Emma Bovary: The Faux-Tragic Heroine

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It is without a doubt that Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary deserves its place among the great works of canonical literature. His use of free indirect discourse was revolutionary at the time of the novel’s publication, and has been an influence over Western writers, and therefore readers, ever since. Added to this style, and perhaps this is the crux to have kept the novel’s relevance alive for over a century, is the relatable mundane subject matter and portrayal of his characters. We all can recognize bits and pieces of Charles Bovary, Emma Bovary, Homais, and others in either ourselves or those in our lives; hence, though the narrator is, as Mario Vargas Llosa describes, an invisible teller (422), we are able to feel the emotional thrills, frustrations, and pains undertaken by the characters. Our emotional connection with these characters reaches its zenith in the third part of the novel. The frenzy of Emma’s sensual desires are realized and fulfilled, while at the same time are on a collision course with reality’s demands on justice. It comes as no surprise when Lheureux finally calls to collect on all of her debt, but that does not make her desperate appeals to the men in her life (excluding, of course, Charles) any less pitiful. Her death is excruciating not only for the characters, but for the readers. The downward spiral which follows her death – Charles’ depression and death, Justin’s haunted soul, Pere Rouault’s paralyzation, and little Berthe’s condemnation to the cotton mills – is both heart and gut wrenching. Insult is added to injury when we learn Homais has finally received his Legion of Honor. We close the book with heavy hearts, hopeless.

The book is sad, without question. But can it be called tragic? And, if it can be deemed tragic, as many contemporary book reviewers in the blogosphere claim, who is the tragic protagonist? Could it be, as these same reviewers ascribe to the role, Emma Bovary – the woman to have caused all this pain and suffering? Perhaps because of Emma’s relatability and Flaubert’s use of the free indirect discourse, combined with the 21st century’s constant accessibility to sad, upsetting, and disconcerting media which is often described as tragic due to its emotionally and psychologically overwhelming nature, a contemporary reader is inclined to also classify Emma and her world tragic. But is this inclination justified, or has tragedy become another meme to describe the suffering and seemingly nonsensical or unjustifiable incidences in the lives of an individual, family, or society?

It is not the role nor aim of this paper to judge contemporary culture. However, because Flaubert’s free indirect discourse has created Emma Bovary as a modern as well as timeless female protagonist, she must be scrutinized under a definition of the tragic which is applicable in the contemporary sense, while also being timeless. If sadness, depression, and illogical occurrences in a hero’s life don’t qualify as tragic, then a more measurable and therefore observable definition must be expressed. Luckily for readers, such a definition already exists. It will be under the lens of the classical definition of tragedy by which Emma ought to be judged.    In order to qualify as a tragic hero, the following two tragic traits must be present either within the nature or life of the character who is taking on the tragic role: 1) A justifiable cause for action, either legally or ethically, must exist. Most often, this cause will also expose a greater Truth discovered via the Quest; and 2) The character has a moral claim upon the means justifying the Quest’s end, and therefore is fully cognizant, or will become fully cognizant, of reality’s social contract which will demand either restitution or unbiased consequences to those willful actions realized within the Quest.

Almost from the very moment we meet Emma, we are presented with her desire and search for love. The chapters following her wedding ceremony to Charles, chapters seven and eight, provide a personal history seeped in Romantic beauty and love, exacerbated by the fateful ball at La Vaubyssard. From that moment on, it has been Emma’s goal to recreate all that she had fancifully hoped for since childhood and tasted at the estate of the Marquis d’Andervilliers. This journey for true, romantic, passionate love and living had become her quest, though little evidence is given in the rest of the novel to actually qualify it as the quest. On the contrary, evidence nullifying her idea of the quest is provided when Emma meets Leon for their tryst at Rouen’s cathedral.

“ ‘Read this! She said, handing him a piece of paper . . . ‘No,no!

And abruptly she drew back her hand and went into the Lady Chapel, where … she began to pray…

Emma was praying, or rather endeavoring to pray, in the hope that some sudden resolution would descend upon her from heaven” (Part III, 214).

