The Dynamics of Fantasy and Reality in Madame Bovary

July 10, 2019 by Essay Writer

I.Artist M.C. Escher, famous for his deceptive manipulations of vignettes, once asserted that “Reality cannot exist without illusion, and illusion not without reality.” There is no telling why Escher or countless others are preoccupied with the absurd, with the gray matter of the world; it is difficult to understand how reality can become so stale and trite as to force one to escape from it altogether. After all, there are so many paradigms left to break, so many conceptual questions left unanswered. Perhaps there are some who are innately lacking this recognition of the beauty and paradox of actuality, some who choose to ignore the authenticity of self and escape into some misapprehension, some dream. In few works is this persona better epitomized than in Gustave Flaubert’s classic 1857 publication Madame Bovary. Though the novel is often considered to be a commentary on the corruptible French Bourgeois, the story centers around the selfish machinations of Emma Bovary, a stifled housewife unsatisfied with the life she is leading. Emma, perhaps inadvertently, falls into a parallel world of wining and dining, balls, and other opulent misgivings that eventually lead her to a feeling of disgust for her true vitality, consequently ending her life in suicide. Emma is never able to see the magnificence in relationships and love; she is swept away by the pretentious ideas of Romanticism and luxury. Her husband, Charles, is sadly also in an imaginary world of his own. He cannot detect the indiscrete schemes of his plotting wife. Charles believes he is living a fairy tale with a loving and obedient wife, when in fact it couldn’t be farther from the truth. Ironically enough, those the couple encounter in the treacherous society encroaching on them are the ones closest to reality. In Madame Bovary and in civilization today, both the beauty and danger of illusion is that it removes one from reality in such a way that the latter then loses some splendor of its own. II Lawrence Thornton, in his 1978 criticism of the piece, proposes that Emma Bovary exists in a fantasy world fabricated by “Three visual modes…descriptive, hallucinatory, and autoscopic.” He asserts the descriptive manner of vision explains Madame Bovary’s internal condition and conveys why she reacts to external stimuli in the way she does. Thornton believes Flaubert uses imagery of Emma’s surroundings to parallel her innermost emotions. In her hallucinatory state, Madame Bovary loses all sense of time and becomes engulfed in her latest whim – be it a man or some other object of her ephemeral affection. Temporarily, she forgets she is married and forgets she is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Thornton seems to condone her behavior because of this delusional mode, blaming it and not the person upon whom it manifests. The autoscopic vision seems to combine the former two, explaining the merging of past and present and how it prevents Emma from ever differentiating between fantasy and reality. Flaubert’s style seems to fade out behind Emma’s own articulations, making this mode the most revealing of Emma Bovary’s psyche. Thornton’s ideas on Flaubert’s use of imagery to parallel Emma’s feelings are brilliant, but his analysis of three different modes of vision seems far-fetched and overreaching. Emma Bovary’s notions and emotions seem to almost always be paired with a similar vignette, be it quixotic, desolate or even promising. Flaubert is indeed revealing in this technique how easily Emma is affected by the most subtle of subtleties around her. Thornton claims that Emma no longer understands the concept of time, when in fact it is quite the opposite. Emma is existing in her plight precisely because she is so aware of time. Madame Bovary knows she cannot waste time as an obedient housewife and must expel her desires somehow. Thornton mistakes Emma’s desires for fleeting wants indifferent to time. Though Emma may long to stay young forever, she knows exactly where and how she is, and is doing what she can to inject excitement into her life. If Emma were to have no concept of time, she would not be so desperate and willing to fall into illusion. Her perception of time is why her illusions are so dangerous. III If ever there were evidence of Emma Bovary’s false sense of what is ideal and what is just, it lies in the style of Flaubert’s writing. Emma persistently scrutinizes her situation and has not the appreciation of the most self-absorbed and pompous in society. The journeys into Emma’s thoughts express Flaubert’s style flawlessly, manipulating the reader into detecting the detrimental effects of a false reality. Madame Bovary ponders: “Would this misery last forever? Would she never be out of it? She certainly deserved as much as all those women who were living happily. She had seen duchesses at Vaubyessard who had clumsier figures and more common manners than she, and she cursed God’s injustice; she would lean her head against the wall and cry; she envied tumultuous lives, masked balls, and insolent pleasures with all the mad distractions they probably offered and that she had never known.” (83) This self-inquiry conveys Emma’s insight that probes no further than the material