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Madame Bovary and Swann in Love: the Effects of Acting on a Desire

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Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and ‘Swann in Love’ by Marcel Proust provide examples of the way desire affects romantic relationships. Both novels depict their female characters as desired and having desires; however, the desire they possess and manifest in others is what contributes to desire’s death. In Madame Bovary, Emma’s lack of desire for her husband and uncontrollable desire for unattainable romantic scenarios stirs up her adulterous desire for Léon and Rodolphe. Emma’s fervid desires are briefly satisfied by her affairs, but when Rodolphe leaves Emma and her devotion to Léon dissipates, Emma loses hope in the attainability of her desires, which leads to her demise. By embarking on a quest to satisfy her desires, Emma begins her descent into desire’s eventual death, because she realises that her desires will never be assuaged. In ‘Swann in Love,’ desire manifests from aesthetic association and absence or lack. Within Swann’s isolated sphere, removed from his lover, is where the desire to possess Odette’s heart and the fear of losing possession grows into an intense infatuation, which is deepened by his filtering of Odette’s appearance through the lens of the artwork he admires. Using artwork to create idealised representations of Odette allows Swann’s desire to intensify through jealousy and absence, securing his devotion for her until the end of their relationship. Both texts discuss the effects of acting on a desire encouraged by lack, exposing the nature of their desire as unable to be satisfied.

Emma’s relationship with language is directly linked to the literary stereotypes she consumes in her readings and projects through her desires. Emma’s infatuation with Romantic literary constructs creates ill-informed and unattainable desires. She speaks of her love of the romantic arts and conjures up images of ‘little boats by moonlight, nightingales in the grove, gentlemen brave as lions, tender as lambs, virtuous as a dream, always well dressed…’ Emma’s dissatisfaction begins with her husband, Charles, who stirs up no desire in her. Charles is a simple, provincial doctor who becomes a failure in Emma’s eyes; he is a man that ‘[knows] nothing, [teaches] nothing, [desires] nothing.’ Charles is the opposite of what Emma craves, which augments her desire for fulfilment and persuades her to submit to her adulterous longings, which is important to examine chronologically in order to analyse the progression of her desire. When Emma meets Léon, they bond over their shared contempt for provincial life and enjoy regurgitating the same ‘[stereotypes] of Romantic passion’ they consume in their readings. They play the part of the idealised romantics; enveloped in passion and the unique human experience, they speak of ‘[evenings] by the fire with a book, with the wind beating on the panes, the lamp burning…’ Every desire they have and every idealised perception of love is informed by the constructed versions of desire within the Romantic novel.

After Léon leaves Yonville, Emma’s attention shifts to Rodolphe, who further controls Emma’s perception of love. Rodolphe understands how to use romantic language to his advantage in order to seduce women, and this is highlighted during the agricultural show. Rodolphe’s dialogue is juxtaposed with the orator’s speech. As Rodolphe is making promises of love to Emma, the orator is rewarding prizes for achievements in agricultural commerce. This juxtaposition highlights the absurdity of Rodolphe’s promises: Rodolphe says to Emma, ‘A hundred times I wanted to leave, and I followed you, I stayed,’ to which the orator seems to respond to with ‘manure!’ The parallel between commerce and loving devotions also highlights the similarity between the two aspects of society: both attempt to maintain ‘the circulation of similar values.’ In this sense, the romantic stereotypes that ‘Emma has consumed… [is] preparation for being “consumed” as an object of male sexual desire.’ By surrendering to the idea that a woman’s desires are completely dependent on her ability to be desired by a man, Emma is relinquishing her sense of self which contributes to desire’s death because Emma is relying on a false perception of male love that, in reality, will never be fulfilled. As soon as she gives into Rodolphe’s devotions, she assumes the role of the literary female lover, showering the male subject with letters, love-making and sentiments. Eventually, this routine becomes too mundane for Rodolphe and Emma’s words began to ‘[mean] very little to him. Emma [is] just like any other mistress; and the charm and novelty, falling down slowly like a dress, [exposes] only the eternal monotony of passion, always the same forms and the same language.’ Emma praises the power of romantic clichés, touting them as an important way to accurately express human emotions. She believes that romantic rhetoric encourages desirability and an emotional self-awareness; however, Emma is unable to realise that the very rhetoric she places such importance on is an invention of the bourgeois meant to limit the value of the female self. Emma is unable to rise above her desire to uphold romantic clichés, which is the reason for her eventual demise.

