There are many Madame Bovary’s (both intra- and extra-textually, something Flaubert himself realized when he said “c’est moi”). In fact, there are three women who would, at one time or another, be referred to as Madame Bovary in the novel itself: Charles’s first wife, Heloise; his second wife, Emma; and his mother, the elder Madame Bovary. But before musing on the relation between these three characters, a little segue on a theme.
Throughout Madame Bovary, the theme of hope is continually under discussion; whether consciously or not. Emma’s continual boredom (the ennui) is repeatedly juxtaposed with the stagnant lifestyle of Charles. Even the prose, which follows Emma’s life with a very malleable mood, seems to become lively when she is excited and drawn out when she is bored. While Charles seems to be perfectly content with his easy, bourgeois existence, Emma finds the same daily routine to be a sort of eternal recurrence; the ultimate Nietzschean nightmare. And I agree with her. Throughout the time spent reading this book, everyone I have spoken with has recoiled in horror at the despicable individual of Emma Bovary. But this is a very typical, and I think somewhat naïve, reaction. Those who question the status quo, especially in a Kierkegaardian “the crowd stifles the individual” type of approach, are always labeled as sinners and traitors (similar to the way Flaubert was treated by the French government after having the novel published). Emma Bovary’s questioning of the bourgeoisie is not the problem in Madame Bovary; it is the way in which she reacts to this most harmful of problems that should be under criticism. And this leads us to the question of hope.
Emma’s boredom springs from an innate, and very Christian, desire to be released from the grips of an evil world’s system of conformity. She finds the class system boring and unsatisfying. The endless flow of capital and the rise of social status is a hellish and never-ending ladder to climb, and inevitably it leads to nowhere. The problem is inherently eschatological. Her plea is similar to that of the writer of Ecclesiastes: “All is vanity and grasping for the wind”. Life as currently constituted by the powers-that-be is not worth living. This is the prophet’s cry. It is only a prophetic imagination that can understand that the powers of this world hold people in subjugation through mindless repetition, a sort of devil’s liturgy. Only this prophet can agree with Chesterton that boredom is the prolegomena to the answer from God; that “a yawn is a silent shout”.
And here we see that the three Madame Bovary’s are all hoping for something. They understand that something from outside themselves must enrapture them and bring them harmony (the one thing that Romanticism understood correctly). Only the Wholly Other can deliver us. Unfortunately, the elder Madame Bovary saw this Other in living vicariously through her son; but that ended in constant failure on his part and endless frustration on hers. Ironically, Heloise finds this other in a sublimated version of herself. She constantly frets about her money, her social status, her husband’s activities, and especially her house, to the point that it kills her. And finally Emma. Her hope is the most grandiose of all – pure experience, unabashed sensuousness. She is every one of us who finds it so natural to fulfill our own pleasures, and to find this fulfillment as our telos. But her hope is shamefully immanent. Unlike the God of freedom we find in the Christian faith, He who leaves transcendence and becomes immanent for our salvation, Emma’s hope is in immanence itself; and ends in a most disparaging fashion for her: “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward” (Ecclesiastes 9:5).