Romance and Reality in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary
In the story of Alice in Wonderland we follow Alice down a rabbit hole into a land of pure wonder, where the logic of a little girl holds no sway. In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, we witness exactly the opposite as Emma Bovary, a most romantic creature, is purposely cast into a harshly realistic world. In either case, a creature is put into an environment unnatural to her disposition, yet in Flaubert’s example, Emma shares the world we inhabit, and thus the message her story brings is much more pertinent. To convey this message, Flaubert replicates not a world of fantasy, but rather the real world, with all its joy, sadness, and occasional monotony intact. Then he proceeds to dump an exaggeratedly sentimental woman, Bovary, with the training, appearance, and expectations of an heiress, into the common mire and leave her there to flounder in the reality of middle class life as a farmer’s daughter. From Madame Bovary’s reactions within this realistic situation, and from the novel’s outcome, a message is rendered concerning romanticism itself, and its misplacement in a cacophonous and uncomplimentary world.
Lewis Carroll may have created a whole new world for his Alice to explore, but Flaubert had the harder job. He had to replicate the world that everyone knows, taking time to explore the very details that make this world real and tangible. Whether it be dust accumulating on furniture, everyday people plodding through mud to get to work, or nagging mothers, Flaubert details images and impressions that most overlook, but which truly constitute reality. Emma tries her best to ignore this reality, but it confronts her insistently, reminding her daily of all the things she deems inadequacies.
But it was especially at mealtimes that she felt she could bear her life no longer, in
that little room on the ground floor with its smoking stove, squeaking door, sweating
walls and damp stone floor. All the bitterness of life seemed to be served up to her
on her plate, and as the steam rose from the boiled meat, waves of nausea rose from
the depths of her soul. (Flaubert 58)
This image and atmosphere of mundane imperfection is a far cry from what Emma expects after reading the romantic novels she smuggled in at the convent. From those foppish texts she gathers the impression that ladies such as she should be “lolling on carriages” or “dreaming on sofas,” or perhaps embracing some dashing “young man in a short cloak” (Flaubert 32). Yet such is not the reality in which she lives.
Flaubert adds to his stark images the homey atmospheres and settings of the provincial
towns in which Emma lives, places which by their very simplistic natures are anathema to a romantic such as Bovary. It is only through Emma’s depiction of these villages that they are cast as mundane and drab. Though the image exists of the small and backward town with its town gossips and town idiot, it can be seen that...