Where the Grass Is Greener
Many authors have identified the self-absorbed behavior of Emma Bovary as the key character quality that leads to her downfall, and modern analyses point to lack of social and educational opportunities as the root cause of the decline and death of the eponymous hero of Madame Bovary. However, Gustave Flaubert’s incisive and understated narrative provides a simpler and more fundamental explanation for the character’s increasing disassociation from reality and for the bad decisions she makes as a result. This essay will show that Emma Bovary suffers not from self-absorption but from a nagging certainty that other people’s lives are better than her own and that they are experiencing happiness that is denied to her. It is this certainty, coupled with a sense of unfairness, that drives every single bad decision Emma makes throughout the book.
To Emma, the proverbial grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. No matter where she goes or what her life circumstances are, she is convinced that other people have it better. During her years in the convent school, she was allowed to amuse herself by reading French romance novels. These were not the highly sexualized books of today but adventure stories similar to The Three Musketeers. Such novels were plot-driven in a swashbuckling way. Every chapter contained cliffhanger drama and excitement. Compared to the staid, quotidian lifestyle in a convent school—and Emma at first knows no other since her father elected to keep her in the convent after her mother’s death—life outside the convent seems full of potential and excitement, especially when she receives letters from her friends who have moved back home or who have married. Compared to her life, theirs seem happy and exciting. So when her father calls her back home to live on the farm, Emma feels at first as though her life is about to begin. Once she arrives, her excitement fades into boredom and dissatisfaction as soon as the novelty wears off, and she is left with the question: “is this all there is?” The pattern repeats with her marriage to Charles Bovary and again when she gives birth to her daughter. But instead of finding satisfaction in her everyday life with brief periods of excitement for occasional treats, Emma responds to dissatisfaction by finding a new fence, deciding the grass is greener on the other side of it, and making a leap without regard for the consequences to herself or others. If for some reason things don’t go the way she plans, and when she experiences the very predictable consequences of her actions, she melts down in whatever fashion she believes is consistent with the people she identifies with—again without regard for the effect she is having on other people.
Early in her marriage, Emma is dissatisfied as a rural health officer’s wife but she does not feel the need to imitate the other wives in the village. Whereas other women of the bourgeois class in that era typically raised chickens, took in laundry, rented out extra rooms, or cared for other people’s children to earn extra money, Emma sits idle and reads. She subscribes to a circulating library and continues to indulge not just in romance novels but in the notion that they somehow represent objective reality. To Emma, the fictional heroes and heroines and the worlds they inhabit are real, and their lives are far more exciting than hers. She does what she can to make her surroundings more beautiful and to imitate what she interprets as the customs of an upper-class woman. These include keeping a housemaid (despite being young, healthy, and without children), keeping her nails long and bleached, and spending more than is strictly necessary on furniture and household decorations. Emma’s mother-in-law takes exception to what she interprets as spendthrift behavior. Her complaints, though minor, have a basis in fact. Yet they also foreshadow the years of compulsive spending that, abetted by the merchant Lheureux, eventually leads to her and Charles losing everything.
A significant plot turn occurs when Emma and Charles are invited to a ball at the home of the wealthy d’Andervilliers family. This is an annual fall event before the wealthiest people in the area migrate away from their country estates and go to Paris or some other more comfortable location for the winter. The invitation is reciprocity for a gift of cherry tree cuttings from Charles: the Marquis d’Andervilliers, who is in the area with a member of his staff who needs medical attention, praises the cherry trees growing on the property Charles and Emma inherited from Charles’s first wife. Charles graciously sends fresh cuttings to replace the winter-killed trees on the d’Andervilliers property. To acknowledge the gift, the d’Andervilliers family sends Charles and Emma an invitation to their annual ball. The Marquis notes that since Emma does not curtsey like a peasant and is quite pretty, the young couple will not be noticeably out of place while enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime event they will be able to tell their grandchildren about later. The couple buys new clothing for the event. But whereas Charles simply enjoys the novelty and has a reasonably good time, Emma comes to the conclusion that she has somehow been accepted into the upper class. She hasn’t.
