and OthersMadame Bovary: The Tragedy of Emma Bovary’s Relationships with Herself and Others
Madame Bovary is a narrative which compels the reader to keep turning the pages once he has begun reading. There are no screaming car chases, no resourceful detectives, no horrifying surprises, and no terrifying secrets to capture the reader’s attention and rivet him to the page: There is only a tragic, well-written, delightfully descriptive narrative about a woman who was raised in the convent, her life, her scandalous conduct, and her untimely death. The narrative is compelling in its concentration on the relationships between the characters in the novel. The tragedies of the novel are based on these relationships, especially the relationship of Emma to herself, to the men in her life, and to the peripheral characters in her life such as her daughter, Berthe, Monsieur Lheureux, the proprietor of the local dry-goods store, and Justin, the pharmacist’s assistant.
One of the tragedies of Emma Bovary’s relationship with herself was that she never really understood herself. Emma did not realize that the yearning she had for an exciting lover who would romance her amidst the trappings of luxury was engendered by her reading of silly, sentimental stories while she was growing up. Because Emma was raised in a convent and had little exposure to life beyond the convent or her home farm, she had unrealistic expectations of ife- expectations garnered from the foolish books she read. Emma seemed to believe that her perception of how life should be was the correct one and that people like her husband who never seemed to want anything more were “boobies.” Emma never really understood herself enough to know that she was shallow, deceitful, sensuous, lustful, and totally corrupted by her desires. Emma’s whole focus in life was pleasing herself; yet, she never really knew who she was.
Another tragedy in Emma’s relationship with herself was that she was never really honest with herself. Emma knew she was being untruthful and adulterous to her husband, but she never acknowledged or understood that she was dishonest with herself. Emma never held an inner dialog or indulged in any self-reflection other than that of thinking of ways to satisfy her carnal longings. All of Emma’s thoughts were turned toward sensual satisfaction instead of self- reflection. Emma never acknowledged her lack of maternal feelings for her daughter, Berthe. Berthe was only a peripheral character in Emma’s life-she very seldom even thought of the child. Emma never acknowledged what she was doing when she kept borrowing money from Monsieur Lheureux, the proprietor of the local dry-goods store, and Emma never once thought about what would happen to Justin if it were found he had allowed her to take the arsenic which killed her. Emma was never honest enough with herself to acknowledge that she never thought about anyone or anything except her own passionate longings. Emma’s lack of self-reflection caused her to react in an animal-like manner to life: she lived by a gut reaction to her longings, satisfying them in whatever dishonest way she could, never stopping to consider the consequences of her actions. The tragedy of her actions is that Emma, if she had had any self-reflection, if she had once tried to think things out, if she had once tried to really communicate with her husband on a level other than frustration with his unperceptive personality, if she had ever been honest with herself or had conceded that her whole life was based on pleasing herself and abusing everyone else in her life, if she had just once, thought of anyone other than herself-Emma would have had a chance at redemption, a chance to mature, a chance to become the wife that Charles thought he had married.
Another tragedy in Emma’s relationship with herself was her lack of imagination or empathy. Emma could not imagine how other people felt about life and could not conceive of the notion of “walking a mile in someone’s mocassins.” Emma could not perceive how she appeared to her lovers (jealous and obsessive), she could not empathize with her lonely, neglected daughter, she could not imagine what Monsieur Lheureux might do if she could not pay him back, she could not understand Justin’s simple-minded admiration for her, and most of all, Emma could not imagine how ordinary people could ever think that they were truly experiencing life, because her definition of life included noting commonplace or ordinary and only included exaggerated ideas of riches and romance. Emma had no empathy for anyone and lived her life based on her own lustful hunger, constantly seeking ways to satisfy her voracious desires.
Emma’s relationship with her husband was truly a tragedy. Charles loved Emma so completely that he was completely blinded to her faults and to the fact that she was totally dissatisfied with him as a man, a husband, and a lover. Charles devoted his life to pleasing her, yet Emma never understood the depth of his devotion, the purity of his feelings for her, or the pleasure that just the sight of her brought him. Not until Emma lay dying did she realize what a treasure she had neglected to mine in Charles’s love.
“God!” she cried. “It’s horrible!” He Charles flung himself on his knees beside her bed. “Speak to me! What did you eat? Answer, for heaven’s sake!” And in his eyes she read a love such as she had never known” (1098). What a tragedy! Her approaching death gave Emma a clarity of mind she had never had, and Charles’s love was suddenly evident to her at a time when she could no longer react to it. At long last, Emma realized that she had “been looking for love in all the wrong places.”
The tragedy of Emma’s relationship with her lovers is that she expected them to satisfy the longings that her husband had been unable to satisfy. Somehow, some way, these men were supposed to transport her from the ordinary and mundane into the extraordinary. “Everything immediately surrounding herboring countryside, inane petty bourgeois, the mediocrity of daily lifeseemed to her the exception rather than the rule. She had been caught in it all by some accident: out beyond, there stretched as far as eye could see the immense territory of rapture and passions” (926). Emma thought that her lovers would waft her to that “immense territory of rapture and passions.” Instead, the intimacy of Emma’s lovers became the same as that of her husband’s-it was unable to satisfy her. Emma became jealous and possessive, treating her lovers as if they were her husband, as if they had entered into a marriage relationship with her. The tragedy of these relationship is that each one began with love and ended in disgust. One lover reacted to Emma’s possessive lust by cruelly separating himself from her, while the other lover became overwhelmed by her avid passions and seemed more of a mistress to her than she to him. “Each time, Leon had to tell her everything he had done since their last rendezvous. . . . He did that less out of vanity than out of a desire to please her. He never disputed any of her ideas; he fell in with all her tastes: he was becoming her mistress, far more than she was his. Her sweet words and her kisses swept away his soul” (1071). Eventually, however, Emma’s dominance and carnality became burdensome, and Leon no longer desired Emma, even as she realized that he could not satisfy her needs. “These days it only bored him when Emma suddenly burst out sobbing on his breast: like people who can stand only a certain amount of music, he was drowsy and apathetic amidst the shrillness of her love; his heart had grown deaf to its subtler overtones. . . . She was as surfeited with him as he was tired of her” (1080).
