Emma Bovary; incurable romantic or dangerous hysteric

Flaubert’s heroine didn’t start bad.  She was a lively imaginative girl.  She might have benefited from a bit of maternal constraint, but her mother died when she was just 11 and she was sent to a convent.   There her religious fantasies took a romantic turn.  She began reading the romantic novels or the time, imagined herself as the lady in the castle wooed by handsome knights.  It consumed her.  

When Charles Bovary, recently widowed, asked her father if he could court her, she was excited.  How romantic!  Charles clearly adored her.  The reality was less exciting.  She was only a teenager and like another teenager who married another Charles, she found her husband stuffy and boring and her way of life dull.  She knew how attractive she was to men and felt she had wasted herself with Charles.  Still, she did her best, she tried to make her husband’s life as comfortable as possible, but inside she was becoming desperate.  The invitation to the Viscount’s Ball was a rare opportunity to blossom.  Her card was full; she danced every dance, but none with Charles.  But he was not a suspicious or devious man; he liked to see the admiring glances men gave to Emma.  He was pleased she was happy. 

But the ball just added to her frustration.  She found the Viscount’s embossed cigar case on the way home and treasured it.  She began to dream of exciting liaison’s with other men.  She began to flirt.  Soon she had attracted Leon, a handsome though impecunious clerk.  Emma would slip out for clandestine liaisons at the bottom of the garden after Charles had gone to sleep.  She would entice Leon to abscond from his work in the afternoon.  She was taking enormous risks but she didn’t care; there were in love and that the only thing worth living for.   When Leon took fright and left her to go to work in Rouen, Emma was devastated.  She hardly went out of her room and complained of her palpitations. 

Not long afterwards, she attracted the interest of Rodolphe, a wealthy landowner who had recently bought the chateau outside the village.  He was not a timid man and made his intentions known to Emma from the start.  Wasn’t this what she had always dreamed of?  Rodolphe was confident.  He knew how to romance a woman and soon they were lovers, seizing every opportunity during the day to meet.  Often Emma would hurry to the chateau to spend her afternoons with Rodolphe.  She couldn’t get enough of him.  But she was running up enormous bills at the haberdasher and store in the village to maintain an increasingly exotic life style.  She persuaded Rodolphe to run away with her.  She would leave Charles, their daughter Berthe, and escape to Paris and from there to Italy.  They would be so happy.  It was sad, but for Rodolphe, Emma was becoming an embarrassing liability.  She was wonderful and entrancing, but he had to get away.  So he chose the coward’s route and left her a note as he sped through the village in his coach. 

Emma collapsed when she read the note and was ill for months.  She became pale, lost weight, had frequent attacks of the vapours.  She had little interest in the house, her appearance or even Berthe, but then she met Leon again and their relationship flared into a dangerous passion that threatened his new occupation in Rouen.  Besides, she was getting into serious financial difficulties and was being sued for debt.  Eventually, she could hide their precarious situation from Charles any longer; a notice was posted in the village square to the effect that their furniture was to be seized and sold off. 

Emma implored Leon to help; she even tried to encourage him to steal the money she needed from his firm.  She then went to Rodolphe, but he rejected her too.  So she persuaded the pharmacist’s assistant to open the store  where she discovered the arsenic and took a generous amount.  Charles spared nothing on the funeral; he doted on little Berthe, who had her mothers looks and charms.  But a year after Emma’s death, he opened Emma’s bureau and found all of the love letters.   Poor Berthe found him that evening dead in his chair.  He had had a heart attack. 

So how are we to understand Emma?  She was certainly an incurable romantic and she had the looks and the style to go with it.  She was the kind of person, who could illuminate a room.  She had a dangerous sexual energy, that would respond to any romantic impulse, she did not stop to see the consequences of her actions,  she wanted something or someone and she had to have them, no matter the cost or the risk.  But if any spurned her, she would cast them off without a second thought.  Those she loved to distraction, she would hate to destruction.  In the end there was only one way out for her; the romantic death.

Flaubert’s is a classic description of the hysterical personality.  All the features are there, the impulsive behaviour, the splitting, the fantasy life, the failure to consider consequences, the decline to an inevitable conclusion.  He would have been well aware of contemporary psychiatric descriptions of hysteria.  Nevertheless his novel shocked bourgeois society.  So is Madame Bovary a novel of its time?  Not at all!  Although Hysteria has been replaced in psychiatric nomenclature by borderline or narcissistic personality disorder, it has not disappeared.  People like Emma are still around – in fact the our current celebrity and media culture encourage it.  And hysteria remains the best term for it and Flaubert’s the best description.