Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, is a timeless work of literary realism in which Flaubert painstakingly depicts every detail of the lives of the provincial bourgeois in nineteenth century France. Flaubert uses the emotions and perspectives of his main protagonists, Emma and Charles Bovary, as a vehicle for the novel’s plot and the driving force for his criticism of both society and romanticism. Emma Bovary, born to a middle class family, married to an uninspiring country doctor, and discontent with her mundane existence, constantly seeks to find her own version of the fantasy worlds she experiences in novels. Charles Bovary, on the other hand, remains oblivious to his wife’s dissatisfaction and constantly lives in a state of complacency. Through the unfolding of the plot and the characterisation of Emma and Charles, Flaubert presents a vivid representation of the idea that reality cannot be overshadowed by one’s illusions.
Throughout the novel, Emma feels constantly oppressed by the banality and normalcy of her middle-class life. From the countless novels she read in her childhood, Emma derives the notion that true happiness is reflected in material possessions and outward appearances. Furthermore, she determines that love must be accompanied by intense passion and ceaseless adventure. Emma’s marriage to Charles, however, doesn’t fit her idealized perception of love. Unlike the heroes in her novel, Charles is a dull, unimaginative character whose lack of initiative and ambition eventually earns Emma’s resentment. “She resent[s] him for his placid stolidity, for his leaden serenity, and for the very happiness she gave to him.” Emma’s early disdain for Charles reveals her own internal conflict. Emma is a compulsive dreamer who fails to see that her perpetual disappointment is not a result of Charles’s shortcomings, but is prompted by her preconceived notions of what marriage should look like. Despite Emma’s obvious detestment of Charles, Charles remains oblivious to the pretentious nature of his wife, and never comes to understand the true source of Emma’s unhappiness.
Emma grows increasingly exhausted with Charles’s inability to provide her happiness, and thus begins to seek fulfillment outside of her marriage. Longing for a truly intimate relationship, Emma resort to sordid affairs with Rodolphe Bourlanger and Léon Dupuis. Emma’s romantic desires are briefly satiated during her first affair with Rudolphe, however, her fantasy is short-lived as Rudolphe quickly discards Emma the moment he no longer views her as a novelty. In response to Rudolphe’s rejection, Emma once again enters a state of despondency and self-pity. This continues until she engages in yet another adulterous affair with Léon Dupuis. Her second affair is with Léon, an old friend with whom Emma had already established an intense infatuation for, starts off just a passionate and adventurous as the first. In both relationship Emma’s attraction to the appearance of romance leads her embraces abstractions-love and passion- but ignores reality as symbolized by the debt she has collected. All the while Charles remain oblivious to Emma’s romantic endeave.
Flaubert renders Charles as the complete antithesis to Emma. Charles is incredibly unimaginative, he lacks substance and is too busy with prosaic day-to-day concerns to notice Emma dissatisfaction. Flaubert portrays both of his protagonists to be very incredibly distant from reality. However, while Emma is incapable of accepting her reality, Charles is merely blind to his. From their beginnings in Yonville up until Emma’s unexpected suicide, Charles remains completely oblivious to his wife’s romantic endeavers. Even when Charles finds Emma’ letters from Leon and Rudolphe, and it becomes blatantly obvious that Emma was having multiple affairs, Charles dismisses the evidence as innocuous and attempts to rationalize their existence. This ignorance however only illustrates Charles’s naivete and enables Emma to continue her outrageous behavior.
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