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After Rodolphe leaves Emma because his desires are not in line with Emma’s longing to run away with him, Emma is thrown into a deep depression. Anxious to help his wife, Charles decides to take Emma to a production of Lucia di Lammermoor in Rouen. Emma is completely enraptured in the opera, and relates to Lucia, who is engaged in an arranged marriage. Emma reflects that ‘if only, in the freshness of her beauty, before the blight of marriage and the disillusion of adultery, she could have founded her life upon some great and solid heart… now she knew the pettiness of the passions that art exaggerates’ The result of Emma’s affair with Rodolphe is an acute awareness of the death of her ill-informed, fantasised desires which are inspired by art. Although Emma has come to a conclusion about the truths of her desire, she does not abandon her desires. Immediately following this scene, she sees Léon for the first time since their flirtations in Yonville, and Emma – already enveloped in remorseful desire – is thrown into the passion of her second affair. As their affair progresses, Emma becomes bored with Léon because he is unable to satisfy her unending desires. Emma tries to create in Léon her ideal lover, only to realise for the last time that this man does not exist in reality. Emma goes a step further and tries to recreate the romantic environments from her novels by filling her life with purchases from the local merchant, Lheureux, plunging herself further into debt. When she realises – despite her efforts to raise the money –that she cannot pay off her debts, Emma’s debt is the last disappointment before she decides to commit suicide. Desire in Madame Bovary springs from Emma’s lack of desire for her husband. The moment she tries to satisfy her desires, she is thrown into a world of emotional and financial ruin, and in realising that her desires have no possibility of being fulfilled, she takes one final action to remove herself from her cycle of disappointment.

In ‘Swann in Love,’ Swann’s desire develops through a construction of desire based on aesthetic associations, absence and jealousy. When he meets Odette, the demi-mondaine from the Verdurin clan, at the theatre, he originally says her looks give him ‘a sort of physical repulsion.’ The first event that begins Swann’s involvement with Odette is his conversation with Baron de Charlus, who ‘made her out to be harder of conquest than she actually was.’ This introduction intrigues Swann because he finds the idea of possessing her heart attractive enough to begin speaking with her romantically. As Marcel, the narrator, reflects, ‘in his younger days a man dreams of possessing the heart of the woman whom he loves; later, the feeling that he possesses a woman’s heart may be enough to make him fall in love with her.’ Here, Proust suggests not only that desire’s satisfaction contributes to its death, but that desire itself is dead. Desire ‘no longer evolves for itself,’ but is an outlet for male projection and self-interest; it is an invented emotion that is no longer alive in the female subject. With this outlook on desire, Odette becomes an ‘empty vessel into which the [male subject] projects his own desires and which he surrounds with an aesthetic aura of his own construction.’ Because women are an outlet for male expression of desire, Swann decides to spend some time with her, since she so willingly offers to spend time with him. Swann allows his desires to manifest through surrogate objects of art in which he attaches his desire for Odette to; however, it is not until his first visit to the Verdurin’s that Swann begins to attach aesthetic meaning to Odette. At the salon, Swann hears Vinteuil’s sonata for the second time, throwing him into a ‘world of inexpressible delights.’ Swann’s experience of the sonata seems sensual, ‘[leading] him first this way, then that… and then suddenly… in a fresh movement, more rapid, fragile, melancholy, incessant, sweet, it [bear] him off towards new vistas.’ Thus, Vinteuil’s sonata becomes a metonym of Swann’s love for Odette; because she was present in the room during Swann’s musical experience – which stirred up such passion and desire in him – he transfers this desire onto Odette in order to find a means to satisfy it. Throughout the novel, ‘the little phrase’ becomes a ritual for Swann; whenever it is played, it is a way explore the passion of the music and once more transfer it to Odette. One night, when Swann visits Odette’s flat, he notices a resemblance between Odette and ‘Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter.’ Again, Swann’s aesthetic admiration of Botticelli’s frescoes is transferred into an admiration for Odette because of their resemblance. Swann uses his aesthetic associations as a lens in which to view Odette through; it becomes a filter for his desire, highlighting Odette’s constructed desirability and hiding her qualities which originally repulsed Swann. Even after Swann is dismissed from the Verdurin clan and re-enters his aristocratic sphere, the Vinteuil sonata still reminds Swann of Odette, despite Swann’s awareness that he may never see Odette again. The last time he hears Vinteuil’s sonata is at Mme de Saint Euverte’s soirée and trying to avoid reopening the wound in his heart he says, ‘I mustn’t listen!’ However, with the song’s power to resurface his past desires, Swann is able to reflect on Odette’s absence from his life and eventually realise that his desire for her is better off dead.