The above scene is problematic to Emma’s quest because it exposes her lack of justifiable cause. Emma’s quest has no purpose beyond fulfilling her own selfish needs and desires. A hero need not be a moral paragon of virtue, but his or her quest must produce a Truth identifiable to the reader. To produce a Truth requires action, and it is in this action where heroics are defined. Most notably, it is the acting upon personal will, despite the odds for failure, which mark a heroic quest. On the flip side of this coin of free will, and more importantly than even the action, is the hero’s personal claim on his or her will. Said in another way, he or she is responsible for his or her actions, and owns that responsibility by acknowledging the natural law of consequences.

When Emma produces her letter to call off the tryst, and then quickly it hides it, the reader is aware that her indecisiveness is nothing more than a coquettish mannerism approaching modesty. It is a mannerism which she has affected before, and one which gives her more magnetism and power over her potential lovers. After all, if she truly wished to take responsibility for her actions, she would have mailed the letter to Leon, rather than tease him with a face-to-face meeting.

Added to this duplicity is her act of praying. The narrator even clarifies this action as “endeavoring to pray” instead of actually doing so. This clarification is necessary because it exposes her purpose. Emma does not wish to act upon her own will and conscious because she does not want to face the responsibility those actions will induce; but she does wish for the exhilarating perks of the quest. If she were to receive a sign from God to either go on with Leon or go home, all responsibility is removed from her – as is her will to act. She wants to be the victim, in this case the definition of victim as that of someone with no choice or ability to shape the circumstances of her life. If she is a victim, then there is no possibility for the quest. She would be in the sad position Charles describes when drinking beers with Rodolphe, “Fate is to blame!” (Part III, 310). The tragic hero does not blame Fate for the consequences which befall him. Often, it is the struggle against Fate, the desire to rest will from Fate’s hands which mark the tragic hero as such. Emma’s desire for victimization may satisfy the necessary qualities of a Romantic hero, but is certainly removes Emma from the Tragic.

Emma lacks not only a quest, but a moral claim to any of her life’s choices. It ought to be noted that when discussing the moral claim, it is not under the context of the moral virtues such as lying, stealing, cheating (all of which, clearly, Emma is guilty) etc., but in the tragic hero’s knowledge of duty and superiority of purpose which can allow him (or her) to demand action on the part of others.

Her misguided moral claim is shown in her final confrontation with Rodolphe, as she makes her plea for a loan to pay off her mountainous debt. “…And you sit there quietly in your chair, as if you hadn’t made me suffer enough? Without you, you know very well, I could have been happy… And then, when I come back to him … to implore him for help, help that anyone in the world would give, when I come begging, bringing back all my love, he rejects me, because it would cost him three thousand francs!” (Part III, 277). She hurls both insults and objects at him, appealing to both Rodolphe’s and the reader’s sense of duty. The only problem for Emma, well there are two, but the first is that Rodolphe is under no duty to acknowledge her moral claim. They had been lovers, yes. But their amorous contract had been broken. She accuses him of making her suffer, but that suffering is part and parcel of all adulterous affairs. She willingly wanted the lover, but she did not want the responsibility and pain a lover would bring. Again, she makes herself the victim, rather than a tragic hero.

The moral obligation which Emma claims to have is loosened further by her lies. Even if Rodolphe is unaware of them, the reader is. She remarks she could have been happy without him. Yet, by the very fact that she had taken Leon on as a lover means that the actual man is not what creates or ruins her happiness, but the circumstance of having a romantic fantasy within or without her grasp. She states that “anyone in the world” would help her in these dire straights, yet the reader must question why anyone would. What moral claim does she have upon anyone in the novel? If she is unwilling to take truthful stock of her own life’s choices, and the quest which she so desperately wishes to realize, then why should any other soul in her frame of life take stock of it for her?

Emma Bovary goads pity and sadness from the reader. That Madame Bovary is a sad novel with a depressing heroine is undeniable. However, it is far from tragic. Due to Flaubert’s free indirect discourse, we are often led to believe the case for the tragic may be had. It is a subjective narrative playing upon the feelings and senses of the reader. It’s immediacy removes the reader from objectivity. If objectivity were more closely involved, we would more readily recognize Emma as a faux-tragic heroine.


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