Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is undoubtedly one of the most controversial works in its age due to the immoral nature of its protagonist, Emma Bovary. Emma passes with good reason for one of the most powerful portraits of a woman in fiction, the most living and truest to life where sentimental young woman whose foolishly romantic ideas on life and love, cause her to become dissatisfied with her humdrum husband and the circumstances of her married life. Her feeling of disillusionment led her first into two desperate hopeless love affairs, and then to an agonizing and ugly death from arsenic.
Emma is first and foremost, a person of sensuous nature, and more a romantic. Her sensuality is combined with vulgar imagination and a considerable degree of naivete. She symbolizes the double illusion. First the illusion that things change for the better in time; then the same illusion of spatial terms, the closer things were something that should be turned away from. She accepts Charles, the healthy doctor, because he represents the outside world. She sees matrimony in terms of a candle-lit midnight wedding. But marriage itself utterly disappoints her. She begins to dream of a happiness that can exist in faraway places but to no avail.
Emma’s monotonous existence is disrupted by the invitation to a real ball. Slowly her fantasies come to crystallize in a particular town. It is accompanied by neglect of all materials and an over readiness to fall in love. Emma loves life and pleasure, much more than she loves a man. She is more ardent than passionate. She was in love with Leon, but his physical presence troubled the voluptuousness of this meditation. The Rodolphe affair is in fact a kind of physical parody of the idealized relationship she maintained with Leon. Rodolphe exists on a lower plane, an animal existence.
Her marriage, her boredom, her newly awakened sexual desires, and her romantic dreams – all contribute to her fall. Emma is undoubtedly a victim of circumstances. Unlucky coincidences, stupid men and human weaknesses force her fate to be damned for ever. Charles has been systematically invented to be her undoer. She made efforts to love him and repented on tears for having given into another. She could have experienced the great revenge and pride of women, to give birth to a man; but it is a girl. In looking for religious help, she might have had better luck than with the unusually inept Bournisien, another character worthy of her bad luck.
The walls against which she will finally dash herself to the pieces have been erected around her as by an evil artist. Emma is sustained by willpower neither from within nor from her husband. In the absence of will power she has enough passion, a somber selfishness to drive a man to criminal deeds. We see her willingness to make Rodolphe into a murderer and she would make Leon, a thief. Though she is a creature of passion, she does not kill herself out of love, but for money. She reconstructs a world of love and luxury, joined like body and soul in the dream of an ideal life.
Her life will follow a parallel course on the financial and on the sentimental plane. The disappointment of one coincides with the troubles of another. Flaubert treats her death as damnation where the devil is present in the garb of a blind man, a grimaced monster she glimpsed during her adulterous trips to Rouen. She dies with an atrocious laugh of horror and despair. Emma lacks all capacity for sympathy. Imagination has consumed all other faculties and sentiments. She never had an image dependent on moral beauty. In fact, her life was spent in seeking an image for herself.
The search was doomed to destruction because no earthly role of herself or of love could satisfy her. In her own self determined embrace of romantic passion, she traces her own path to destruction. In doing so she moves us not to pity but simply to horror. Emma is essentially a novelistic creation set forth in all her internal complexities. Her dreams are destined by reality to wither into lies. Flaubert’s great success with Emma is that he makes the reader come into imaginative contact with his heroine, a kind of intimacy as the tale progresses and finally ends with tragedy for its heroine.