Emma Bovary has become the epitome of desperate housewife, the archetypal unfaithful wife, the ultimate daydreamer whose fantasies lead to a premature self-destruction.
There is the tendency to believe that Emma’s mania, her depression and her subsequent suicide result from her clumsy attempts at upward mobility. Flaubert makes Emma’s desires and her unhappiness quite clear to us: she wishes to live like the heroines in her beloved romances, yearns for an impossible glittery lifestyle but, try as she might, never really succeeds in replicating the feelings or experiences she has read of. But, what if Emma’s desire was more nuanced than what we are lead to believe? If we were to consider it in the light of the philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s conviction that ‘people do not really want or desire happiness’ what conclusions would we come to?
This essay sets to explore the role of desire, happiness, and pain in the character of Emma Bovary: it will begin by considering what Emma seems to want then focus on what drives those apparent wants before finally turning to the conflicting sensations that Emma seems to experience in order to remain in a perpetual state of longing.
The author A. S. Byatt describes Emma as a ‘bourgois narcissist’ whose ‘most intense life was in books, from which [she] had formed vague images of passion and adventure, love and weddings, marriage and children’. Ignês Sodré follows a similar line of thought, arguing that Madame Bovary ‘centers on the misuse of imagination’ and adding that Emma ‘uses compulsive daydreaming as a (lethal) drug to “cure” empty, depressed states of mind’.
Prior to becoming Charles Bovary’s second wife, Emma was Emma Rouault, the daughter of a small farmer. While still at convent school, Emma becomes enthralled by the world of popular romances. Soon she begins to wish she could live like ‘one of those long-bodiced chatelaines who, […] would spend her days, […] watching a white-plumed horseman come galloping from the depths of the countryside on a black horse’ (32). She feels ‘an ardent veneration for illustrious or ill-fated women’ (32) such as Joan of Arc, Mary Stuart or the nun Héloïse. In her article Byatt stresses that Emma is ‘not only a romantic reader, but a bad reader,’ meaning that Emma is captivated by the regalia worn by the hero of a novel rather than by the hero himself. We find this same attitude towards many things in her life: ‘She loved the sea only for its storms, and greenery only when it grew up here and there among ruins’ (31). Likewise, while at the convent she seems to more attracted to the trappings of religion rather than feeling a genuine devotion: she focuses on the appearance of the ‘white-faced’ nuns, the rosaries, the copper crucifixes, ‘the perfumes of the altar, the coolness of the fonts, and the glow of the candles’ (30). She does not pay attention to the Mass, gazing instead ‘in her book at the holy pictures with their azure edges’ (31). Emma Rouault loves ‘the church for its flowers, music for the words of its songs, and literature for its power to stir the passions’ (34).
Emma Bovary strongly resembles her maiden self. She is disappointed by her marriage, for she considers Charles to be a man who ‘taught her nothing, knew nothing, wished for nothing’ (35). She thinks him dull and unambitious, the very opposite of an ideal husband. Emma is equally let down by her experience of motherhood, which is quite unlike the one she envisioned. Finally, her love affairs – with Rodolphe and Léon – seem to offer merely a pretext for her to exchange keepsakes and letters with another/a man. Emma goes through the motions of being in love without feeling any real love; it is the opportunity of wearing a new riding habit that causes her to embark upon her first affair. It is unsurprising then that she soon grows weary of both her lovers: ‘[Emma] was rediscovering in adultery all the platitudes of marriage’ (257).
As Emma’s appetite for luxurious material goods increases, she grows more disillusioned with her life, and since the happiness those extravagant items give her is merely temporary, she is unable to fight ennui. Byatt suggests that Emma’s insouciant reading of romances is at the origin of the ‘lethal vagueness of her fantasies’ that will lead Emma to replicate those romances she loves through her love affairs and by buying ‘the concrete toys – the riding whip and cigar-case’ that allow her to ‘act out her daydreams’. Her mounting debt to Lheureux, the man who sells her the material goods she so desperately craves, and her failed love affairs contribute to bringing about Emma’s own demise.
Even before marrying Charles, Emma had fallen prey to ennui: soon after leaving the convent ‘she considered herself to be thoroughly disillusioned, with nothing more to learn, nothing more to feel’ (34). Whereas boredom is a ‘response to the immediate’, ennui ‘belongs to those with a sense of sublime potential, those who feel themselves superior to their environment’. And indeed, Emma feels a sense of superiority to what surrounds her: her dull husband, her mother-in-law, her servants, the uncouth villagers, the ‘tiresome countryside, the idiotic petits bourgeois, the mediocrity of life’ (50). Emma is adamant that she has been cast in the wrong role, that of a petit-bourgeois woman, believing that she deserves to live as a heroine in a romance does, married to Prince Charming and surrounded by beauty.
