Study Guide

Madame Bovary Women and Femininity

By Gustave Flaubert

Women and Femininity

Would this misery last forever? Was there no escape from it? And yet she was certainly just as good as all those other women whose lives were happy! She had seen duchesses at La Vaubyessard who had dumpier figures and cruder manners than she, and she cursed God’s injustice […] (I.9.36)

Emma is convinced that she deserves more than some of the rich women she saw at the ball, simply because she is more beautiful than they.

A man, at least is free; he can explore the whole range of the passions, go wherever he likes, overcome obstacles, savor the most exotic pleasures. But a woman is constantly thwarted. Inert and pliable, she is restricted by her physical weakness and her legal subjection. Her will, like the veil tied to her hat with a cord, quivers with every wind; there is always some desire urging her forward, always some convention holding her back. (II.3.12)

Women in Flaubert’s day were far more restricted than their male counterparts, who were allowed to philander and experiment. Flaubert comments aptly here that women’s desires can never be fulfilled in a society that holds them back.

And for a time she would be despondent and almost lifeless, gasping and sobbing softly with tears running down her cheeks.

"Why don’t you tell Monsieur?" the maid asked whenever she came into the room during one of these crises.

"It’s just my nerves," Emma would reply. "Don’t mention it to him, it would only upset him."

"Oh, yes," Félicité said once, "you’re just like the daughter of old Guérin, the fisherman at Le Pollet. I met her in Dieppe, before I came here. She was so sad! When you saw her standing in her doorway she made you think of a funeral pall hanging in front of the house. They say it was some kind of fog in her head that was bothering her. The doctors couldn’t do anything for her, and neither could the priest. When it got too bad she used to go down to the beach all by herself, and sometimes the customs officer would find her lying face down on the pebbles, crying. Then after she got married it went away, or so they say.

"In my case," said Emma, "it didn’t begin till after I was married." (II.5.48)

This is a rare moment between women. Flaubert doesn’t show us much personal interaction between Emma and any other of the female characters (mainly because they’re largely unimportant). However, here we get a glimpse into the communal lives of women at this time – Emma is not the only one who suffers from this kind of depression.

"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."

She looked at him as one looks at a traveler who has been in fabulous lands and said, "We poor women can’t even enjoy that kind of distraction!" (II.8.40-41)

Rodolphe, here explaining to Emma why some people just have to give into their passions, can say this simply because he’s a man. Emma, who longs to succumb to her passions but fears what will happen to her, envies him that freedom.

She remembered the heroines of novels she had read, and the lyrical legion of those adulterous women began to sing in her memory with sisterly voices that enchanted her. It was as though she herself were becoming part of that imaginary world, as though she were making the long dream of her youth come true by placing herself in the category of those amorous women she had envied so much. (II.9.58)

At this point, Emma’s view of ideal womanhood is that of woman as lover – she’s proud of her adultery, because it allows her to feel like a romantic heroine.

Her amorous activities changed her everyday behavior. Her glance grew bolder, her speech freer; she even had the audacity to walk with Rodolphe in public with a cigarette in her mouth, "as though she wanted to defy the whole world," people said. Finally even those who still had doubts lost them when she was seen stepping out of the Hirondelle one day wearing a tight, mannish-looking vest […] (II.12.24)

Emma’s rebellion exhibits itself in the most shocking way: what really horrifies the villagers is her adoption of masculine habits.

[…] in the pride of her devotion she likened herself to those great ladies of the past whose glory she had dreamed of while contemplating a portrait of La Vallière and who, majestically trailing the ornate trains of their long gowns, had withdrawn into solitude to shed at the feet of Christ the tears of a heart wounded by life. (II.14.9)

Emma’s perspective on the ideal woman has changed here, after her break with Rodolphe. She now reverts back to a more conventional symbol, that of the bride of Christ.

[Léon] now savored for the first time the ineffable delicacies of feminine refinements. Never before had he encountered this grace of language, this modesty of attire, these languid, dovelike poses. He admired the exaltation of her soul and the lace on her petticoat. Furthermore, was she not a "lady" and a married woman – in short, a real mistress? (III.5.19)

Léon is enraptured by Emma’s femininity; to him, she is the perfect woman, partially because she’s the first real lady he’s been close to.

There was a clerk, two medical students and a salesman – what company for her! As for the women, she quickly realized, from the sound of their voices, that most of them must be of the lowest class. Suddenly feeling afraid, she pushed back her chair and lowered her eyes. (III.6.78)

After years of thinking herself a member of some ideal, higher class of women, Emma comes to the brutal realization that she is perhaps no better than a common strumpet.

"Women like that ought to be horsewhipped!" said Madame Tuvache.

"Where is she now?" asked Madame Caron.

For Emma had disappeared while these words were being spoken. Then the two ladies saw her hurry down the main street of the village and turn right, as though heading for the cemetery, and they became lost in conjecture. (III.7.78-79)

In the tough world of Flaubert’s microcosmic world, women aren’t the gentle, sympathetic lambs his contemporaries made them out to be – instead, they’re actually the most brutal critics.