The tragedy within a tragedy in Emma’s relationship to her lovers was that neither was able to satisfy her innermost longings, so she took what she could from them but kept dreaming of the perfect lover. As usual, Emma failed to empathize with others, and never realized the impossible demands she was putting on these two men. Emma never realized that it was her fault that the men were unwilling to sustain the relationship because of her inordinate demands. All Emma realized was that her sensual appetite was not being fed, and she longed for someone who could make her happy.
;BLOCK QUOTE; No matter: she wasn’t happy, and never had been. Why was life so unsatisfactory? Why did everything she leaned on crumble instantly to dust? But why, if somewhere there existed a strong and handsome beinga man of valor, sublime in passion and refinement, with a poet’s heart and an angel’s shape, a man like a lyre with strings of bronze, intoning elegiac epithalamiums to the heavenswhy mightn’t she have the luck to meet him? Ah, fine chance! Besides, nothing was worth looking for: everything was a lie! Every smile concealed a yawn of boredom; every joy, a curse; every pleasure, its own surfeit; and the sweetest kisses left on one’s lips but a vain longing for fuller delight. (1075-1076) ;END BLOCK QUOTE;
Emma realized that Leon was not the man to satisfy her, but she was unable to bring the relationship to a close, because she needed something to distract her from the unhappiness of her boring life.
;BLOCK QUOTE; But as her pen flew over the paper she was aware of the presence of another man, a phantom embodying her most ardent memories, the most beautiful things she had read and her strongest desires. In the end he became so real and accessible that she tingled with excitement, unable though she was to picture him clearly, so hidden was he, godlike, under his manifold attributes. He dwelt in that enchanted realm where silken ladders swing from balconies moon-bright and flower-scented. She felt him near her: he was comingcoming to ravish her entirely in a kiss. And the next moment she would drop back to earth, shattered; for these rapturous love-dreams drained her more than the greatest orgies. (1080) ;END BLOCK QUOTE;
Another tragedy in Emma’s life was her relationship to the peripheral people in her life. Emma had no maternal relationship with her daughter, Berthe, but continually left the child to her own devices under the marginal care of a nurse. Emma despised her mother-in-law, who only wanted to help Emma to make Charles happy. Emma could have learned from her if she had even given one thought to the elder Madame Bovary. Emma thought Justin’s admiration simple-minded but useful and never tried to help him think of her in the proper manner, but abused his devotion to her by using him as a tool to help her achieve her own goals. Emma never thought about Monsieur Lheureux other than to use him to satisfy her yearning for material things. Emma never tried to develop a relationship with Lheureux but treated him as a tool to achieve her aims.; therefore, it was easy for Lheureux to threaten her and demand her moneyas no relationship existed, he did not care if he ruined her.
The final tragedy in Emma’s life was her lack of a relationship with God. Although she was raised in a convent, Emma had never really known God. Overcome by her own desires, she raced through life seeking ways to satisfy her immoderate hungers, never once giving a thought to eternal matters. Carnal, sensuous, wanton, intemperate, deceitful, unheeding-Emma needed God in her life. The irrevocable tragic act of suicide, the horror of her suffering, the terror of approaching death finally brought Emma face to face with God. Her capitulation to God, aided by the priest, was perhaps honest, but it was too late to do her, her daughter, or her husband any good. “The priest stood up and took the crucifix; she stretched out her head like someone thirsting; and pressing her lips to the body of the God-Man, she imprinted on it, with every ounce of her failing strength, the most passionate love-kiss she had ever given” (1103). Emma died “her face serene.” Emma was finally at peace”through with all the betrayals, the infamies, the countless fierce desires that had racked her” (1099).
As a direct result of the disastrous relationships in her life, Emma left behind a legacy that continued to rob people of their happiness. Charles found out about Emma’s adulterous behavior when clearing out her papers. The blow was too much for him. Soon after the triple tragedies of suddenly losing all his possessions, losing his wife, and losing the perfect image he had of her, Charles died. Little Berthe, now an orphan, was sent to the cotton mill to earn a living. If Emma had developed the relationship with her husband, her daughter, and God that she should have developed, the tragedies of Madame Bovary could have been averted. Emma would have lived, Charles would have lived, they would have kept their money, and Berthe would have been raised in a fine home, accepted in society as a doctor’s daughter, and perhaps would have found love of her own as a woman.
Madame Bovary continues to be a mesmerizing tale of a woman’s tragic relationships-perhaps because many readers see in Emma some of their own faults. The reader of Madame Bovary cannot help but be shaken by the anguished drama of Emma’s life. Emma’s woeful ghost lingers after the last pages of the book have been turned-a bleak warning that relationships are made to be nourished, not abused.