The Image Of Women In The Nineteenth Century In Flaubert's Madame Bovary

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Women in society have always been seen as inferior to men. With that being said, there has always been a social construct that men have more power and responsibility than women. In Madame Bovary (1857) Gustave Flaubert manages to show how Emma is simultaneously the perfect woman and the nightmare woman of this period. Through her life, he attempts to show us an objective, intimate perspective on the difficulties of womanhood during a restrictive and judgmental time period. Flaubert does this by utilizing Emma’s masculinity to accentuate Emma’s desire for control and uses this to depict her difficulties with her power. It gives us an insight into the challenges associated with womanhood without much power. Flaubert’s ultimate goal when talking about the woman in the novel was to depict the idealized vision of the perfect nineteenth-century woman.

One of the most significant events in the novel that shows Emma’s misfortune is when she gets pregnant. She wants the child to be a boy because she does not want a girl to have to go through the same problems that she had to go through. She knows that men in the nineteenth century had more opportunities than women so having a boy was one of her biggest desires. She shows this when she says “A man, at least, is free; he can explore each passion and every kingdom, conquer obstacles, feast upon the most exotic pleasures. But a woman is continually thwarted. Both inert and yielding, against her are ranged the weakness of the flesh and the inequity of the law.” Emma knows that the rights of men and women are different, and so she believes that the only way she could remain happy is by having a boy. She knew that if she did have a boy, it would have the freedom and strength to overcome the constraints that had always so frustrated her. This is explaining the powerlessness that she continually dealt with both in society and her personal life. Flaubert highlights Emma’s lack of power in order to give the reader some sympathy for her plight as a woman in the 19th century. Even though Emma makes mistakes of her own, she is still trapped in a life she finds miserable due to her inability to create a life on her own.

Emma’s early life at the convent influenced her entire approach to life. She preferred the dream world rather than the real world. Instead of being brought up in the realities of everyday living, she was sent as a young girl to a convent where she indulged in daydreams and in sentimentalizing about life. Here at the convent, she began reading romance novels which affected her entire life. She constantly felt the need for excitement and could not endure the dull routine of everyday living. After her marriage with Charles, Emma continued in her search for excitement. All she desired for was a higher class life with the “perfect husband” and a substantial amount of money. Emma felt powerless and unworthy and wanted a man like the ones in her romantic fantasies. “She had bought herself a blotting pad, a writing case, a pen holder, and envelopes, though she had no one to write to; she would dust her ornaments, look at herself in the mirror, pick up a book, then, dreaming between the lines, let it fall into her lap. She longed to travel or to go back and live in the convent. She wanted equally to die and live in Paris.”

Emma could not tolerate her marriage because it did not fit into the fictionalized accounts that she had read about. She was continually dissatisfied with her life and searched constantly for ways to change things. “Down in her soul, she was waiting for something to happen. Like a shipwrecked sailor, she perused her solitary world with hopeless eyes, searching for some white sail far away where the horizon turns to mist.” (1.9.58) She felt empty, and unworthy as she depended on her romantic novels growing up to influence her life. Thus, since life refused to conform to her romantic picture, she began to alternate between various things in the hope that her unfulfilled longings would be satisfied. She tried everything and even redecorated the house, took up reading, subscribed to Parisian magazines, helped at charities, knitted, painted, played the piano, and engaged in a multitude of other activities. But with each thing she attempted, she soon became bored and rejected one activity for another. This frenzied search for excitement exhausted her until she made herself physically sick.

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In Madame Bovary, the beginning of Emma’s powerlessness began with her union to Charles. Because of this, she resorted to other men including Rodolphe and Leon. Charles’ mediocre existence was an embarrassment that Emma wasn’t legally able to break free from. During the nineteenth century, the wife was expected to look after the family and household. This feeling of emptiness and lack of power led to her affairs with Leon and Rodolphe. She wanted to have control over people’s emotions and desires. Her romantic involvement with Rodolphe and Leon satisfied her desire to have influence over their decisions. With Leon, Emma felt that she has found a kindred spirit. He served to illustrate the divergence between Emma’s dreams and her reality. Both Leon and Emma wanted to flee to bigger and better things. However, since Leon is a man, he was unable to actually flee to the city to fulfill his dream, while Emma had to remain in Yonville, chained to her child and her husband. It showed her the concept of a perfect husband unlike Charles, who made her feel unworthy. She forces Leon to conform to her idealized concept of a lover. Emma refuses for a long time to face reality, and the contrast between Flaubert’s objective description of the weak, fluctuating Leon and Emma’s idealized conception of him underlines Emma’s predicament. Rodolphe is a wealthy man with much financial power and was able to take Emma from her current life into one she strongly desires, but he leaves her. Being a woman, she is not capable of leaving on her own. He would seduce her, and Emma without a clue went with it. His attraction toward Emma was founded only on her good looks and her sensuous appeal. Thus, he had no qualms about seducing her and later abandoning her. I was almost as if he didn’t have any emotion, only concerned only with his own pleasures.

Emma knew that when she grew up she wanted to be wealthy and apart of the bourgeois upper class. Charles was a doctor who earned a reasonable amount of money, but this wasn’t enough for Emma’s desires. Emma Bovary was a middle-class woman who could not stand the middle-class life. She spent her entire life in an attempt to escape from this middle-class existence by dreams, love affairs, and false pretensions. The concept of being wealthy was always appealing to Emma, so she would spend money on things that she knew she couldn’t afford. She was bored with her life, and because of this, she resorted to spending money; not only for herself but for her secret lovers Rodolphe and Leon. She constantly felt the need for excitement and could not endure the dull routine of everyday living. She dreamed of a life that that would allow her to look for ideals and feelings greater than she was. Even though these ideals might’ve been superficial, she was aware that feelings were greater than those found in her middle-class surroundings. Emma would use money as an escape route, and Lheureux managed to take advantage of her situation by convincing her to buy new things that he new she couldn’t afford. This resulted in putting Emma and Charles in more and more debt every time. She ended up killing herself because she was in so much debt and she was indebted because of her extramarital love affairs.

In short, her suicide happened to be the last consequence of a chain of causes that reached back to a first mistake: as she had too much imagination, she had mistaken literature for life. The feeling of emptiness in Emma made her want to become more powerful, but it didn’t actually help her in the end. All of her choices somehow reflected her childhood dreams which negatively impacted her life in the end.

In Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert deconstructs the nineteenth-century notion that women should have fewer desires and ambitions than men and suggests instead that women’s subordinates role in society creates tensions between their internal and external lives. Flaubert depicts the frustrations that Emma Bovary might have felt. Though Emma has her flaws, she is trapped with little recourse in a life that feels wrong in her social standards. She dreams of something extraordinary that she can be content with. Emma had always wanted a boy because she knew that men had the freedom and strength to overcome the constraints that had always frustrated her. She preferred the dream world rather than the real world and she adapted to the idea of a “perfect life” by growing up in a convent. One of the biggest starts to Emma feeling Powerless was her marriage to Charles. Because of this, she resorted to other men including Rodolphe and Leon.

The concept of being wealthy was always appealing to Emma, and money made her feel powerful, so she would spend it like it meant nothing. Little did she know that it would lead to going into debt as well as her eventual death. Women in Flaubert’s day were far more restricted than their male counterparts who were allowed to pursue their dreams and experiment. It’s shown that women’s desires can never be fulfilled in a society that holds them back.

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The Image Of Women In The Nineteenth Century In Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. (2021, August 28). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 24, 2022, from
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