Madame Bovary: A Woman Who Had Laid Thesis

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¶ … Madame Bovary:

A woman who had laid on herself such sacrifices could well allow herself certain whims. She bought a Gothic prie-dieu, and in a month spent fourteen francs on lemons for polishing her nails; she wrote to Rouen for a blue cashmere gown; she chose one of Lheureux's finest scarves, and wore it knotted around her waist over her dressing-gown; and, with closed blinds and a book in her hand, she lay stretched out on a couch in this garb. She often changed her coiffure; she did her hair a la Chinoise, in flowing curls, in plaited coils; she parted in on one side and rolled it under like a man's. She wanted to learn Italian; she bought dictionaries, a grammar, and a supply of white paper. She tried serious reading, history, and philosophy. Sometimes in the night Charles woke up with a start, thinking he was being called to a patient. "I'm coming," he stammered; and it was the noise of a match Emma had struck to relight the lamp. But her reading fared like her piece of embroidery, all of which, only just begun, filled her cupboard; she took it up, left it, passed on to other books.

She had attacks in which she could easily have been driven to commit any folly. She maintained one day, in opposition to her husband, that she could drink off a large glass of brandy, and, as Charles was stupid enough to dare her to, she swallowed the brandy to the last drop.

In spite of her vapourish airs (as the housewives of Yonville called them), Emma, all the same, never seemed gay, and usually she had at the corners of her mouth that immobile contraction that puckers the faces of old maids, and those of men whose ambition has failed. She was pale all over, white as a sheet; the skin of her nose was drawn at the nostrils, her eyes looked at you vaguely. After discovering three grey hairs on her temples, she talked much of her old age.

She often fainted. One day she even spat blood, and, as Charles fussed around her showing his anxiety

"Bah!" she answered, "what does it matter?"

Charles fled to his study and wept there, both his elbows on the table, sitting in an arm-chair at his bureau under the phrenological head.

Then he wrote to his mother begging her to come, and they had many long consultations together on the subject of Emma.

What should they decide? What was to be done since she rejected all medical treatment? "Do you know what your wife wants?" replied Madame Bovary senior.

"She wants to be forced to occupy herself with some manual work. If she were obliged, like so many others, to earn her living, she wouldn't have these vapours, that come to her from a lot of ideas she stuffs into her head, and from the idleness in which she lives."

"Yet she is always busy," said Charles.

"Ah! always busy at what? Reading novels, bad books, works against religion, and in which they mock at priests in speeches taken from Voltaire. But all that leads you far astray, my poor child. Anyone who has no religion always ends by turning out badly." -- Chapter 7

To truly understand the meaning of this passage from Gustave Flaubert's masterpiece Madame Bovary, one must understand the ironic tone of the piece, in the context of the novel's plot, and Flaubert's ironic characterization of Madame Bovary herself. Madame Bovary has just been left by her lover, and she is miserable. Almost like some people reward themselves for a hard day of work, she rewards herself with gifts, bought with her husband's money. It is as if she regards her marriage to Charles as hard work, and these consumer goods are her just desserts. To Emma, her plight underlines the limitations of women in marriage, and also the emotional work of being married to a man you do not love.

However, Flaubert, for all of his understanding of Madame Bovary's artistic frustrations at the limits of the small, provincial town she finds herself enclosed within is no proto-feminist. He does not suggest that Madame Bovary desires work or intellectual stimulation as a release for her emotions. Instead, she resorts to shopping and fantasizing. She buys a blue cashmere dress from Rouen, since she cannot go to Rouen. Later, when she spends herself into oblivion and brings about her husband's financial ruin at the end of the novel she will commit suicide by taking poison from a blue glass jar. This unites the idea that consumerism, and buying things as a way out of your troubles is a kind of suicide. Madame Bovary does not rebel in paradigm-shifting ways; instead she dresses like the heroine of a novel. Just like she loved the surface trappings of religion when she was a girl at a convent school, she likes the surface trappings of sensuality and the exotic.

There are some hints that Emma is asserting herself over Charles, as when she parts her hair like a man. But instead of a steady and sustained attempt to be more assertive to men, this is all a part of a series of costumes she is assuming, just like she also attempts to wear her hair in a Chinese fashion. She continually changes her clothes and hairstyle, as if by changing her surface, she can change herself and her life. Madame Bovary does not seem to understand the futility of this exercise -- she believes that by acting like a character from a novel, for example, by taking a lover and going off to a city, she can change herself. This is the lie of consumerism that Madame Bovary really embodies: the idea that by buying things, change within the self and soul is achievable.

There is also a sense of wanderlust in the gifts she selects. The gifts Madame Bovary buys are expensive and exotic -- she dresses in Asiatic garb and fixes her hair in a Chinese fashion. But this fascination with the exotic East is part of European fashion. She also tries to learn a foreign language, but again the tone of the passage is ironic, and Flaubert shows a sharp eye for characterization in the details he selects to illustrate Emma's character. For example, her intellectual activities like reading and learning Italian are done for show, and out of boredom as a replacement for having a lover, not an actual interest in Italy or languages. Emma loves the idea of China and Italy, not the country, just as she will later, over the course of the novel, love the idea of living the romance 'plot' even though her lovers are not remarkable men. Just like she mistakes surface appearances for the real thing -- romanticism and exotic, foreign beauty -- she mistakes sexuality for real love. Even her interest in deeper philosophy is likened to embroidery -- easily put away when something more interesting attracts her attention.

Emma's literary habits could be a commentary on the reader's own appreciation for Madame Bovary, the novel -- is the reader perusing her story out of titillation, as a result of the boredom of his or her own life, or because of a real interest in Emma? So much of the novel seems to be a criticism of romance. Emma learns her false and cheap aspirations and ideals from romantic stories in books. She is a reader, but a bad one, and one could even say that she is driven to immorality by reading, and to her death. The only distinction is between Flaubert's attitude towards his plot and character -- through irony, he encourages his reader to read Madame Bovary critically, rather than to accept her version of reality and try to embody it. In contrast, Madame Bovary reads uncritically, takes romantic novels as maps for her life, like someone might take afternoon soaps as guides for their life expectations, and that is why she deserves the sad, suicidal fate Flaubert metes out to her in his plot.

There is a strange parallel between Charles' mother, also Madame Bovary, and his wife in this passage. Although the heroine's name is Emma, for example, Flaubert always calls her Madame Bovary, underlining perhaps how a woman's status as married defines her identity in society, more than her private identity as Emma. But this creates confusion, given that Charles' mother is still alive. This causes the reader to ask: which one, the senior or the junior is the real Madame Bovary? But given how dominated the character of Charles is by the women in his life, perhaps it does not matter. Charles goes from being dominated by one Madame Bovary to another. He acquiesces to his wife's spending, even though he works hard as a doctor and cannot really afford her extravagances, just as he bows to all of his mother's demands.

Charles' mother is materialistic and has a… [END OF PREVIEW]

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