Madame Bovary: The Victorian Instagram Star

Maybe not the best academic work I have ever done, but it certainly was a fun paper to write. I think this reflects my desire to make academic work and classic novels relevant to modern culture. So often, as a teacher, I hear students comment “How do we relate to this book?” and it is something every English teacher needs to deal with. In this instance, writing about a serious value issue within our society (obsession with being an influencer, or “insta-famous”) and the representation of that through classic literature, made Madame Bovary a more interesting read when I considered Emma Bovary a template, or cautionary tale, for someone who wants to, but can never quite become “insta-famous”. In this, I also dabble in the Malcolm Gladwell sort of style in which I attempt to blend academic and conversational tones within my writing. This was really the second time in my academic career that I tried this format of writing that allows me to play around with voice a little more.

Reality is a pesky little word. Billions of dollars are spent every year trying to escape reality. We buy phones and scroll through ‘social’ apps, go to movies, play video games, read books, and, when necessary, day dream. People have an inherent knack for escaping reality when they become bored. The more we feed our brain with garbage, the more we believe the world is garbage, and thus, the more we see the world not as it really is, but as it is through our own filters, for better or worse. This phenomenon of distractedness is not new. Gustave Flaubert employs this idea through his protagonist in Madame Bovary. Even though Emma Bovary is often villainized for her promiscuity, her actions can be understood through her behavior from the start of the novel through its conclusion.

It is easy to point to people who repeat transgressions, especially in today’s culture. We demand public apologies, whether they be authentic or not. Emma is no exception from Flaubert’s audience. It is easy to villainize her for her actions throughout the novel. She commits a fairly staggering number of betrayals and less than noble behaviors. She is disingenuous about money. Her infidelities are numerous, and her commitment to motherhood, though at first is good, almost entirely evaporates. At the time, she was merely looked at as the “weaker sex” (185), partially lending an understanding of her actions to Flaubert’s audience. Instead of trying to understand Emma’s position and consider it a cautionary tale of some sort, it becomes more about watching her downward spiral. We take a perverted pleasure in watching someone fail and suffer, fail and suffer. It’s a cycle that can be seen by simply turning on the television and hearing about the scandals of a celebrity personality. This provides the idea that human nature tends to enjoy the pain of others instead of trying to help them.

Instead of quickly jumping to condemn the actions of Emma, it is imperative to first try to understand her motive. As she finds herself in a bitter and unfulfilling relationship, her “special bents of mind had driven” (132) her to the arms of another man. These “bents of mind” are a result of Emma leading a life of what she is told and expected to lead rather than what she wanted to lead. Though her actions are not good reactions to her situation, they can be understood as the driving forces to what she has done. In this manner, her actions should be placed as a cautionary tale. Her disappointment is palpable since “the happiness she had expected this love to bring her had not come” (32). However, Emma does set up unrealistic expectations for what her life can be. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, Gladys presents Edward Malone with an ultimatum that she can only love a man who has some adventurous travels and dangers under his belt. Emma, having lived her life vicariously through novels, is seemingly expecting the same from her man, but Charles is not that man.

While growing up, people are often given a set path that their parents or guardians want them to go through. Children are expected to get good grades so that they can go to college. People go to college to get good jobs, then it is expected to get married and have kids. After that, the rest of life is merely waiting. This is a noble, safe path that is right for some people. It is not right for everyone. Emma Bovary falls into this category. She looks for personal fulfillment through relationships, but not from a place of committed love. Charles is her way out of the convent, so she considers herself “in love” (32) with Charles prior to settling down with him. He presents her with her first step in the life she should lead. To her, this is the only logical direction to go at this time. As expected of women of the time, she marries Charles, and also conceives a daughter with him. With this commitment to her first true relationship, she is able to lay the groundwork for the path she is supposed to lead in the lens of society. Emma can now live the life of an Instagram-wife who can show off the perfect lifestyle.

Like all surface-level fairytales, there is something deeply flawed in their relationship. We can imagine Emma’s social media account to be filled with photos of her loving husband and her beautiful daughter. She would engage with her Facebook followers who comment on her picturesque life. But this is only for show, as she finds real-life tedious. To demonstrate this, Flaubert depicts this life by lulling the reader into a sense of boredom through repetition of “And then” (55) type of storytelling. In the last chapter of Part 1, Flaubert continuously utilizes this childlike method at the beginning of paragraphs of using vagaries to make time blend together: “Often” (51), “At night” (52), “every morning (53), “Sometimes” (54), “Sometimes” (56), “Every day” (58), “Occasionally” (58). Throughout this chapter, Flaubert pairs the mundane with speeding through a significant amount of time, jumping between months and seasons, to strengthen this effect: “It was spring again” (56), “From the beginning of July” (56), “It was cold winter” (57), “Towards the end of February” (60), and “When they set out from Tostes in March” (61). In this usage of mundane descriptors, along with this speeding through time, Flaubert builds up the tedium of her life. He lures the reader into a sense of boredom to feel as much of what Emma is feeling as possible. With this effect, the surface-level fairy-tale is chipped away one paragraph at a time.

