Emma’s Path to Destruction in Madame Bovary
In his song, "Instant Karma!," John Lennon shouts an ominous warning to his listeners: "Instant karma's gonna get you / gonna knock you right in the head / better get yourself together, darlin' / pretty soon your gonna be dead... " The subject of his scorn may have been socially conservative Americans bent on the abolition of social progressives, but clearly anyone can gleam a bit of wisdom from such blunt counsel. Even Gustav Flaubert's eponymous heroine, Emma Bovary, may have been able to escape her grim cycle of misfortune, disappointment, and utter despair had she understood the relatively simple Hindu law of karma Lennon alludes to here, which states: "Any action whatsoever is the effect of a cause and is in its turn the cause of an effect" (Zaehner 4). For according to this law, every odious act committed by Emma Bovary had an equally odious impact on her future; therefore one might suppose that, had she done enough good, or performed enough tasks for the benefit of someone other than herself, her ultimate fate would not have been so terrible. As Flaubert has it, however, Emma Bovary's myriad, abhorrent acts of deceit, adultery, and self-serving manipulation of even those who care for her eventually lead her onto that dark, cyclical path that so often ends, as in this case of Madame Bovary's doomed protagonist, with tragedy.
Traditionally the Hindi faith recognizes karma as a force collected throughout one's life that serves as catalyst for the events and situations one will experience in the next life. To understand the impact of karma on Emma Bovary, one must examine her as having lived three distinct lives: daughter, wife, and mistress. During her first existence, that of daughter, Emma performs no valid wrongs; that is to say that such matters as her "innocent" lies created while in confessionals are (according to the Judeo-Christian ethic) sins, but harmless and incapable of harnessing any real evil. Her thoughts may become "corrupted by the nonsense of popular pseudo-Romantic literature and art" (Tillett 4), but according to the law of karma it is her actions that ultimately determine her fate. Though Emma "rebelled against the mysteries of the Christian faith" (Flaubert 34) and "became increasingly irritated with its discipline, which was antipathetic to her nature" (34), she performed no real sin. Her less than virtuous thoughts certainly cast gloomy shadows over her destiny, but have no direct impact on what is to come.
Emma escaped her first life free of any severe transgression, but also left it devoid of any notably honorable act on her part. This lack of any karma whatsoever, neither good nor evil, gives birth to Emma's second existence. This new life to which she has transcended can only be defined as utterly dull. She is wife to a mediocre husband whose "conversation was as flat as a sidewalk" (35) and "traversed by a steady stream of the most...