While at the d’Andervilliers ball, Emma sees and experiences things she’s only read about in books. She tastes pineapple for the first time, sees somebody pass a note to someone else, listens to people talk about Italy, and eats a formal meal. Yet she misinterprets much of what she is experiencing, especially when she sees something that appears to contradict what she’s read. When this happens, Emma decides that the people around her simply don’t know the customs of their own class as well as she does. She takes her theoretical knowledge as evidence that she has at least as much right to be part of the clique as the people who actually occupy it.
At the dinner table, Emma is shocked to see that many of the women do not put their gloves in their wine glasses. What she does not realize is that there is a system of “silent service” communication so that diners at a formal event can communicate with the wait staff without interrupting the flow of conversation at the table. (Some of these signals still exist but they are not understood by wait staff.) Gloves in the wine glass, in Emma’s era, were a signal to not serve alcohol to that particular diner, who was generally a woman who was either pregnant or trying to get that way. The signal was in the same category as laying one’s knife at a forty-five degree angle, with the fork crossed over it with the tines down in order to signal the waiter to remove the plate. Having learned from her romance novels what the mannered elite did but not why they did it, Emma jumps to the conclusion that the women at the table who simply want a glass of wine with their meal are being rude.
Emma is also disappointed at the appearance of her fellow diners. She expects to be surrounded by young and beautiful people, but since she is only a few years into her majority and the table contains all the upper-class people in the area, most of the women at the table are older than she. Many are middle-aged or elderly, and therefore very ordinary-looking to Emma’s eye. Furthermore, they are wearing styles from the previous season or even earlier. Emma herself has paid handsomely for a new gown cut in the latest fashion solely for the occasion, so she comes to the conclusion that her taste is better than that of the women around her. In reality, the d’Andervilliers ball is an annual event: an autumn farewell for local wealthy people and members of the nobility whose families have known each other for generations. Most of the guests are traveling to their winter homes in Paris where the major fashion houses are, where the real social season is about to start, and where their new clothing awaits them. They therefore select gowns from their existing wardrobes. The fact that Emma went to the expense of ordering a new ball gown and dresses just for one party is not evidence of her superior taste: it’s evidence that she didn’t already own appropriate clothing. She’d have displayed more savoir-faire by buying lightly used clothing in Rouen and having it altered: at least the clothing would have been from the right season and not obviously new.
The most potentially embarrassing gaffe, for Emma, is when she waltzes with the Viscount. The handsome, wealthy bachelor is the highest ranked man present and has danced with Emma several times. In Emma’s novels, dancing with the same woman two or even three times is evidence of romantic interest. Yet when she manages to tangle the skirt of her dress up in his legs and briefly lays her head on his chest, he does not respond to the come-on. Instead of seducing her, he steers her toward a bench and dances with someone else, unaware that Emma has just identified him as her new romantic and sexual ideal. She invents all kinds of stories about how the cigar case with his coat of arms on it must have been a gift from a mistress. The Viscount—or at least, the impression Emma has of him at the ball—is the kind of man with whom Emma decides she could really fall in love. From that point forward she has a new romantic ideal, a secret fantasy with whom her husband Charles cannot possibly compete. She is not at all embarrassed by the waltzing fiasco; it is a mark of her lack of sophistication that it doesn’t occur to her that she should be.
To Emma, at the ball it appears as though everything in her romance novels is coming to life. She feels as though she is finally starting to live because she’s personally experiencing the happiness and excitement she’s read about. She looks at the peasants and staff who peek through the window and thinks to herself that although she was born among them, she has finally found the place where she truly belongs. This extreme joy and satisfaction is an emotional high point for her. But she fails to recognize that it’s a high point for the other people at the ball as well. Even among the wealthy elite, when the party’s over, it’s time to go home. She doesn’t understand that, even for the rich, life has to go back to normal. Emma expects—because of what she’s read—that this group of people move from one exciting experience to the next. Thus, the next morning when people are offered a light brunch before leaving, Emma is surprised to notice that the hosts are not serving Champagne wine with the meal.