As the story progresses, Emma’s boredom and frustration with her husband increases. However, Flaubert does provide suggestions that this is not something new for Emma, lending the idea that Emma is inclined to be bored with the everyday, something that indicates that she is not emotionally equipped to handle the predetermined life she tries to live. Prior to meeting Charles, she suffered through a case of “dizzy spells” that she believed was due to “tedium” and “boredom” (22). She tried to remove herself from boredom by bathing with sea water, but to no avail. She wanted to find fulfillment elsewhere. Charles Bovary allowed her this escape. It was, at least what Flaubert presents, her first attention from men. Charles was smitten with this beautiful woman, and became a little obsessed, seeing her “in his imagination” (23) and building up an image of her. He’s only able to maintain his “hands in his pockets” (23) whenever he’s around her. That being said, her father still wants her to live the life expected of women of the time. Even though he finds Charles to be “a bit of a loser” (23), he wanted his daughter to live the life that she should because Charles was “steady… careful with money, and very learned” (23). He was the safe option, even though he was “not what he’d have chosen for a son-in-law” (23). Societal expectations encouraged this relationship, regardless of whether it was right or not for either party.

Like many people who live vicariously through social media and other platforms of entertainment, Emma shapes her reality based on what she reads, not what she experiences. Because she fills her life with romantic fantasies, she is deeply disappointed when she learns that life is not always filled with “bliss, passion, and ecstasy” (32). She constantly looks for this adventure, or, at the very least, someone who understands her yearning for it. It is here that is among the reasons that she is drawn to Leon. He also looks at the mundaneness of life, and eloquently says “Motionless we traverse countries we fancy we see, and your thought, blending with the fiction, playing with the details, follows the outline of the adventures” (75). This lights a fire within her because Leon understands her. Charles lives in the now and with his feet firmly planted with the repetitious life he is leading. Emma desires more. Leon, at least, appreciates the thoughtfulness of adventure. With Leon, Emma is free to romanticize about the world and let the fantasy become her perceived reality.

In desiring a life of adventure, romance, and passion, Emma is not suited for the lifestyle of a housewife that she finds herself in with Charles. However, she does understand the perceptions of society. As a result of that, she does, though for only some time, attempt to be a good wife and mother. Upon Rodolphe’s first attempt to seduce her, she acknowledges that she must “pay attention to the opinions of our neighbors, and conform to the accepted standard of morality” (128). This is not her standard of morality, but rather that of everyone else, and to be a good person, she must be a part of it. Though she does want to be whisked away with Rodolphe, or really any man who is more interesting than Charles for that matter, she is trying to push aside her feelings to conform to the world around her.

Her desire for the romanticized life clouds her vision of reality. The tedium of this lifestyle is not something she can withstand, eventually giving into Rodolphe. Rodolphe is a cunning adventurer with an intriguing backstory. He has all of the character traits of the men in her fantasies. He is handsome and wealthy, as he makes “fifteen thousands francs a year” (114). He is shrewd and cunning in comparison to the hapless Charles. Emma is instantly attracted to Rodolphe’s “bravado” (114). On appearance and surface level substance, he epitomizes everything she desires in a mate. But in her warped sense of reality, she is unable to see the world as it really is, and expects him to sweep her off her feet and rescue her from the doldrums of life. Rodolphe is not at all interested in taking her on as his wife, and therefore, breaks off their affair when she becomes too enamored with him. He perceives it as a fling, while she perceives it as romance.

It is in these relationships with Rodolphe and Leon that we can question Emma’s end game. She claims she wants to be with them. She wants to run away with Leon initially, though she does not tell him. She tries to get Rodolphe to agree to a plan that would allow her to escape her life with Charles. Rodolphe simply brushes it aside, as that is not his intent. She has ultimately convinced herself that she is in love with these men, and that all of her issues would simply go away if she could live a life with them. This searching for something to rescue her from her life with Charles is what shows her misconception of reality through her fantasies. She ignores the feelings of desperation and depression that she had prior to Charles. The “boredom” and “dizzy spells” (22) came while she was in the convent. However, while she is “left utterly exhausted, breathless and prostrate, sobbing softly” (98) after dealing with Charles, she tells Felicite that “after [she] got married that it began” (98). In her warped sense of reality, defined by living vicariously through romance novels, she is unable to see that her reaction to this lifestyle is not a result of marrying Charles. It is a result of living a lifestyle that is not suited for her. To her, she fails to find meaning and purpose in a life of motherhood and being a “good” wife.

When people live a life without meaning and purpose, they search for avenues of escape so that they can believe they live in a world where there is meaning and purpose. Oftentimes, this search for escape results in a negative pattern of behavior. They lie to themselves about who they are and their circumstances to give them an excuse for whatever type of transgressive behavior they choose to engage in. Even if Emma did not kill herself in the end of Madame Bovary, she would not have ended the cycle of her behavior until she fixed the root problem within herself, and that would be to accept the reality that she created rather than living in her fantasy world. She put her family in ruinous debt so that she could feel important. She engaged in a number of infidelities to feel passion and bliss to the point where the whole town, except for Charles, knew of her transgressions. As a result of this, in her desperation, all of the men she comes across to assist her with her debt perceive her as a sexual object and talk to her as if she were a prostitute. She failed to see what her behavior turned her into, and built a case for her that she was working against the “accepted standard of morality” (128). Her actions had real-world implications that she failed to see because of the blinders of her fantasy world. To the society around her, she is a villain for the debts she has incurred and cannot pay, as well as her promiscuity with multiple men while she is married. She is a villain, but she is her own villain.

Though Flaubert’s audience can focus this story on Emma’s indiscretions and find entertainment in witnessing her fall from grace while villainizing her, she should be viewed as a cautionary tale through the patterns of her behavior as a result of her misperceptions of reality. She has created a fantasy world based on the media and romance novels that she consumes that cloud her vision of reality and creates her own warped sense of truth. This is not an isolated incident in human behavior. Even though this story takes place in the 1800s, its message is still very prevalent when taken in this direction, maybe now more than ever, because of the ease of living in the filtered and curated world of social media.

Works Cited

Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. 4th ed. Oxford World Classics, Oxford University Press. Oxford. 2008.