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Emma Bovary is one of the most interesting women characters of world literature. But most readers agree that her character can be interpreted in many different ways. One of the major challenges of Madame Bovary is to figure out what makes her tick.
During Emma's youth in the early nineteenth century, the literary and artistic movement of Romanticism was in full swing. Romantic novels were the rage, and young girls everywhere read about romantic heroines being swept off their feet by dashing young heroes who carried them away to imaginary lands of love. (Romance novels have made a comeback today, and when you see the rows of them in bookstores, you get an idea of their popularity in Emma's time.)
Flaubert loathed the romantic novels which had fed Emma, because their characters indulged in emotional excesses and behaved idiotically. He knew that the women of his time would recognize themselves in Emma, so he used his character as an example of what can result from such excesses.
Since Emma grew up on an isolated farm with few friends, she began life as a lonely child. Then, upon entering the Catholic convent school, she was completely shut off from the external world and turned inward for excitement. During this time, she read dozens of romance novels and formed an image of the "perfect" lover, who would be strong, handsome, athletic, and artistic. Despite her fantasies of this ideal lover, Emma would be happy only in her dreams. Her pleasure lay in the dreaming, not in the reality of having a lover. One of Flaubert's reasons for creating Emma Bovary is to show the wreckage that such dreams can bring when the person tries to impose these dreams on reality. When a character like Emma despises the life around her and tries to live her life as she fantasizes it "should" be, the process can destroy both her and her family. At the end of the novel, not only do Emma and Charles die, but their daughter is condemned to a life in the factories.
Yet there is a difference between Emma Bovary-a woman of romance-and the romantic heroines of the novels. The romantic heroines' lives were rigidly structured, whereas Emma rather naively follows her instincts. The romantic heroines were a swooning, passive lot, while Emma is an aggressive, energetic woman. If the romantic heroines give gifts to their lovers, Emma does this because she thinks one "must" do it, not because she enjoys it. Much of Emma's sexual education came from the romantic novels, and you've probably noticed how difficult it is to change the ideas you were taught in childhood.
Emma's fantasies are based on the double illusion of time and space. On the one hand, she believes that things will get better as time progresses (illusion of time), and on the other she concludes that her boring existence will improve once she reaches the greener pastures of the good life (illusion of space). Neither of these dreams comes true. Clearly her life falls apart instead of improving, and the "green pastures" seem to get browner.
Some readers believe Emma is more intellectual than emotional-a sensual woman, not a passionate one. They claim that she is guided more by imagination than by physical urges, and that she seems more interested in the idea of having a lover than in actually having one. Emma is not a simple woman. On the contrary, there is something extraordinary and rare about her. Whenever Flaubert describes her sensuality, he does so in an almost delicate, religious style. Yet apart from Emma's romantic inclinations, some readers consider her essentially mediocre. She is incapable of understanding things she hasn't experienced, and resembles her Norman peasant ancestors, known for their callous insensitivity. Though she aspires to a life of romance, she is rooted in middle-class materialism and surrounds herself with "objects." Some would say that the struggle between the two is what finally kills Emma Bovary.
Charles is portrayed as a dull country doctor whom most readers regard as a fool. He is vulgar, primitive, and almost entirely without passion-like a docile animal who wallows in monotony. His devotion to Emma is as blind as a sheep's, and he contributes almost nothing to her life. He has no original ideas, bungles an attempt at curing a clubfoot, and hasn't the slightest notion that he is being victimized by Emma (adultery), Lheureux (debts), and the law (repossession of property). In fact, this sleepy, awkward man has an almost total absence of character. Some readers consider him a "nothing" who merely exists.
At the beginning of the novel, Charles is a schoolboy tied to his mother's apron strings, too timid to assert himself. It's only with the greatest effort that he's able to pass his medical college exams. After graduation, his mother secures a job for him in Tostes, then arranges his marriage. Do you have the feeling that he has no idea what he wants to do and would just as soon have his mother make all his decisions for him?
His marriage enables him to cut loose from his mother, and everything that happens to Charles from this point on results from his decision to marry Emma. Soon after their marriage, Emma sees him as a burden. Some readers, however, see him as a faithful, loving, and forgiving man whose devotion to Emma is a sign of strength. His honesty and hard work also stand out among the number of unscrupulous characters that people Yonville. As you read the novel, ask yourself whether you sympathize with him, respect him, or judge him to be an imbecile for whom "ignorance is bliss."