The Effect of Illusion on the Reality of Emma’s Life in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary
By Trudy A. Martinez
Emma attempts to make the fiction she reads become her reality. Real life bores her. When she lives in the country, she dreams of living in a town. As she walks and talks with Charles, reality and illusion merge. Her voice is “suddenly laden with languor” one minute and the next “merry . . . Her eyes” open “wide and innocent, then half” close, submerge “in boredom, thoughts wandering” (36).
Emma’s wandering thoughts surface when she attempts to mingle the plans for their wedding with fantasy. For example, She wants “a midnight wedding with torches” (38), but her father will not hear of it. But nevertheless, touches of fantasy make it through the planning stage: “A little cupid” adorns the wedding cake (42). And Emma’s dress is out-of-place: it is too long for a country wedding. Consequently, the dress drags on the ground, picking up “course grasses and thistle burrs” (40) and bits of reality
Reality strikes home when Emma sees her husband’s first wife’s bouquet. The sight of him removing it starts her to “wondering what would happen to (her own bouquet) if she were to die” (45). Eventually, she disposes of the bouquet herself: She throws it in a fire and sits watching it burn and “the shriveled paper petals (hover) like black butterflies” in the fireplace and “finally (vanish) up the chimney” (81).
When her life lapses into routine, she tries to liven it up. She does this by reciting poetry to Charles in the moonlight or singing to him “slow melancholy songs,” thinking that this will make him more loving and passionate (56). When nothing works, she begins to question her reasons for marrying (57).
Her ideas of love affect her vision: “Was not love like an Indian plant,” She thought, “requiring a prepared soil, a special temperature? Sighs in the moonlight, long embraces, and hands at parting bathed with tears, all the fevers of the flesh and the languid tenderness of love. . . “And luxury (72). The effects of such thoughts cause her to dress and train her maid as a lady’s maid. And she, herself, dresses luxuriously and flaunts herself at the window (72-73).
She day dreams of the ball and the Marquis, even though he is ugly, his lifestyle fascinates her. Excitement fills his life, and he “was said to have been the lover of Marie Antoinette” (60-61).
Such daydreaming leaves her depressed. For example, “She lets the house look after itself” and she grew “hard to please” and thinks only of her own wants and emotions. What effect she has on others is of no consequence to her (79). She said, “I hate commonplace heroes and moderate feeling such as are to be found in life” (96).
Having a girl child is commonplace to her. “The thought of having a male child afforded her revenge for her past life of helplessness (101).” With Emma there is no compromising: either nothing is good enough for her or she is too good for everything. Her daughter didn’t really matter to her. If she had, why did she place her in a nursemaid’s home where it compels her to wipe “her feet at the door as she [goes] out” (106).
Emma thinks she can love her husband Charles if he is famous, “but Charles [has] no ambition” (74). Before her wedding she believes she is in love, but to Emma love means excitement, a continuous passion, and most of all luxury. When Rodolphe comes into her life, she fails to recognize that his words: “I’ve stayed with you, because I couldn’t tear myself away, though I’ve tried a hundred times” are just as the chairman exclaims to the crowd: “Manure!” (161).
A life with Rodolphe sums up her dreams of fantasy: “I love you so much! . . . So much, I can’t live without you! I long for you . . . I am your slave, your concubine. You are my king, my idol –you are good, handsome, intelligent, and strong!” (203). But she did live without him and even replaces him with her own molded model of a lover, Leon. To uphold her life of fantasy, she needs money and luxury.
The reality of the debt she accumulates crushes her illusion and leaves her wishing “she could fly away like a bird and grow young again somewhere far out in the stainless purity of space” (303). When she tries to regain some dignity, and seek help from her lost love, Rodolphe, the reality of her life becomes too much for her as she angrily tells him of his faults and her own at the same time: “You love yourself too much: you live well . . . “(323).
She takes her own life to avoid facing reality (325). “In a clear voice she asked for her mirror, and remained bowed over it for sometime, until big tears began to trickle out of her eyes” (336) for she must leave her fantasy behind. However, a song rebukes her and she cries out, “The blind man!” His song leaves her “laughing, a ghastly, frantic, desperate laugh, fancying she could see the hideous face of the beggar rising up like a nightmare amid the eternal darkness” (337). Consequently, she dies as she lives in a fantasy world of illusion.
This is an edited version (June 19, 2014) of the origin posting (April 04, 2008).