In Emma’s mind she has been accepted, permanently, as a member of the social elite. Therefore, when she returns to her country home with its magnificent cherry trees, she compares it with the d’Andervilliers mansion and finds it wanting. In fact, everything, including Charles, is suddenly inadequate. She fires the elderly maid Nastasie, who loyally served Charles’s first wife and who kept house for Charles after the lady died, because Nastasie does not display the formal, subservient behavior Emma believes she saw at the ball. Yet in the bourgeois class of the time, women Emma’s age seldom employed servants at all unless they were sickly or busy with children or a family business. Furthermore, such servants as people had were generally poorer relatives or family friends helping out in exchange for food, lodging, and a bit of money. When Nastasie does not have dinner ready on her arrival, Emma rebukes her. When she talks back to Emma as though she were speaking to a social equal which she is, Emma throws a tantrum and fires Nastasie on the spot. To replace her, Emma hires a young girl who can be taught to always say “madame”, to bring Emma a glass of water on a tray instead of just handing it to her, and to do the housework and cooking while Emma enjoys uninterrupted leisure time. This turns out to be a financially stupid idea: the new maid steals from her.
After the ball, Emma reminisces about it, talks constantly about it, and apes some of the external habits and expectations of people she saw there, alienating the local women in the process. She studies Italian, reads different magazines, and buys an expensive writing-desk. But instead of writing a note of thanks to the hostess, and instead of sending letters around to some of the other guests to find out how to return the Viscount’s lost cigar case—activities that would have been normal and natural in the d’Andervilliers’ social circle—she decides she has nobody to write to. This prevents her from ever forming the social attachments she will need in order to participate in her new group.
Aside from her beauty and manners, Emma has very little to offer the upper-class families with whom she now seeks to socialize. She is not in a position to, say, reciprocate the d’Andervilliers invitation by hosting a ball and inviting the people who entertained her. Nor can she provide artistic or intellectual stimulation: she has not traveled abroad, she can play the piano but has no great skill as a musician, she is not well educated, nor does she display the sort of conversational skill that is valuable to a hostess. In fact, the text does not show her engaging anyone in conversation. Thus, Emma develops no social or emotional connection with her hosts or with any of the other guests. In fact she’s a minor nuisance. Her fainting spell causes her host to order a window broken so that she can get air, and she makes a joke of herself on the dance floor. This, plus her lack of polite follow-up correspondence with the d’Andervilliers family, guarantees that there is no reason to invite her and Charles back. Unlike a true social climber such as Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, who never went to a party without trying to make friends with as many of the other attendees as possible, Emma does not solidify her new social contacts. So when she is not invited back the next year, it comes as no surprise to the reader but it is a horrible shock to Emma, who finds a large metaphorical fence between herself and the green pasture where she thinks she belongs. She therefore does what any romantic heroine would do: she collapses and refuses to tell anybody what’s wrong.
Emma starts to snap out of her expectation-induced depression when Charles sells his profitable practice in Tostes and buys one in a different town called Yonville. It is not the change of scenery that intrigues her: it is a young clerk named Léon. He introduces her to poetry, which allows for the expression of far more sublime extremes of human experience compared to Emma’s romances. Emma decides that she has a “noble soul” and is therefore a more sensitive and refined creature than the others around her. So she begins to do things that she believes are appropriate to a noble, poetic soul: she is devastated at having given birth to a girl instead of a boy through whom she could live vicariously, and hands the baby off to a wet-nurse at the first opportunity. She also cultivates a platonic but intense emotional attachment to Léon that includes a gift of an expensive feather-bed. She notices he is in love with her, or at least attracted to her, and they carry on what in modern times would be called an “emotional affair”. Fantasizing about life on the other side of the fence, Emma compares her husband to the evanescent image of the waltzing Viscount, the young and intelligent Léon, and the exaggerated romantic ideals she reads about in her poetry. Charles now appears to Emma to be mediocre, somewhat disgusting, and thoroughly inadequate. She starts to do small things to improve him: insisting he wear gloves, and being fastidious about his appearance. Charles, naively, believes Emma is doing these things out of love for him. In reality she becomes increasingly frustrated. She assuages her feelings by behaving like any virtuous heroine of a sonnet cycle: she and Léon exchange long, lingering glances and subtle hints. She gives him a lavish gift in the form of a feather-bed, alternately encouraging and discouraging him. But instead of responding like a poetic suitor and pursuing her for years or risking his life for her Hero-and-Leander style, Léon leaves town. Shocked, Emma collapses again. This emotional overreaction, which is now becoming Emma’s standard response to disappointment, is consistent with what Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot or any other tragic poetic heroine might do.
