Madame Bovary

I haven’t posted a character commentary in a while. Last time was a character I love, Ray the Lightning Bug from The Princess and the Frog. This time, it’s the opposite extreme, a character I DESPISE, Emma Bovary from Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.

I Loathe Madame Bovary

The character more than the book, but I’m not super-fond of either.

Emma is among the original desperate housewives. She married young and spent her life dissatisfied, running up debts, having affairs, and basically ruining the lives of the people who loved her, her husband and poor daughter.

Some argue Emma’s behavior is all about her struggle for (and lack of) power as a woman in French society at that time. Maybe. But I read about a selfish, rather stupid woman, who fell victim to her own impatience and impulses again and again, who remained perpetually unhappy with her (often terrible) choices, and who gave no regard to how her actions might impact her husband and, more importantly, her daughter.

I don’t think I’ve ever hated a character as much as I hate Emma. My dislike and great wish for her to die, and die a painful, sad, lonely, death, was the only reason I finished the book. The whole read was an ongoing internal battle. I wanted to put the book down to get away from her, but I also wanted to keep reading in the hopes I’d get to see her suffer and get the terrible end she deserved.

Is that harsh?

In the end, the writing, the classic book status, and my wish to see what would ultimately become of Emma and her family propelled me through. Barely. And I didn’t find the ending all that satisfying, particularly because the daughter bears the brunt of the consequences, while Emma and her husband escape through death.

I haven’t read enough “scholarly” insight on this work to have a wide, well-rounded opinion as to how this work is generally viewed, but a major part of my frustration is I don’t know if Flaubert wanted readers to hate Emma, or pity her, or both? Did he hate or love her?

Charles (her husband) was a bit of an idiot, but she married him, rather eagerly. Her life fell short of what she’d hoped, but it seems much of her unhappiness was caused by not knowing what she wanted, or maybe, that she wanted the wrong things. Handsome men, money, fancy clothes, status. Did she want these things because she saw them as power? Maybe the only sort of power she could realistically have as a woman at that time? Was she really aware of a want or need for power?

I doubt it. I didn’t get that feeling from her in the book.

Was the lack of options and potential in her life at the root of her misery?

If it was, it was in the fact she saw her only option for change and improvement to be through a man, hence the lovers. But she even grew bored with them when the relationships started to demand something from her. She wanted whatever felt good at the moment, a new high, a different escape. Anything else was a drag she could hardly manage.

Was she striving for power or pleasure? I don’t know. Either way, I despise her, obviously with some passion, so that’s something to be said for her, I guess. She doesn’t inspire indifference, which could be taken as a greater offense.

In Her Defense

This section will be short.

  • Emma is certainly not the ‘save yourself’ sort of heroine my generation values, so the odds were never good I’d relate to her.
  • Emma might be an accurate (and sad and frustrating) example of a woman of her social position during a time period I don’t have a wide enough historic understanding or perspective to really appreciate. She might be a failed heroine, who had no chance to overcome the forces working against her in her life. Although, I’d argue she didn’t try to overcome anything. She indulged in her own misery and used it to justify whatever she wanted to do at the time.
  • I read this a number of years ago, so I wonder if it would look differently to me now, several years and life changes later. Although, honestly, I don’t know if I have it in me to get through it again.

Does anyone else feel the same about Emma Bovary? Am I TOTALLY off base on my understanding of and reaction to her? Who’s your most-least favorite character? What is it you so particularly despise about them?

Image Credit: Emma Bovary https://flic.kr/p/dZ6AyS by Helena Perez García license link: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

P.S. – I may not like Emma Bovary as a character, but I LOVE this image of her (and all the pencil drawn illustrations) by Helena Perez Garcia on Flickr here.


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