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Fatal Illusions: Ideas of Love in Madame Bovary, Essay Example

Pages: 5

Words: 1469

Essay

Introduction

It may be argued that Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is a great romance novel having nothing to do with love. The story is driven by the pursuit of love, certainly. This is evident in Charles’s courtship and marriage of Emma; Emma’s affair with Leon and his desire for her; and in Emma’s obsession with Rodolphe. It is, however, an idea of love that is the driving force behind the actions of these characters. Even Charles’s feelings for Emma, perhaps the most true to the truth of love in the entire novel, are based on conceptions of what is expected, rather than on the reality of loving. Consequently, Madame Bovary is genuinely about romance, rather than love, as romance is the arena in which so many mistaken notions regarding love may be realized. That disaster follows these pursuits is inevitable, as romantic illusions cannot sustain the burdens of life in place of love. Moreover, as disaster of some kind occurs to all the leading players, the essential core of the novel is all the more reinforced. In Madame Bovary, ideas of love, completely incapable of fulfilling the demands of love, generate the fatal illusions that bring ruin to all concerned.

Discussion

The two central characters of the novel, Emma and Charles, are hopelessly wrong for one another from the start, as each is not in any way equipped to be right for anyone. While the novel is ultimately Emma’s story, it is important to note that Charles is, in his own way, as much a victim of illusion as she is. The difference is that Charles’s misconceptions regarding love are masculine. Moreover, they are fueled by the limitations of his being and his life. Mediocre in talent and personality, he is a boy and a man who follows whatever courses are laid out for him, and to the extent of being guided by his mother into marriage with an elderly woman. Charles has no real idea of what love is, but this is tied to a life offering nothing in the way of the personal development necessary for it. In a sense, and sadly, his nearest opportunity to evolve is when he ignores his work as a medical student and fails his examinations, because it is only at this period that he awakens to a sense of what matters to him. This is not, however, permitted to flourish, and his first marriage is a pragmatic arrangement. Charles complies because he has no idea that it could be anything beyond this.

Many feel that Charles Bovary is a real representation of a man who loves, once Emma enters his life. He worships her and even remains loyal to her memory after learning of her affairs, and this indicates a devotion born from love; he loves so deeply, it is felt, that being loved in return is unimportant. While his devotion is irrefutable, however, it is not love that binds him to Emma, simply because love requires some knowledge of who the beloved is. Charles worships the idea of Emma he can never abandon, just as this is an idea based on nothing more than her physical presence. When “falling in love” and trying to remember Emma’s actual being, he is stalled: “He never saw her in his thoughts other than he had seen her the first time” (41). The tragedy of Charles is that, as a good man, he is compelled to be true to his own visions of what love and goodness must be, even when reality tells him otherwise. He is, ultimately, not a man ever in love, but a man in love with his idea of it. That Emma benefits from this, or that his actions are loving, in no way changes the degree of the mistake.

In a more feminized way, this is the same fundamental error within Emma’s character. As with Charles, moreover, Flaubert adds layers of dimension creating what may be called the pathologies allowing for nothing but such error. Denied freedom to be what his natural inclinations would allow, Charles makes the best of circumstances by misinterpreting reality; he sees a warped view of an idealized life and love because he has no actual experience of the real. So too is Emma limited, and her illusions about love are as connected to her experience as those of Charles. Frustrated by a country life, Emma as a girl begins to create the fantastic associations with elements of life that will define her illusions regarding love. It is important to note her reaction to her convent schooling, and her growing attraction to it: “When she went to confession, she invented little sins in order that she might stay there longer” (Flaubert 63). It is not religion that touches Emma, but an idea of its mystery and glamor. It is an elevated world made up of beautiful symbols and ceremonies, and there translate to Emma as faith. From her girlhood, Emma creates fantasies to satisfy inner needs, and she uses only outward representations of what is desired to construct the core.

It is widely felt that Emma’s dependence on illusions is a byproduct of a woman’s role in the 19th century, but Flaubert is not confined to such an interpretation; as the characters of Charles and Leon affirm, it is just as possible for men to approach love incorrectly. Put another way, the failures to understand love in Flaubert’s men perfectly accommodate, and play off of, Emma’s inability. Emma’s path is one of hopeless and consistent rebounding. As Charles is not, in reality, her idea of a man she could be in love with, she attaches similarly unreal expectations on other men equally unable to meet her demands. What is most interesting, in fact, is just how creative Emma’s resources are in this regard. A victim of delusional thinking or perspective, she tailors her illusions to match the ensuing men. Nothing more exemplifies her ability here than her infatuation with Rodolphe, blatantly selfish and manipulative: “He was of brutal temperament and intelligent perspicacity” (226). Emma’s power to create, as with her emotional longing, is so developed as to render this man an object able to love her. Rodolphe himself is a raw version of the type unable to love, in that he is not delusional, but concerned only with gratification. It is nonetheless easy for Emma to transform him into what she requires: loving, romantic rescue.

The same mechanisms of illusion – or delusion – define Emma’s relationship with Leon. As he is no gallant aristocrat with vast experience of the world, Emma perceives him as an idealized opposite of such a type. He is tender, devoted, young, and loving, so Emma has a new set of symbols to fashion into a true lover. It is also interesting that Leon’s early attentions to Emma are eclipsed by the advent of Rodolphe; it is only when Rodolphe abandons her that Emma proceeds to construct Leon into the man she needs. She is able to do this, of course, because Leon is similarly unrealistic, if not blinded by fixed ideas. If Emma hopelessly romanticizes Rodolphe and Leon, Leon does precisely the same thing, ironically “feeding off” the image of herself that Emma presents. Leon is innocent, but he is not guiltless, as no one is in Flaubert’s world. It is critical for him that Emma be a beautiful victim of mediocrity, as he cannot entertain any idea that she herself is mediocre. As Charles could only see the young girl at her father’s farm, so too can Leon see only an image of abused and neglected loveliness. Neither man sees the real woman, Emma never comprehends the real man, so the romantic expectations of any, from Charles and Emma to Leon and Emma, are doomed. It is a cruel irony, in fact, that the only real awareness of character is expressed by Rodolphe, who has a sense of the sad reality of Emma but is unconcerned with it.

Conclusion

Despite its standing as a great novel centered on love, Madame Bovary is far more about the many and varied ways in which illusions, generated by pathological need or lack of true experience, are used as substitutes for love. Here, illusions shatter when real needs collide, and in every instance: Emma and Charles do not know one another, as each brings only expectation to their marriage; Rodolphe takes on aspects wholly removed from his obvious character in Emma’s imagination; and both Leon and Emma rely on fictive notions of what the other is to construct an idealized union. All are destined to end in tragedy because none are based on the essential elements of love as a knowing, accepting, and embracing force. In Madame Bovary, tragic misconceptions of love, completely incapable of fulfilling the demands of real love, generate the fatal illusions that bring ruin to all concerned.

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