level, the outer surface of things. She continues to create a chasm between her own life and that which she desires, evident in Flaubert’s sentence structure. To begin the passage, Madame Bovary uses two simple, segregating sentences referencing the life she currently leads. As the segment progresses and Emma draws into the life she yearns for, however, her thoughts are materialized into freight-train sentences, displaying her boredom with the present circumstances and a garnished, romantic idea of what she thinks she deserves. Flaubert employs this concealed technique throughout the novel, slowly increasing the breach between whim and actuality. The tone is melancholic, but in being so it is also latently manipulative. Emma is so distraught, so desperate for a new existence, she almost provokes empathy from the reader. This is precisely Flaubert’s strategy – he wants the audience to feel compassion for Emma. The reader soon realizes he should not be feeling sympathy for such an ungrateful adulteress, and has encountered the hazards of illusion. Emma is so out of touch with reality she invokes the audience to side with her, proving the power of fantasy. Emma is already too justified in her mind to revert back to reality, as evident in the phrase “She certainly deserved as much…” She is convinced that what could be should be, and Flaubert exquisitely portrays this through his style. IV Society is a corruptible entity; it is flawed and responsible for the perils in the world today. There are many reasons for this imperfection in civilization, and, as exemplified in Madame Bovary, misapprehension is among the most paramount. It is not to say goals or ambitions are among these terrible misgivings, rather it is the arbitrary and lustful desires or impressions that weave the flaws into the fabric of mankind. Illusion is a chief catalyst behind ignorance, sin, and disgrace. Emma Bovary possesses the most frivolous desires in the story, and, fittingly, she carries the most ignominy. Her wants stem from readings of quixotic tales filled with lacy imagery of swoon and fancy possessions, leading her to an idea of what her vitality should be. Despite the lack of money flowing into the household, Emma sinks herself into debt purchasing needless item after needless item, killing her sense of moderation and modesty. After the ball in Vaubyessard, she then begins to conjure up an idea of the perfect man, not appreciating the loving one she actually has. With each day, Emma comes to loathe the true possessions and the genuine man in her life, leaving her perpetually yearning for something more. Spawned from this cycle is Madame Bovary’s eventual committals of adultery and deceit, displaying the ease with which fantasy may cause transgression and dishonor. A spurious idea of reality is also responsible for temporal blindness and denial. Charles never suspects any wrongdoing on Emma’s behalf, despite the mounting evidence against her. He believes from day one he is living out the typical bourgeois lifestyle, loving Emma as a trustworthy wife. His fantasy, though more innocent and respectable than Emma’s, is just as thoughtless and contributing to the faults in society. Because he believes the marriage is perfect, Charles never attempts to change his monotonous and predictable ways. The two have no idea what the other wants because they are blinded by two unrealistic fantasies. A fantasy can only go as far as one wants it to, but, sadly, society is plagued by those who cannot distinguish it from actuality. Emma Bovary’s illusions produce sin and ignominy while her husband’s create an impermeable ignorance and blindness. Illusion, as shown in these examples, is the cause of the many defects of the human condition. V Reality indeed cannot exist without illusion, because without the latter there is nothing to compare what is real to what is not. Likewise, illusion will never stand alone because there must exist an entity from which to escape. Few recognize that this subtle relationship is a beautiful one – it has led to innovation, discovery, and love. But it is also treacherous, as some will polarize to total fantasy and may never fall back into a healthy balance of both it and reality. This is so in the disastrously exquisite tale of Madame Bovary. Charles and Emma Bovary are a tragic couple, doomed from the start, and impeded by a lack of genuine vitality. It frustrates the reader that the two can never escape from their fantasies of opulence, excitement, or true love and companionship. The story presents beauty as well, however – Charles and Emma salvage some joy out of lives they were unfortunately thrown into. As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss, and indubitably, both Charles and Emma find pleasure only in their fantasies. People will always find ways to achieve happiness, be it in illusion, actuality, or a combination of the two. Of course, there are perils in escaping into a fantasy world, but who is anyone to say what one should or shouldn’t do? It is the wonderful complexity of the human will that will dictate where our lives will lead us. When I look at another M.C. Escher drawing, perhaps I will divert into illusion for one moment – for that may be where satisfaction lies.

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