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Until now, you've mainly seen Emma through the eyes of others. In this chapter, Flaubert breaks into the story of Emma's marriage to take you back to her childhood and adolescence. Do you think this technique of gradually revealing Emma's character is an effective one? Does it make you want to know more about her?
At thirteen, Emma had been sent to a convent school by her father. She took her religious duties seriously, enjoyed the company of the nuns, and studied her catechism diligently. But she was most aroused by the aspects of the convent atmosphere, its perfumed altars, the cool water of the holy-water fonts, and the radiance of the candles. In the sermons, phrases like "heavenly lover" and "eternal wedlock" took on a meaning that was more emotional and erotic than spiritual. As a result, she invented sins so that she could linger close to the priest in the intimacy of the confession booth as long as possible.
Keep an eye on the connection between sexual and religious imagery
and symbolism. It will play a special role later in the novel when Emma
meets Leon in the Cathedral in Rouen. And the convent imagery of mixed
sexuality and piety will be recalled in Emma's deathbed scene. The suggestion
of a relationship between carnal desire and religion was one of the main
reasons that the author and publishers of Madame Bovary were prosecuted
in the French courts for an "outrage against public morals and religion."
They were acquitted but the case caused a public furor.
Once a week an old spinster came to the convent to mend the linen. She let the older girls read the romantic novels that she carried in her pockets, and these books filled Emma's mind with images of lovers meeting their mistresses in lonely country houses. Emma developed a passion for the historical romances of the famous Scottish novelist, Sir Walter Scott. She imagined herself living in an old castle, looking out a window as her lover galloped across the countryside.
In Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to describe Romanticism in its most extreme and degenerate form. He wanted to show how the original idea of Romanticism had been corrupted. As a child, Emma fed her sensitive nature by reading popular novels that were themselves a corrupt form of the great Romantic literature of the early nineteenth century. In this chapter, Emma is portrayed as being hopelessly taken with romantic notions-a young girl who had read Paul and Virginia, the sentimental novel that was immensely popular in the early nineteenth century. Her dreamworld merged with the reality of her life in the convent, and offered her a way of surviving the monotony of that existence. She identified strongly with the sentiments of the romantic heroines. But the adult Emma will do something that these heroines would never have dared to do-she will seek sexual satisfaction outside her marriage and will indulge her fantasies, despite the consequences.
At the convent, Emma received news of her mother's death. This was her first true loss, and she wept for several days. She consoled herself with sentimental poetry, feeling that she'd finally attained the role of the romantic heroine. But after a while, she became bored with the unhappiness of such a heroine's life and rebelled against the strictness of convent life. With that, her father removed her from the school.
Do you think Flaubert is being satirical in his description of Emma's reaction to her mother's death? In your opinion, does Emma care deeply about her mother's death? Or does she only behave as she believes a romantic heroine would? What evidence can you find for your opinion?
Back at her father's farm, Emma enjoyed managing the servants but soon grew tired of country life. When Charles arrived on the scene, she realized that there was still something missing in her life. Love and romance were supposed to make one feel ecstatic, yet Emma felt nothing but restlessness and boredom.