What exactly makes Emma Bovary such a terrible person? All the bad decisions that she makes throughout the novel happen for one.
Literature is not always pleasant. It doesn’t have to be, because the most fascinating thing that can happen when you read a novel is also the scariest. The moment when an author seems to have supernatural access to your mind, to the thoughts that go through your head but never leave it because you don’t tell anybody about them. It sounds nice, in a way, to realize that you’re not alone and that someone else shares and understands your most embarrassing thoughts. But most of the time, authors don’t want you to feel good. They want you to look at your own behaviors and desires through a character that will take them much further to show you what can happen if you let them take over your life. That’s what Flaubert did in his novel, Madame Bovary (1856). He created a deplorable character that we can’t help but hate, precisely because she reminds us of the worst parts of ourselves. But what exactly makes Emma Bovary such a terrible person? All the bad decisions that she makes throughout the novel happen for a reason and can be explained by her way of thinking. If you haven’t read the novel yet, but you want to get a glimpse of the horrible character she is, here are some reasons that explain it.
She uses literature to escape from reality.
Ironically, Flaubert wrote a novel about how dangerous novels can be. Emma Bovary is the kind of character that wants books to be pleasant. As a young girl, she was an avid reader of romance novels full of glamour and idealized depictions of love and passion. This is one of the main reasons why she is the way she is. On one hand, she is smart, she has a vivid imagination, and she appreciates art. On the other, she only uses that to develop an incredibly deluded worldview. Instead of using literature to understand reality and other people, or to gain insight about the society she lives in, she uses it to escape it. If she were to read her own novel, she would hate it and throw it in the garbage.
She thinks she deserves more than others.
Because she grew up reading romantic novels, she imagined herself as the protagonist and developed a grandiose sense of self. Those stories showed her a way of life that is impossible to achieve, but she absorbed it anyway. She deluded herself into thinking that she was the kind of woman that deserved everything she desired. As a result, the real world, which was obviously different from the novels, became an unfair place. And the people around her became dull and uninteresting.
She craves love, but is unable to truly connect with anyone.
Since she has an unrealistic definition of love, every relationship that she starts is doomed to fail. She craves passion and adventure, so when she marries Charles Bovary, she quickly considers their marriage a tedious failure, which is only exacerbated by the fact that Charles is truly a dull man who is unable to understand what she wants. But this doesn’t matter in the end. With her impossible expectations, any man would fail to satisfy her in the long run.
She confuses love with sex.
Emma’s dissatisfaction leads her to have two affairs. What she doesn’t realize is the fact that the men she finds attractive are precisely the men that don’t really care about her. Specially Rodolphe, who finds her beautiful when he first meets her, but simultaneously feels disdain for her. Her desperation and yearning are immediately evident in her face, he thinks, and he knows it would be easy to draw her in. Unconsciously, she knows that he doesn’t love her, but she tries to force the love out of him through sex anyways.
She waits for someone to save her instead of saving herself.
Emma spends her days dreaming about the moment when an unknown person or event changes her life. She’s sure that it will happen, so she looks for signs of it everywhere and makes no real effort to do it on her own. Instead of paying attention to her own life to understand her options or appreciate what’s in front of her, she constantly thinks about other people’s lives. Their relationships, their money, the parties they go to, and the places they visit. To her, everything that she desires is always happening somewhere else.
She craves status and is unable to see beyond that.
Emma has a very limited idea of what a life worth living looks like. For her, it looks like expensive dresses and fancy possessions. She wants to be admired, looked at, appreciated for who she believes she is, and she tries to obtain it at all costs. For that reason, and to maintain the illusion, she keeps spending her naïve husband’s money and borrowing more, even though she doesn’t know how she will pay it back. This eventually leads to not only her ruin, but also the ruin of her entire family.
The most unsettling thing about a character like Emma Bovary is that she’s not unique. She’s an exaggerated representation of her society’s problems, and we only hate her because we have the same thing she does: an absurd amount of hope.
Images by Adi Dekel.
If you loved this article, you might also enjoy: