Study Guide

Madame Bovary Love

By Gustave Flaubert

Love

In her longing she confused the pleasures of luxury with the joys of the heart, elegant customs with refined feelings. Did not love, like Indian plants, require prepared soil and special temperatures? Sighs in the moonlight, long embraces, tears flowing onto yielding hands, all the fevers of the flesh and the languors of love – these things were inseparable from the balcony of a great castle in which life moved at a leisurely pace, from a boudoir with silk curtains, a thick carpet, filled flower stands and a bed mounted on a platform, from the sparkle of precious stones or the aiguillettes of liveried servants. (I.9.8)

Emma’s view of love, influenced by the novels she reads, is tied inextricably to atmosphere – she feels as though she can’t experience true love without the right setting, something of an odd and superficial claim.

Love, [Emma] felt, ought to come at once, with great thunderclaps and flashes of lightning; it was like a storm bursting upon life from the sky, uprooting it, overwhelming the will and sweeping the heart into the abyss. It did not occur to her that the rain forms puddles on a flat roof when drainpipes are clogged, and she would have continued to feel secure if she had not suddenly discovered a crack in the wall. (II.4.16)

Emma’s misconception of love leads her astray. Preoccupied by her idealistic view of how love "ought" to be, she doesn’t even recognize it when it creeps up on her gradually.

Then she asked herself, "Isn’t he in love with someone? Who could it be? […] Why, it’s me!"

All the evidence immediately became clear to her and her heart leapt. The flames in the fireplace cast a joyful, flickering light on the ceiling; she rolled over on her back and stretched out her arms.

Then began the eternal lament: "Oh, if only fate had willed it! Why can’t things have been different? What would have been wrong with it?" (II.5.9-11)

In addition to being tied to setting, love is also interchangeable with drama for Emma. As soon as she realizes that Léon is in love with her, she has to immediately wail and moan about the cruelty of fate, as is customary in the novels she reads.

She was in love with Léon, and she sought solitude because it allowed her to revel in thoughts of him at leisure. His actual presence disturbed the voluptuous pleasure of her reveries. Her heart palpitated at the sound of his footsteps, but her agitation always began to subside as soon as he appeared, and she was left with nothing but deep astonishment which eventually turned to sadness. (II.5.42)

Emma seems to be more in love with the idea of love than with Léon himself – she enjoys thinking about him, but not seeing him.

"Poor woman! She’s gasping for love like a carp gasping for water on a kitchen table. A few sweet words and she’d adore me, I’m sure of it! She’d be affectionate, charming […] Yes, but how could I get rid of her later?" (II.7.36)

Rodolphe, a masterful manipulator of feelings, recognizes the symptoms of a romantic disposition in Emma, and understands her immediately. His view of love is not as idealistic has hers; instead, he cynically realizes from the beginning that their affair has a very limited lifespan.

She repeated to herself, "I have a lover! I have a lover!" and the thought gave her a delicious thrill, as though she were beginning a second puberty. At last she was going to possess the joys of love, that fever of happiness she had despaired of ever knowing. She was entering a marvelous realm in which everything would be passion, ecstasy and rapture… (II.9.58)

As Rodolphe’s new mistress, Emma finally feels like all of the right circumstances have fallen into place (drama, passion, wealth) – she’s ready to experience love for the first time.

[Rodolphe] made her into something compliant and corrupt. She remained under the influence of a kind of idiotic infatuation, full of admiration for him and sensuality for herself, a blissful torpor; and her soul, sinking into that intoxication, shriveled and drowned like the Duke of Clarence in his butt of malmsey. (II.12.23)

This description of Emma’s love for Rodolphe is pretty repellent. Their love is not a respectful, beautiful mutual thing; instead, he treats her like an animal, and she, totally intoxicated by him, allows herself to be manipulated.

But disparaging those we love always detaches us from them to some extent. It is better not to touch our idols: the gilt comes off on our hands. (III.6.23)

Here, Flaubert touches upon a sad truth; once we start to pick out the flaws in the ones we love, they often lose their magic, and things start to fall apart.

[Léon] resented her continuous victory over him. He even tried to force himself to stop loving her, but as soon as he heard her footsteps he would feel helplessly weak, like a drunkard at the sight of liquor. (III.6.25)

Now Léon is the one in intoxicated thrall to his lover. Just as Emma was powerless in her relationship with Rodolphe, so too is Léon here. He’s addicted to Emma, despite his longing to escape from her.

[…] she saw another man, a phantom composed of her most ardent memories, her strongest desires and the most beautiful things she had read. He finally became so real, so accessible, that she was thrilled and amazed, even though she was never able to imagine him clearly, for his form, like that of a god, was lost in the abundance of his attributes. He lived in that nebulous realm where silk ladders swing from balconies bathed in moonlight and the fragrance of flowers. She felt him hear her; he was about to come and sweep her away entirely in a kiss. Then she would fall back to earth, shattered, for these vague amorous raptures tired her more than the wildest orgies. (III.6.74)

Even after her carefully-constructed visions of love have been shot down, Emma continues to rebuild them, only now with a wholly imaginary lover at their center.