Study Guide

Madame Bovary Repression

By Gustave Flaubert

Repression

Metaphorical expressions such as "betrothed," "spouse," "heavenly lover," and "eternal wedlock," which constantly recur in sermons, stirred previously unknown depths of sweet emotion in her soul. (I.6.4)

As a young girl in the convent school, all of Emma’s fledgling physical desires are channeled into her religious fervor, and not allowed to exhibit themselves in any way.

She played boldly, sweeping up and down the keyboard without faltering. Thus shaken by her vigorous touch, the old instrument, whose strings jangled, could be heard at the other end of the village if the window was open […] (I.7.6)

All of Emma’s aggression, given no other outlet, is unleashed upon the unfortunate old piano.

The housewives all admired [Emma] for her thriftiness, Charles’s patients for her courtesy, the poor for her generosity.

Yet she was full of covetous desires, anger and hatred. The smooth folds of her dress concealed a tumultuous heart, and her modest lips told nothing of her torment. She was in love with Léon, and she sought solitude because it allowed her to revel in thoughts of him at leisure. (II.5.41-42)

Here, Emma demonstrates her ability to go along with society’s rules on the surface, while she thinks naughty thoughts on the inside. We have to wonder how long she can keep up this tense dual life.

[…] the more clearly aware of her love she became, the more she tried to repress it in order to conceal and diminish it. She wished Léon would guess it, and she imagined chance circumstances that would have facilitated its consummation. She was no doubt held back by indolence or fear, and also by shame. She felt that she had kept him at too great a distance, that it was now too late, that all was lost. Furthermore, the pride and pleasure she felt when she said to herself "I’m virtuous," or watched herself in the mirror as she struck various poses of resignation, consoled her a little for the sacrifice she thought she was making. (II.5.43)

Emma is torn here between pain and pleasure; she is pleased by her sense of self-sacrifice, but longs for an expression of the feelings she’s bottled up inside.

The drabness of her daily life made her dream of luxury, her husband’s conjugal affection drove her to adulterous desires. She wished he would beat her so that she could feel more justified in hating him and taking vengeance upon him. She was sometimes amazed by the horrible conjectures that came into her mind; and yet she had to go on smiling, hearing herself told over and over that she was lucky, pretending to be happy, letting everyone believe it! (II.5.46)

Everyone else’s insistence that Emma has a great life drives her crazy – but there’s nothing she can do about it. The thing is, she does theoretically have everything that should make a woman happy…she’s not supposed to have the desires that torment her, according to the rules of society.

She cursed herself for not having surrendered to her love for Léon; she thirsted for his lips. She longed to suddenly run after him, to throw herself in his arms and say to him, "Here I am: I’m yours!" But she was discouraged in advance by the difficulties of such an action, and her desire, augmented by regret, became all the more intense. (II.7.2)

Here, we see that repression just makes desires grow even hotter – being denied something makes Emma want it more.

Rodolphe had moved nearer to Emma and was now saying softly and rapidly, "Aren’t you disgusted by the way society conspires against us? Is there a single feeling they don’t condemn? The noblest instincts and the purest affinities are persecuted and slandered, and if two poor hearts manage to find each other, everything is organized to keep them apart. They’ll try anyway, though: they’ll beat their wings and call out to each other. And you can be sure of this: sooner or later, in six months or ten years, they’ll come together and bring their love to fruition, because fate requires it and they were born for each other." (II.8.45)

Here, Rodolphe basically tells Emma that they’re bound to get together, regardless of her marriage and the scandal it would cause. We get the feeling that he doesn’t really believe in all of this "love will conquer all" stuff – he just says it to get her to turn against the restrictive rules of the society she lives in.

She did not know whether she regretted having given in to him or whether, instead, she wished she could love him more. Her humiliating awareness of her own weakness was turning into resentment, which was tempered by her voluptuous pleasures. It was not an attachment, it was a kind of continuous seduction. She was under his domination. She was almost afraid of him. (II.10.33)

Emma’s domination by social convention has been replaced by a new domination – by her lover. Even as she sought to free herself from the oppressive constraints of society, she is still not at liberty to do as she likes, since Rodolphe now controls her emotions and desires.

[Léon] did not understand the deep-seated reaction that was now driving her into a still more reckless pursuit of sensual pleasure. She was becoming more and more excitable, greedy and voluptuous; and she walked with him in the street with her head high, unafraid, she said, of compromising herself. (III.5.93)

Once Emma breaks enough of the rules and continues to get away with it, she can’t go back – instead, she gets more and more reckless.