Study Guide

Madame Bovary Foolishness and Folly

By Gustave Flaubert

Foolishness and Folly

[Emma] considered herself much more unhappy now, for she had experienced grief and knew it would never end.

A woman who had imposed such great sacrifices on herself certainly had a right to indulge in a few whims. She bought herself a Gothic prie-dieu; she spent fourteen francs in one month on lemons with which to bleach her fingernails, she sent for a blue cashmere dress from Rouen; she bought the finest scarf in Lheureux’s shop. (II.7.5)

Emma is always sure that she knows best. Now that Léon is gone, her "grief" makes her feel like she’s really lived life. However, this is just a ridiculous excuse for the retail therapy she indulges in.

"Don’t you know there are some souls that are constantly tormented? They need dreams and action, one after the other, the purest passions, the most frenzied pleasures, and it leads them to throw themselves into all sorts of fantasies and follies." (II.8.40)

Here, Rodolphe attempts to tell Emma that her soul, one of these special ones that are always tormented, needs to give in to her desires – and to folly.

"I’m wrong, wrong!" she said. "I’m mad to listen to you!"

"Why? Emma! Emma!"

"Oh, Rodolphe," said the young woman slowly, leaning on his shoulder.

The broadcloth of her dress clung to the velvet of his coat. She tilted back her head and a long tremor ran through her body; weeping and hiding her face, she abandoned herself. (II.9.47-48)

Emma knows theoretically she’s "wrong" and "mad" to give in to Rodolphe’s advances, but she does anyway.

[…] she was becoming terribly sentimental. They had had to exchange miniatures and cut off locks of their hair, and she was now asking him for a ring, a real wedding ring, as a symbol of their eternal union. She often spoke to him about the "bells of evening" or the "voices of nature;" then she would tell him about her mother and ask about his. Rodolphe's mother had been dead for twenty years, but Emma kept consoling him in the affected language she would have used in speaking to a bereaved child; and sometimes she would even look up at the moon and say to him, "I’m sure they’re both up there together, and I know they approve of our love." (II.10.28)

Emma, given the opportunity, shows that she still has the same silly ideas about romance that she cultivated as a kid. She’s acting out the farcical part of a mistress in some trashy novel, and it makes her appear totally ridiculous to both us and Rodolphe.

[Monsieur Lheureux] talked with her about the latest items from Paris, about countless feminine novelties; he was extremely obliging and never asked for money. Emma abandoned herself to this easy way of satisfying all her whims. (II.12.12)

Sometimes we just want to grab Emma by the shoulders and shake her, yelling "Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!" This is one of those times. She just doesn’t seem to realize that buying things means that you’ll eventually be billed for them…

"What a fool I am!" he exclaimed, swearing violently. "Just the same, though, she was a pretty mistress!"

And Emma’s beauty, along with all the pleasures of their love, rushed back into his mind.

For a moment he was deeply moved, then he rebelled against her.

"After all," he cried, gesticulating, "I can’t go into exile and saddle myself with a child!" he told himself these things to strengthen his resolution. "And besides, all that trouble and expense […] Oh no! No, by God! That would be too stupid!" (II.12.58)

Rodolphe knows too well what the consequences of his actions are; he’s a selfish man who would rather be a cruel heartbreaker than a fool for love. Though he’s tempted to give in to emotion in the same wholehearted, vulnerable way Emma does, he knows better than to surrender to folly.

The sheets of the bed were sprinkled with holy water; the priest took the white Eucharistic host from the sacred pyx; and she was overcome with celestial bliss as she advanced her lips to receive the body of the Saviour […] She let her head fall back, thinking she heard the music of angelic harps coming to her through boundless space: and on a golden throne in an azure sky, amid saints holding green palm branches, God the Father appeared in all His majesty, motioning angels with wings of flame to descend to earth and bring her back in their arms. (II.14.5)

Now, don’t get us wrong – there’s absolutely nothing foolish about religion when people actually believe in it. Here, though, there’s no real belief. Emma falls under the spell of a melodramatic, romanticized version of Catholicism, that she mostly constructs out of her own imagination, just like she did with her love for Léon or for Rodolphe.

Lying became a need, a mania, a pleasure; so much so that if she said she had walked down the right side of a street the day before, it was almost certain that she had walked down the left. (III.5.56)

Emma knows just how dangerous her situation is, but she’s addicted to lying – it’s become second nature to her.

Emma became a little confused in her calculations, and her ears were ringing as though gold coins were bursting open their bags and raining down on the floor all around her. (III.5.74)

Emma is not exactly the world’s best accountant – instead of figuring out the financial mess she’s created for herself, she just gets confused and bogged down by all the numbers, which, trust us, is not the right response.

Sometimes, it is true, she tried to make a few calculations, but she always ended with such exorbitant figures that she could not believe them; she would then begin all over again, quickly become confused, drop the whole matter and forget about it. (III.6.58)

Forget about it? Seriously? We have to wonder what exactly Emma thinks is going to happen here…everyone has to face the proverbial music sometime, after all.