‘The warm room, with its plain carpet, its frivolous decorations, its tranquil light, seemed quite perfect for the intimacies of passion. The arrow-headed curtain rods, the brass fittings, and the big balls on the fender would gleam suddenly, whenever the sun shone in. On the mantelpiece, between the candlesticks, there were two of those big pink shells that sound like the sea when you hold them to your ear’.
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flauvert, Pg.246
Part III sees the doomed love affair between Emma and Léon blossom in the wake of their chance encounter at the theatre in Rouen. They agree to meet in the cathedral and Emma’s previous religious convictions are thrown to the wind literally, along with the letter she had written to Léon to say she could never be his mistress.
‘He didn’t question her ideas; he accepted her tastes; he became her mistress rather than she becoming his. She spoke tender words mingled with kisses that carried his soul away. Where could she have learned such corruption, almost intangible, so profoundly had it been dissembled?’
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, Pg.259
Although Emma initially feels more in control of this affair, and perhaps sees it as true love, it inevitably peters out into ‘the platitudes of marriage’ (pg.271). She becomes dissatisfied with her adulterous relationship with Léon, but instead of ending it she tries even harder to instil an intensity and passion into it: ‘Emma came back to him more inflamed, more voracious. Her undressing was brutal, tearing at the delicate laces on her corset, which rustled down over her hips like a slithering snake’ (pg.263). She lies to Charles about taking piano lessons in Rouen so that she can visit Léon once a week and borrows a ridiculous amount of money buying gifts and useless fashion fads. Playing on Emma’s vulnerability, Monsieur Lheureux encourages her to become the power of attorney for Charles’s family estate and sells off some of his father’s property to Lheureux at a loss. All the while, Lheureux continues to encourage Emma to borrow money from him, knowing full-well that she cannot possibly pay him back.
As her debts spiral out of control and the bailiffs threaten to take away all of her belongings, Emma becomes increasingly desperate. First she tries to persuade Léon to steal from his workplace, which angers him; she tries to loan some money from Guillaumin, the town lawyer, who wants to trade the loan in for sexual favours, which disgusts Emma; she then tries to seduce Binet, the tax collector, to buy herself more time, without success; her last hope is Rodolphe – the man who set her off on this downward spiral of doom in the first place. When he realises the nature of her visit he becomes cold and withdrawn, claiming that he has no money to lend her.
‘She stood there bewildered, quite oblivious, but for the sound of the blood pounding along her arteries, which she thought she could hear seeping out of her, like a trumpet-call echoing everywhere. The earth beneath her feet was undulating gently, and the furrows looked like enormous brown waves, pounding the beach. Everything in her head, all her reminiscences, all her ideas, poured out at once, in a single spasm, like a thousand fireworks exploding. She saw her father, Lheureux in his office, their room in town, a different landscape. Terrified, she felt the touch of madness’.
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, Pg.292
I don’t think there is any other way for the novel to end as we all know it does – with Emma Bovary’s long, drawn-out suicide by swallowing arsenic…
1. Now that you’ve finished the book, how do you feel about Madame Bovary as a whole? Do you think the book’s ending was appropriate? If not, how would you have preferred to see the novel end?
As I mentioned above, I can’t imagine Madame Bovary ending any other way. It felt, as I was reading for a second time, that everything in the novel was leading up to this one point – Emma’s suicide – and I wonder if the lives she affected would have been more or less damaged had she continued to live. I found I enjoyed reading Madame Bovary much more a second time around as there were a lot of factors which made up Emma’s doomed life – her world has been very much a patriarchal one, influenced by the male gaze – that I may have missed on the first reading. From growing up on a diet of romantic and sensational fiction written by men, to being wedded off to the first man to show an interest by her father, to being seduced by Rodolphe and seduced by the money Lheureux lends her, to falling again for the ideal man in Léon and then finding herself back in front of Rodolphe grovelling for money, to stealing the arsenic from Monsieur Homais’ medical cupboard – Emma is constantly battling for power in this male-dominated world. But, ultimately, it is Flaubert who has the overall say in Emma’s fate.
2. What are your feelings toward Emma Bovary, now that you know how her story ends? Do you find yourself feeling more sympathetic toward her situation — or less?
I have always felt sympathetic towards Emma Bovary. I know there is a lot that is flawed about her – like her complete disregard for her daughter, Berthe, her reliance on men for happiness and the inability to learn from her past mistakes – but I view Emma as a victim of her sex and her circumstance. She was born into the wrong time period, where women were expected to pass from their father to their husband, like cattle, and immediately start a family. She hasn’t been given the chance to see the world and experience it for herself, instead she turns to her romance books for guidance on how to live or how to find happiness. And, of course, romance books are nothing like reality.
I love the fact that Flaubert can write objectively about Emma – and all the characters, for that matter. I think that is why there have been so many differing opinions on the protagonist. It is not clear where Flaubert’s sympathies lie, therefore we aren’t coerced into feeling sorry for Emma. We don’t necessarily have to like Emma but we can see her for all her faults and mistakes, which is what makes Madame Bovary one of the greatest realist classics of all time.
3. Do you think Flaubert had an ultimate “message” for readers of his book? If so, what do you think it was? What message(s) did you, personally, pull away from the book?
I know there is meant to be a lot of meaning in Flaubert’s use of time and setting in the novel, in terms of voicing his social critique of French bourgeois society, but I find that Emma’s story resonates more with me. I find it rare when I can read a novel written by a man, whose protagonist is female, and find that I completely forget it is written by a man in the first place. Flaubert does so well in getting under Emma’s skin – note his insistence that ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi’ – and her feelings of disillusionment, dissatisfaction, and striving for more are universal. Though there is a lot that is now irrelevant, as women – particularly in the West – have more choice and freedom, there are still many aspects that haven’t changed. For example, romance novels and ‘chick-lit’ are still just as popular and, although many are now written by women, I still find them quite damaging in the way they portray unrealistic expectations of love.
Though, ultimately I think the main message I took from the novel was encapsulated in this quote, which Naomi from Consumed by Ink pointed out, and which I also underlined in my copy of Madame Bovary (though it is slightly different due to the translation):
‘She was not happy, had never been so. Where did it come from, this feeling of deprivation, this instantaneous decay of the things in which she put her trust?…But, if there were somewhere a strong and beautiful creature, a valiant nature full of passion and delicacy in equal measure, the heart of a poet in the figure of an angel, a lyre with strings of steel, sounding to the skies elegiac epithalamia, why should she not, fortuitously, find such a one? What an impossibility! Nothing, anyway, was worth that great quest; it was all lies! Every smile concealed the yawn of boredom, every joy the malediction, every satisfaction brought its nausea, and even the most perfect kisses only leave upon the lips a fantastical craving for the supreme pleasure’.
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, Pg.264-5
That Emma Bovary does not learn from her mistakes, or learns from her mistakes only when it is too late to turn back, is more reason why I took note of the awful fate that can await if you are constantly yearning for more, or constantly striving for ‘the supreme pleasure’. In some ways I find her admirable for always striving to find happiness and pleasure in life, despite her circumstances. In other ways I cannot help but feel ultimately sorry for her and for those closest to her. Flaubert shows that there is no one person to place the blame on in this novel, perhaps they are all victims of French bourgeois society, all victims of circumstance – though Monsieur Homais is the ultimate winner: ‘He is doing infernally well; the authorities handle him carefully and public opinion is on his side. He has just received the Legion of Honour’ (pg.327).