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In this chapter, Emma relives her past. When she was thirteen, her father put her in a convent. At first she "enjoyed the society of the nuns" and even liked answering the curate's harder questions in catechism. Gradually, however, she found herself responding more and more to the physical beauty of the place, rather than the spiritual and religious. She was fascinated with "the perfumes of the attar, the coolness of the holy-water fonts and the radiance of the tapers," all romantic images for her. In fact, "the metaphors of betrothed, spouse, heavenly lover, marriage everlasting, that recur in sermons, awoke in the depths of her soul an unlooked-for delight."
Emma's already dreamy disposition is further developed when she is exposed to romantic ballads. The songs she learns in her music lessons help her to create a world of make-believe. She is also influenced by the popular novels of her day. Emma would read any gothic or sentimental romance with eagerness, and she had "a passion for the historical" and an "enthusiastic adoration for all illustrious or ill-fated women," such as Mary Queen of Scots, Joan of Arc, and Héloïse. She also dreamed about sultans and other fanciful characters.
When her mother died, Emma was at the convent. She wept for several days, had a lock of her mother's hair mounted on a memorial card, and expressed her wish to be buried in the same grave when she died. However, the pall of gloom soon lifted from Emma, and she found herself totally at peace, "with no more sadness in her heart than wrinkles on her brow."
The nuns were surprised at Emma's lack of devotion to religious matters. In truth, she had begun to openly rebel against the mysteries of the faith as she grew more irritated with the strict discipline, a thing repugnant to her nature." The sisters were relieved when Mr. Roualt finally took Emma away to manage his affairs at the farm.
By the time she meets Charles, Emma is very tired of her life on the farm. She wants a more exciting life, filled with passion. Unfortunately, this is not what Charles offers her in their marriage.
Discontented with her present married life, Emma begins to contemplate her past, hoping it will bring her comfort. As a child, she was naturally sharp and curious. Like many young girls of her time, Emma eagerly read the popular gothic novels and dreamed of living in the romantic past. She spent her adolescent years in a convent, where her romantic temperament became obvious; with true classical romanticism, she imaginatively looked to the remote past for inspiration and grew sentimental. She became fascinated with all the mystical and sensual images of the Catholic Church, such as the incense and the candlelight. She was also excited over the metaphor of Christ as the heavenly lover, for the image stirred the flames of passion in her.
Individualism and freedom from restraint are major characteristics of Emma's romantic temperament. They surfaced in the convent when she refused to devote herself to her religious studies; as a result, the nuns were glad when Roualt took the difficult girl away. Her rebellious nature is further revealed by her glorification of "illustrious or ill-fated women." Her role models, all of whom paid a high price for their rebelliousness, are an indication of the path Emma will take. Whether society applauds her or not, she does not care. She will allow herself to be just as headstrong and impetuous as her historical role models.
Emma also allows herself to be as sentimental as she chooses. Her mother's death fills her with 'excessive' grief. When this period passes, she finds herself trying to break free from the life of restraint in the convent. This yearning is symbolic of her actual breaking away from the social conventions of the age later in the novel.
Emma yearns for excitement in life; the normal routine fails to rouse her spirits. As her memories reveal, she constantly needs mental distractions. It is a compulsive trait that Flaubert unfolds gradually during the course of the novel. This chapter reveals that nothing can hold Emma's interest for long. She applies her energies to one thing, abandons it, and begins something new. Although she was a devoted student at the convent in the beginning, she quickly tired of the routine. In a similar manner, she quickly grows tired of tending her father's farm and being married to Charles. This inability to maintain a long-term interest will be developed throughout the novel.
Much of what has been learned about Emma has come through her own thoughts. Even though this is not a novel about the psychological aspect of consciousness, Flaubert will continue to delve into Emma's psyche to see what thoughts lie behind her actions.