstasy. (III.6.29-30)

Yet again, Emma looks back, mourning the opportunities she lost. Now, her perspective is far more cynical than ever before: she’s sure that no real man can offer her the ideal love she longs for.

She was now living in a state of profound and constant lassitude. She often received writs, documents bearing official stamps, but she scarcely even looked at them. She wished she could stop living entirely, or sleep continuously. (III.6.75)

This is where things start to really go downhill, fast. At the beginning of the book, Emma claimed to be so bored she could die, and we didn’t believe her – here, though, we worry that she means it.