A pattern gradually emerges: time and again Emma is disappointed by her attempts to reconstruct the world portrayed in her romantic novels. At the same time, it is almost as if Emma is unconsciously not really interested in satisfying her desire or making her daydreams reality; what she seems to truly enjoy is the act of desiring itself. After all, it is only in her fantasies, and by apotheosizing her past experiences, that Emma can envision herself experiencing a form of pure sensation and heightened emotion. And perhaps it is the very act of fantasizing that enables her to feel something akin to jouissance, which in Lacanian theory is a form of ‘backhanded enjoyment’, an excessive pleasure that ‘[b]egins with a tickle and ends with blaze of petrol’. The pleasure that Emma feels by longing – by the very act of daydreaming – is similar to the ecstatic feeling experienced by her dream self. Yet, the enjoyment that she derives from yearning is accompanied by a feeling of pain since Emma is only able to long because she is missing something. Paradoxically, then, Emma can find fulfilment in the perpetuation of her non-fulfilment given that ‘every form of fulfilment necessarily brings an end to the desired state of longing, it is only the infinite deferral of satisfaction that keeps desire alive’.
Let us for a moment imagine that either Rodolphe or Leon had lent Emma the money she needed to repay her debt and or had spirited her away from Yonville. What would have likely happened? Would Emma have been content to own those possessions she hungers for? Are we to believe that she would be happy? That if her Prince Charming had come for her she would have felt the true all-encompassing love that she had dreamt of?
Slavoj Žižek presents us with a ‘traditional male chauvinist scenario’ in order to explain what he means by people not wanting what they desire: a married man yearns to be with his mistress, believing that if his wife were to ‘disappear’ he would be able to be happy with his mistress; the wife, for some reason, does leave, and the man, who now has the opportunity to be happy and live with his mistress, discovers that this does not make him happy; what he really wanted was to keep her as a distant object of desire. Thus it seems likely that Emma would always find something else to long for in order to maintain what Lacan refers to as an objet petit a, the unattainable object of desire, because it is that very act of longing combining a future hope with nostalgia for the past that she really wishes to experience.
The Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi comes to a similar conclusion in a fictional dialogue between the poet Tasso and his ‘Familiar Spirit’:
Spirit. ‘Between truth or reality, and a dream there is this difference–the latter is much the finer thing of the two’.
Tasso. ‘What! The pleasure of a dream worth more than a real pleasure?’
In his essay ‘History of the Human Race’, Leopardi describes how in youth ‘men were never weary of looking at the sky and the earth, which excited within them feelings of wonder and admiration […] every sensation of life gave them inexpressible pleasure’, once they reached adulthood however ‘their feelings began to experience some alteration […] and present happiness isolated from anticipation of the future, did not suffice them;’ this same arc applies to Emma for whom ‘it is expectation that constitutes pleasure’ not pleasure itself. It is the anticipation ‘and recollection of these last, which fill up the remainder of life, are better and more delightful than the pleasures themselves’. Paradoxically, it is only through deprivation – the apparent non-fulfilment of her ‘desires’ (eg. wealth, love) – that Emma can truly experience the intense feeling aroused by her exorbitant expectations.
Whilst at the convent Emma is drawn to the images of ‘the sick ewe, the Sacred Heart pierced with sharp arrows, or poor Jesus falling, as he walked, under his cross’ (32) and searches for vows she can fulfill, believing that her life must have a higher purpose. As a married woman she constantly anathematizes her present in order to maintain her aesthetics of longing, obtaining a perverse sense of pleasure from the belief that she is leading an existence devoid of the love and riches she deserves and casting herself in the role of domestic martyr.
Always, deep in her soul, Emma ‘was waiting for something to happen,’(58) but perhaps unbeknownst to her it is through this ‘exaggerated anticipation’ of a better future that she is able to feel something akin to sublimity. Emma would devote herself to ‘a lifetime of longing, longing to be rescued, longing to be completed’. Crushed by debt, deserted by her lovers, and, most importantly, denied the jouissance resulting from yearning, Emma is left no choice but to kill herself.
Byatt, A. S., ‘Scenes from a provincial life’, The Guardian, 27 July 2002 <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/jul/27/classics.asbyatt> [accessed 23/04/18]
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Lacan, Jacques, Book X: Anxiety, trans. A. R. Price (USA: Polity Press, 2014)
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