Study Guide

Madame Bovary Freedom and Confinement

By Gustave Flaubert

Freedom and Confinement

Emma was inwardly pleased to feel that she had so quickly attained that rare ideal of a pale, languid existence, beyond the reach of mediocre spirits. (I.6.10)

Even as a young girl, Emma feels the need to escape from the world of "mediocre spirits" – that is, everyone else. She prides herself on breaking free from convention.

So they were going to continue like this, one after the other, always the same, innumerable, bringing nothing! In other people’s lives, dull as they might be, there was at least a chance that something might happen. One event sometimes had infinite ramifications and could change the whole setting of a person’s life. But God had willed that nothing should ever happen to her. The future was a long, dark corridor with only a locked door at the end. (I.9.22)

Emma’s life, now that she’s stuck in a marriage, seems like it offers no possible escape, or even variation.

"Doesn’t it seem to you," asked Madame Bovary, "that the mind moves more freely in the presence of that boundless expanse [the sea], that the sight of it elevates the soul and gives rise to thoughts of the infinite and the ideal?" (II.2.7)

In talking to Léon, Emma shares her views more openly – as though in conversation with him she feels the same freedom she describes here.

Sometimes, however, this hypocrisy became so repugnant to her that she was tempted to run away with Léon to some faraway place where she could begin a different life; but then she always felt as though some dark, mysterious abyss were opening up before her. (II.5.47)

The possibility of escape from Emma’s marriage with Charles isn’t a real possibility at all – she can’t imagine what the alternative is.

The whitish light coming in through the windowpanes wavered as it slowly died away. The furniture, standing in its usual place, seemed somehow more motionless, and lost in the shadows as in an ocean of darkness. There was no fire in the fireplace, the clock was still ticking, and Emma felt vaguely amazed that all those things should be so calm when there was such turmoil inside her. (II.5.21)

Emma feels trapped by the simple stillness of her own house; she longs to burst out of it to a more active world.

Emma squinted, trying to pick out her house, and never before had the wretched village she lived in seemed so small to her. (II.9.26)

Riding with Rodolphe, the tiny world Emma lives in seems even smaller and more restrictive than she’d previously thought.

Nothing around them had changed; and yet, for her, something more momentous had happened than if the mountains had been shoved aside. (II.9.50)

After her first taste of freedom (the consummation of her relationship with Rodolphe), it feels as though Emma is in a new world.

"Just think what it will be like when we’re in the stagecoach together! Can you imagine it? When the carriage begins to move I think I’ll feel as though we’re going up in a balloon, soaring up into the clouds." (II.12.36)

Emma anticipates the sense of freedom she longs for, and hopes to attain through her elopement with Rodolphe.

For Emma, there was something intoxicating in the sight of that vast concentration of life, and her heart swelled as though the hundred and twenty thousand souls palpitating there all sent her a breath of the passions she attributed to them. Her love expanded in that space, and filled itself with tumult from the vague clamor that floated up from below. (III.10.9)

Approaching Rouen, Emma feels a sense of possibility and excitement that contrasts markedly with the feeling of disgust and constraint she felt looking at Yonville from a distance.

Everything, including herself, seemed unbearable to her. She wished she could fly away like a bird and make herself young again somewhere in the vast purity of space. (III.6.82)

With the whole terrible wheel of debt set into motion, lonely and despairing Emma wishes she could escape the catastrophe that is her life – but of course, that’s impossible.