Madame Bovary Essay

Posted on July 21, 2009

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert is the mid nineteenth century story of a French woman named Emma Bovary in bourgeois society, who passionately but recklessly pursues the splendid life that her imagination strains toward. She tries to fill her emptiness with books, with fantasies, with sex, and with things. This desire for more, and the difference between her illusion and reality, is what ultimately destroys Emma. The ball at Vaubyessard is the episode in which Emma’s discontent with her marriage is further enhanced by the magnificent display of luxury and by the exhilaration of the ball. The ball gives her a taste of the satisfaction of living her illusions, which makes her dread even more the tediousness of reality. Flaubert illustrates the evil effects of reading, the emptiness of romantic illusions, as well as the temptations of luxury and treachery through the episode of the ball at Vaubyessard. He uses techniques of contrasting imagery, negative connotation, and ironic tone in order to carry out his theme.

The episode of the ball at Vaubyessard is full of reoccurring images that represent Emma’s life, foreshadow future events, and support the themes. “Emma dressed with the meticulous care of an actress making her debut.” (Page 67) Indeed the ball was a real-life event that reflects the content of Emma’s books, and Emma feels as if she is acting the part of the heroine. This sensation is what she tries to pursue for the rest of her life. Her persistent attempts to create this idyllic world for herself lead to her moral depravity and financial destruction. Her failure to satisfy these desires ultimately leads to her utter disillusionment. “A servant climbing on a chair broke two windowpanes; at the noise of the shattered glass, Madame Bovary looked round and saw some peasants, their faces pressed to the window “Then the memory of Les Bertaux came back to her, she saw the farm again.” (Page 69) This is but a brief intrusion of reality to Emma’s dreamy experience at the ball. The shattered glass imagery is foreshadowing Emma’s shattered life due to the blindness of her romantic ideals. The peasants at the window represent Emma’s reality, and also foreshadow her eventual bitter disappointment when all that she pursues fails to give her happiness.

The image of the circle, which reoccurs throughout the book, represents Emma’s emotional circles and her circulatory life. “They began slowly, then moved more rapidly. Everything was turning around them, the lights, furniture, paneling, and the floor, like a disk on a pivot.” (Page 70) “Emma said nothing and watched the wheels turn.” (Page 72) The spinning and turning is an imagery of Emma losing control of her life. Emma is caught in between escape and confinement. She attempts again and again to escape the ordinariness of her life by reading novels, having affairs, day dreaming, moving from town to town, and buying luxurious items, but in the end she is left in emotional turmoil.

“Along the row of seated women, painted fans were fluttering, bouquets half concealed smiling faces, and gold-stopper perfume bottles were being turned in half-opened hands”. Lace trimmings, diamond brooches, and bracelets with lockets trembled on bodices, sparkled on breasts, jingled on bare arms.” (Page 68) “You could hear the clinking of gold coins dropping onto the card tables in the next room; then everything began at once”. (Page 68)

These two quotations provide the superficial imagery of the ball. It is all that Emma is yearning for, the lavishness and the happiness. Emma tries to fill the emptiness of her life with material things, but they end up being the very things that finally destroy her.
“A woman near her dropped her fan as a man danced by”. The gentleman kneeled down, and as he reached out, Emma saw the young woman’s hand throw something white, folded into a triangle, into his hat.” (Page 70) “Exotic plants bristling with hairy leaves rose in pyramids beneath hanging vases, which, like over-crowded serpents’ nest”. twisted green tendrils over their edges.” (Page 72)

These are images of deceit and treachery, other methods that Emma uses to pursue her idealistic romances. On two occasions she is persuaded that adultery can give her the splendid life that her imagination conjures up, and both times she is left feeling bitterly disappointed.

Flaubert uses many different techniques in addressing his themes. He writes neither in the third person, nor the first, but with varying narrative. Events are recorded as if from the viewpoint of a particular character but not in that character’s voice. Flaubert retains a distance that evokes objectivity but also seems disdainful. His characters all seem ridiculous. When Rodolphe Boulanger seduces Emma, for example, they are at a country fair and he whispers above the sound of a farm wife winning an award for her pig. To Boulanger, his winning of Emma is no more consequential than the woman’s winning of pig meat. Irony is incorporated when a character’s perception completely differs from what is obvious to the reader. One example would be Emma’s perception of the marquis’ father-in-law and what we know from Flaubert’s description.

“There was one old man eating, bending over his well-filled platter with his napkin knotted in back like a child, drops of sauce dribbling from his mouth”. Emma could not keep herself from staring at the slack-mouthed old man as someone extraordinary and august. He had lived at Court and slept in the bed of queens!”” (Page 67)

Emma sees a respectable, majestic old Duke of Laverdiere, while the reader sees a drooling old man.
Flaubert’s selection of detailed description is very important in carrying out his ironic tone. He shows the reader the superficiality of Emma’s perception with the description of “Lace trimmings, diamond brooches, and bracelets with lockets trembled on bodices, sparkled on breasts, jingled on bare arms.” (Page 68) He mentions nothing about the people under these decorations because Emma does not notice them. Another technique Flaubert uses is contrasting images. The reader sees what Emma remembers back on Les Bertaux versus what she sees at the ball. It presents to the reader Emma’s emotional struggle between escape and confinement, the ideal versus reality, her sensation of living a novel and the fear of exiting it.

Emma Bovary is deluded by literature because she is in search of ecstasy and transcendence. She is looking for a higher, more meaningful life than the one available to her as the wife of a bourgeois country doctor, and in this quest she finds only self-destruction. She dies because she has attempted to make her life into a novel. The scene of the ball at Vaubyessard is setting the stage and foreshadowing her fate. At Vaubyessard Emma first has the experience of feeling as if she is living in a novel, and it is what she keeps on pursuing to her ultimate demise.

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