While Swann uses aesthetic associations to cultivate his desire, absence and jealousy help to sustain it. Desire is based on absence; it is when Swann is removed from Odette that his interest in her grows into an irrepressible infatuation. The first moment Odette’s presence proves to have control over Swann is when he discovers her absence at the Verdurins. Having realised that she has already left, ‘Swann [feels] a sudden stab at the heart; he [trembles] at the thought of being deprived of a pleasure whose intensity he was able for the first time to gauge.’ Odette’s absence becomes ‘the “sole cause” of Swann’s affections, since it is only after having missed Odette that he appreciates “for the first time” the pleasure of her company,’ which highlights the very nature of Swann’s desire. His desire manifests when he is visited by ‘the insensate, agonising need to possess exclusively,’ a need that is amplified by the absence of the lover. One night, when Odette refuses to make love with Swann, he begins to suspect Odette’s infidelity. He decides to check on Odette, despite her contempt for jealous lovers, and knocks on the only illuminated window on her street, only to find that he visited the wrong window. One day, Odette asks Swann to mail some letters for her. He notices that one of the letters is addressed to Forcheville and, suspicious of an affair between Forcheville and Odette, Swann reads the letter, finding nothing suspicious about its content. Swann’s jealousy has him wavering between certainty and doubt; Odette’s absence contributes to Swann’s jealousy because he is afraid of losing possession of her heart, thus jealousy and absence keep Swann infatuated. This blind infatuation and surrender to desire is what eventually leads to the death of Swann’s desire for Odette. Eventually, he realises that she has not been faithful to him, and later reflects on the outrageous nature of his relationship with Odette, a woman was not his ‘type.’

Madame Bovary and ‘Swann in Love’ both present examples desires awakened by absence or lack and the inevitability of desire’s death when it is based on idealised representations. Both texts use art as an outlet for their perception of desire: Emma uses romantic novels to shape the way she understands the roles of a relationship and Swann views Odette through the beauty of art. Each relationship exposes the unreliability of art and language when it comes to representing a reality of love. The nature of Emma and Swann’s desire is centred around idealised and inaccessible principles. Emma is unable to satisfy her desires because they are based on unrealistic romantic stereotypes. The death of her desire is encouraged by her poisoned view of desire; Emma’s desire dies because she is unable to abandoned her longing to view passion through romantic clichés. Swann’s desire for Odette is filtered through Vinteuil’s sonata and Botticelli’s Zipporah, because the death of the female subject’s desire allows Swann to fully project his desires through Odette. Since Swann allows his idealised aesthetic associations to control his desire, he is unable to ascertain the inherent incompatibility of his relationship with Odette. Both texts end with the death of the subject’s desire: Emma’s affairs lead to a series of events that prompt Emma to commit suicide, whereas Swann eventually realises the absurdity of his attempt to satisfy his desires because Odette is unfaithful to him and does not love him. Madame Bovary and ‘Swann in Love’ explore the manifestation of desire through its lack and the death of desire through idealised perceptions.

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Madame Bovary and Swann in Love: the Effects of Acting on a Desire. (2022, July 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 22, 2023, from
“Madame Bovary and Swann in Love: the Effects of Acting on a Desire.” Edubirdie, 08 Jul. 2022,
Madame Bovary and Swann in Love: the Effects of Acting on a Desire. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 22 Sept. 2023].
Madame Bovary and Swann in Love: the Effects of Acting on a Desire [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jul 08 [cited 2023 Sept 22]. Available from:
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