ThemesSatire on Romanticism
Emma Bovary is the product of a Romantic age and her tragedy is a consequence of that age. Romanticism, with its emphasis on the heroic and on extremes of feeling is shown in the novel to be incompatible with the experience of day-to-day life. This is the discrepancy that Flaubert recognises and he satirises both the belief in the fantastic that characterises it and the literature that encourages it. Emma was first introduced to Romanticism at the convent, although its influence is ongoing, the most important late example being the trip to the opera (II, 15). I, 6 is the lengthiest exposition of her formative influences; these include the nauseating but enormously popular eighteenth century novel Paul et Virginie and later the grail romances recounted by an old maid who used to visit the convent. Emma "would have loved to spend her days in some ancient manor-house like the damsels in long- waisted gowns... watching white-plumed horsemen come galloping from afar on sable chargers". This desire is clearly absurd, yet Emma is unable to differentiate between a fictional past and equally fictional sentiment:
"Did not love, like Oriental blooms, need carefully tended earth to grow in, and a special climate? Moonlit sighs and lingering embraces, tear-stained hands at parting, burning desires and languorous tenderness?" (I, 9)
Emma's Romanticism is highly clichéd and she makes the mistake of overvaluing appearance; she never appreciates Charles's love for her because in the literature she has read she has never encountered a man in love who can neither ride nor shoot nor fence. Her experience is one of perpetual disillusion.
In considering this satire we must also question whether, by the end of the novel, Emma has, to a certain extent, been vindicated. If tender or refined feeling genuinely does require "carefully tended earth" then surely the blame for Emma's tragedy can lie as much with those who constitute her earth - the mediocre inhabitants of Yonville - as with her own foolishness?
Satire on Provincial Life
Although all the detail of provincial life is not central to the plot's development, Flaubert does intersperse his narrative with brief vignettes, often incorporating a more extensive use of dialogue, in order to satirise it. The inhabitants of Yonville are often portrayed as caricatures and nowhere is this more evident than at the agricultural fair (II, 8). Many of the characters who appear in this scene barely appear elsewhere, such as Lestiboudois, the grave-digger, whom Flaubert describes as "fully awake, as always, to his own interests" in providing chairs for the village folk. The scene of welcome between the Mayor and the Counsellor is a piece of pure farce. Satire dehumanises its targets, a point Flaubert does not attempt to disguise:
"They all looked exactly alike. Their pale, flabby faces, slightly touched by the sun, had the colour of sweet cider, and their bushy whiskers emerged from stiff collars held in position by white cravats tied in large bows."
Flaubert is particularly scathing about the pettiness of local gossip: two notable occasions are when Emma visits Madame Rollet with Léon and is said to be "compromising herself" and when she, in desperation goes to ask Binet for financial assistance. This scene is narrated from the perspective of a nosy neighbour, who remains ignorant of the actual events, as indeed does the reader, who is also forced to enter into conjecture, implicating the reader with the gossipers. Homais, seen by Flaubert as the embodiment of all provincial life's most insidious values, is the one individual who is subject to the most criticism; the book concludes not with Emma's death, but with Homais's receiving the legion d'honeur and it can be seen as much as the satirical tale of his rise as of Emma's fall. It should be noted that it is through satirising both the dreams of Romanticism and the dullness of provincial life, that Flaubert creates a climate of moral ambiguity. This is a novel with very few social absolute rights and wrongs.
Boredom and Entrapment
Boredom, stemming from false expectations, is the key theme of the novel. It is also synonymous with entrapment, for Emma can transcend neither her status, nor her time, nor her gender. There are many symbols of entrapment in the novel, in particular the cage for Hippolyte's leg (see plot summary). The convent is an obvious place of entrapment, but all of Emma's homes have the same end result. Even when her lust for Léon is (probably) consummated it occurs within a confined space, the cab, symbolising the extent to which even adultery has its limits. Images of entrapment are amongst those that disturb Emma the most, for example the grotesque vision of the blind beggar, trapped outside the cab, pressed up tight against the window. The feeling of entrapment as a symptom of boredom was most fully explored by Baudelaire in Les Fleurs du mal in which he describes prisons, with bars of falling rain and frenzied animals struggling to break out. Much of the imagery employed by Flaubert to depict the experience of entrapment can be profitably compared to Baudelaire's Spleen poems. Emma's final trap is however a fully material one, ensnared in the net of her own debts.
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