Her spleen seems to spring from an almost metaphysic lassitude with life. Emma is never satisfied, and for her, as Flaubert puts it, no pleasure was good enough, there was always something missing. If Emma cannot kiss her lovers without wishing for a greater delight, it is obvious that she cannot cling to anything real, but only to the ideal dreams. She desperately tries to find a responsible for her own unhappiness, without realizing that the tragedy comes from within herself, from her discontent with the real world:
But on whom could she pin the responsibility for her unhappiness? Where was the extraordinary catastrophe which had turned her life upside down? She raised her head and looked about her, as though seeking the cause of all her suffering.” (Flaubert, 155)
Significantly, Emma is incapable of finding any delight in her lover for example, and prefers to spend her time in a voluptuous meditation on love, rather than actually living the feeling. As such, Emma is unable to respond to reality in a conscious way. She only responds to her own fantasies, to the fabricated emotions. Thus, it can be argued, that from a psychological point-of-view, Emma is emotionally immature. She can only respond to romance the way she has read in the books she should, when hearing the steps of her lover for example or in any other vague moment:
But she was eaten up with desires, with rage, with hate. That dress with the narrow folds hid a distracted fear, of whose torment those chaste lips said nothing. She was in love with Leon, and sought solitude that she might with the more ease delight in his image. The sight of his form troubled the voluptuousness of this mediation. Emma thrilled at the sound of his step; then in his presence the emotion subsided, and afterwards there remained to her only an immense astonishment that ended in sorrow.”(Flaubert, 100)
Reality itself is a problem for Madame Bovary, as it does not conform to her ideal view of life.
As we have seen, Emma reacts in the same way to all the situations, she is fascinated by luxury because she feels aesthetic pleasure, she is fascinated by love because it wards off the ordinary reality, and because it can give her a new glow when she looks in the mirror. Also, she is fascinated even by religion in the very same way, and thrilled by the sublime idea of purity, that makes her want to become a saint: “She saw amid the illusions of her hope a state of purity floating above the earth mingling with heaven, to which she aspired. She wanted to become a saint. She bought chaplets and wore amulets; she wished to have in her room, by the side of her bed, a reliquary set in emeralds that she might kiss it every evening.”(Flaubert, 122)
It is hard to pinpoint the exact cause of Emma’s behavior and impossibility to adapt to reality, however, it is quite plain that her immaturity is, to a great extent, the result of her condition as a woman in the nineteenth century society. The provincial and patriarchal society in which Emma lives takes away all the freedom that a woman might enjoy. She can not act or think for herself, and she is limited to the pleasures of imagination. Her role as a mother and a wife in society is already fixed for her, and she has almost no choice but to be what society tells her to be.
Thus, Emma can be said to have reacted to the restraining environment in which she lived. If her behavior and thinking are to a certain extent immature and irresponsible, this is certainly the result of the society in which she lived. Her character of course, influenced and even triggered her tragic destiny, but had she been able to enjoy more freedom she might have developed in a different way. However, Emma is certainly an idealist, dissatisfied with the common life, and living in a chimerical world, not unlike that of the Spanish hidalgo Don Quixote.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary: Life in a Country Town. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Thornton, Lawrence. The Fairest of Them All: Modes of Vision in Madame Bovary,” in PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association. Vol. 93. No.…