On Happiness in Madame Bovary

OWC paperback cover, 2008.
OWC paperback edition, 2008. Image: goodreads.com

Happiness is something that we all search for, something we need to stay sane and want to live. Sometimes it comes to us by chance, and sometimes we actively pursue it, striving for it. Equally it can completely disintegrate or indeed never seem to completely find us, and we roam the Earth looking for some whole version of it.

The latter I think applies to the melodramatic character of Emma Bovary. Flaubert begins with Charles, and Emma is introduced to us as the young farm girl he makes eyes at over the kitchen table. To him she is an image of youth and innocence, of freedom and happiness; to her, he is an eligible doctor, someone kind who could take her away from her contented but simple existence. This is where it all goes wrong.

Charles and Emma Bovary are both quite lonely people, searching for the warmth they need to feel fulfilled and loved. But while Charles is (mostly) happy to be content, it is not enough for Emma. She married with hopes of money, adventure, love, and a new life, which is all very well except she chose the wrong person. Charles is nice, but he is too nice. He does not excite or engage Emma; instead she sees him as weak and quiet, boring and asexual (though they do of course consummate their marriage and produce the unlucky Berthe). Boredom becomes resentment, and resentment becomes hatred.

Charles is held back by his own failings and in no way nurtured or encouraged by Emma, who could give him confidence; but he does not nurture her either, but rather keeps a polite, though loving, distance. In fact, once they stop sleeping together he loves her entirely from afar. He could of course step forward and ask her why they have become so distant, and try to rekindle their early happiness – but this would require assertiveness, which Charles does not have. His emotional paralysis keeps him from happiness.

Emma meanwhile… oh Emma. She is a slightly ridiculous figure, constantly yearning for something she desperately wants, though she doesn’t quite know what that is, or how to get it. She moans and moans that she is unhappy but never comes to any conclusion about what she wants, other than the warmth of another body against her. Emma is painfully naive and deluded, clinging to Rodolphe’s advances and falling for all his bravado and sweet words. The reader knows that he sets out intentionally to seduce her heartlessly, and while it is awful to see Emma fall for it, it is not actually all that sad, because we knew she would fall for it and we are not surprised. She thinks, ah yes, a man who is not like Charles, he will hold me and love me and make me happy. As Emma does not know what she really wants, she does not really know what happiness is. To me it seems the picture of it she may have in her head is some hazy vision like a dream, an idealised fantasy she concocted as a child and one that she cannot quite make a reality.

While Emma is bold and brave to have affairs (especially in the 1800s), she is weak-hearted, and does not act to create happiness for herself. In a way she is as lacking in assertiveness as Charles. She expects both Rodolphe and Leon to sweep her off her feet and make her entirely blissful and happy. Why leave it all up to them?

This is also relevant when it comes to her and Charles’ finances. Emma runs up huge bills ordering clothes and travelling things in order to conduct her affairs, as well as her failed elopement with Rodolphe, and she more or less bankrupts them. But she does not try to earn money, she does not tell Charles how much they are in debt. Instead she puts everything off and does not confront it. Her self-inflicted suffering and death are the only way she can think to deal with things – in essence she not only resigns herself to but flings herself into unhappiness. For someone so unhappy with such a desperate wish to escape to happiness, she never comes up with a method of doing so and seem to propagate unhappiness. Her young daughter Berthe could be a great source of joy, but instead Emma ignores her, farming her out to a wet nurse and then a nanny, seeing her only briefly, unmoved by the infant’s desire for her mother. I found this aspect of Emma to be particularly heartless and selfish – for that is what she is, selfish. Fixated on an ideal but unreachable image of her own happiness, she has no thought for that of others and how it could be possible for her, Charles and Berthe to all be happy together. Instead she and Charles ignore each other and their feelings, and their potential happy family is thrown away.

After Emma’s death Charles has little money, and poor Berthe has to live with relatives after he dies, and go to work in a mill. While she does not live in poverty she has nothing compared to her mother and the sad isolation of her childhood seems to continue. Though I like to think that she has a happy life as an adult, making friends at the mill and meeting a nice man whom she loves, and who loves her just as much.

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