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in 1857 as a novel, after it had been serialized in La Revue de Paris from October1 – December 15, 1856. Although the book’s protagonist is Emma Bovary, she is not even a part of the story until after Charles Bovary has been fully introduced, and events continue to unfold after her death. Once she is introduced, the book follows her quixotic aspiration to live her dream life, only to be mastered and finally defeated by reality. After being married to Charles, Emma quickly becomes bored with him and becomes obsessed with living an elegant life. This eats at her constantly and Charles decides to move in an effort to ease her suffering. She gives birth to a daughter, Berthe and meets a young law student named Leon. The two quickly realize that they have similar tastes and mutual admiration; although at this time she hides her feelings and remains loyal to Charles. Eventually she meets a man named Rodolphe and after several seductive attempts by him they begin what is to become a long-lasting affair (three whole years). However, he becomes bored with her and ends it altogether. She eventually runs into Leon again and the two begin an affair of their own. Emma gradually spends herself into debt, mostly to a merchant named Lheureux. In despair she pleads with her former lover, Rodolphe, and current lover, Leon, who ends their affair right there when she suggests stealing from his employer. This causes her to sink to the lowest levels of the cesspool of despair and then she kills herself by swallowing arsenic stolen from their neighbor, Monsieur Homais. After Charles discovers the remnants of Emma’s affairs, his child discovers his dead body and is sent away to end up in the poor house working for the rest of her life. Despite Emma being the protagonist, she receives neither the first nor the last words of the book due to her rebellion against the patriarchy of the time and her suicide. This has led many to wonder whether or not the book is a feminist novel. With the clearest and most basic definition of feminism being any action that promotes equal rights for women, it is obvious that this book is a feminist novel. This book is a
feminist novel because Emma rejects the social roles that are simply handed to her by a patriarchal society. One of the more obvious rejections of social norms is shown by her demonstration of masculine behavior. The root of this idea stems from her view of the social roles of the genders: “A man is free, at least – free to range the passions and the world, to surmount obstacles, to taste the rarest pleasures. Whereas a woman is continually thwarted. Inert, compliant, she has to struggle against her physical weakness and legal subjugation. Her will, like the veil tied to her hat, quivers with every breeze: there is always a desire that entices, always a convention that restrains. (105)” Eventually, throughout the course of the book she begins to show these traits in Rodolphe’s presence: “Her glance grew bolder, her language freer; she went so far as to be seen smoking a cigarette in public, in Rodolphe’s company – “as though,” people said, “to show her contempt for propriety.” Even those who had given her the benefit of the doubt stopped doing so when they saw her step out of the Hirondelle one day wearing a tight-fitting vest, like a man’s. (224)” All of these behaviors are associated with the masculine role and even caused Rodolphe to question her assertiveness. He wonders whether she believes that she has corrupted him and is the dominant one over him. He is even led to ask her: “Do you think you deflowered me? (223)”. After Rodolphe has left her, she is able to put Leon in an even more submissive state: “He never disputed any of her ideas; he fell in with all her tastes; he was becoming her mistress, far more than she was his. (327)” At one point, Emma begins to shower Rodolphe with gifts, “But he found her presents humiliating, and on several occasions refused them. She was insistent, however, and he gave in, grumbling to himself that she was high-handed and interfering. (223)” This humiliates him because, not only is it the man’s role to shower her with gifts, but because of how dominant she was in making him receive these gifts as well. In accepting these gifts he is complicit in the financial ruin of the Bovary family.
Another masculine quality that Emma usurps from her husband is the control of family finances. She begins spending Dr. Bovary’s money on anything that she wants, including gifts for her lovers: “Emma let herself slide into this easy way of gratifying all her whims. When she decided she wanted to give Rodolphe a handsome riding crop she had seen in an umbrella shop in Rouen, she told Lheureux to get it for her, and he set it on her table a week later. (221)” Eventually, she even asserts herself over Charles’s concern for her and openly uses him as her own excuse: “It was a kind of permit that she was giving herself – a permit to feel completely unhampered in her escapades. And she proceeded to make free and frequent use of it. (327)”
This indirectly confined Charles even more strictly to the role she had decided for him. After forcing Charles to perform an experimental surgery that ends in failure, she is quick to purchase a new leg for the patient at Charles’s expense. “Charles never said a word. Nor did he protest at paying three hundred francs for a leg that she felt should be given to Hippolyte (220)”. Not only does he remain silent after purchasing the first leg, he allows her to buy a second leg for Hippolyte simply because he found the first too fancy: “But Hippolyte didn’t dare use such a beautiful leg every day, and he begged Madame Bovary to get him another that would be more suitable. Naturally Charles paid for the new one as well. (221)”. He allows this frivolous spending until she has signed the family into debt. Her obsession with control over money leads her into trouble with her inability to accept any limitations on spending. This sours her attitude toward her child before she is even born: “Emma’s first reaction to her condition was one of great surprise; and then she was eager to be delivered and know what it is to be a mother. But since she couldn’t spend the money she would have liked…she resentfully
gave up on her own ideas… Thus she had none of the pleasure she might have had in the preparations that whet the appetite of mother love; and this perhaps did something to blunt her affection from the beginning. (105)” And this leads her to reject one of the most predominant social expectations of women, which is motherhood. She treats her child no better than she did her pet which she lost through her own negligence. She even seems to have less patience with the child: “Let me alone!” Emma cried again, very much annoyed. The expression on her face frightened the child, who began to scream. “Won’t you let me alone!” she cried, thrusting her off with her elbow. Berthe fell just at the front of the chest of drawers, cutting her cheek on one of its brasses. … Madame Bovary rushed to pick her up, broke the bell-rope, called loudly for the maid; and words of self-reproach were on her lips when Charles appeared. (136)” Only caring for the child after she was hurt when all the child wanted was to be close to her mother. Evidently she cares no more for her child than she would for any random creature she might find in the street. If the definition of feminism is something which promotes equal rights for men and women, it is clear to see that Emma’s complete rejection of the roles handed to her is a cry for such equality. Though not an ideal example of rising above, Emma does actively resist playing the part society has assigned her. This makes her an acceptable example of a woman living with ideas she would be unable to attain. Even though she is not the best example of a free woman, she does foreshadow some of the problems of women today; women unable or unwilling to accept the confining domestic roles of wife and mother. Fun Fact: the word “feminism” was not coined until 1895, 15 years after Flaubert’s death.
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