Emma’s next peek at the other side of a fence comes when the wealthy Rodolphe Boulanger decides to introduce her to horseback riding and adultery. He accomplishes the latter with a series of dramatic sighs, references to his unhappiness, and a conveniently placed shelter when the two of them are caught out in the rain. The initial seduction having been accomplished, Emma embraces her new identity as adulteress and proceeds to act out every possible dramatic excess. She does everything she believes an adulterous woman should do: she dresses outrageously in a man’s vest, she smokes cigars in public, and her speech and her facial expressions become more direct in a sexual way. She does not avoid speculation or discovery; in fact, she invites it because she wants the drama. She takes risks, exchanging love letters with Rodolphe and walking across the countryside to surprise him in the morning. She begins to spend more than she should on cosmetics, lemons to bleach her nails, and gifts for men that never seem to be worn or used by Charles. Gradually she ruins her reputation in Yonville: people are convinced she is having an affair with some wealthy man, but they do not know with whom. She even sneaks Rodolphe into her home while Charles is present, asking Rodolphe if he has a pistol to “protect” her against her husband. Rodolphe, meanwhile, has no reason to hate Charles much less to shoot him, and he finds Emma’s suggestion ridiculous. Sensibly, he conducts his affair with Emma much the way he has done with his other flings. He does not buy Emma lavish gifts lest they give away evidence. But he is more than willing to accept the cigar case, the silver-handled cane, and the other indulgences Emma buys for him. In Emma’s mind, she is reenacting her fantasy story about the Viscount receiving gifts from his wealthy and indulgent mistress.
It is the gifts for Rodolphe, together with other expenses for clothing and perfumes she cannot afford, that begins to drive Emma into debt. She buys on credit from the merchant Lheureux, who has a history of encouraging people to accumulate debt only to sell of the notes at a profit and force a bankruptcy. The affair continues for four years, during which time Emma becomes bored. She drives up the excitement level in several ways such as by sneaking Rodolphe into the house at night while Charles is present—she asks Rodolphe if he has a pistol to protect her from Charles’s wrath if they are caught, which is something Rodolphe finds ridiculous—but ultimately she discovers that adultery can be just as dull and boring as marriage. So she casts about for another, greener pasture and she finds it: she wants to be married, just not to Charles. Accordingly, she and Rodolphe plan to elope and live happily in an obscure village somewhere as husband and wife. Rodolphe thinks it’s a fantasy, but Emma makes secret preparations. She buys traveling trunks and a new wardrobe through Lheureux, all on credit. On the day of the scheduled departure, Rodolphe comes to his senses and leaves town, sending Emma a farewell note in a basket of apricots. Emma—predictably at this point—collapses again.
As usual, Emma does not recover until she finds a new way to self-identify. She turns to religion, spends a small fortune on a prie-dieu, and fancies herself the quintessential repentant Mary Magdalene. She enjoys putting on a pious act, but eventually she gets less attention from the village priest and the other religious women. She doesn’t experience the great emotional passion the famous saints and sinners did, she experiences no great religious ecstasy, and quiet contemplation and meditation on the divine turns out to be a bore when nobody’s watching. So her familiar “is-this-all-there-is” sensation sets in again. Charles takes her to Rouen to consult with one of his old mentors, and encounters not just his frenemy Homais but also Léon. On Homais’s advice, Charles buys opera tickets. This is another key turning-point that is often overlooked by critics. Yet it is as vital to Emma’s character development as the d’Andervilliers ball.
Opera is an art form that capitalizes on overblown, dramatic emotion expressed through music. Every aspect of a character’s feelings, thoughts, and living spiritual essence is condensed into song and channeled—with suitable orchestral backing—through the one perfect expressive medium in the world. This medium of course is the human voice. Even heavy metal doesn’t bring as much drama (although the costumes tend to be similar and it’s also just as hard to understand the lyrics). Emotional extremes don’t get any bigger than they do on the operatic stage. So when Emma is exposed to opera, it affects her even though she tries to hide it. It doesn’t help that the author Flaubert chooses to send Emma to Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, which is one of the most overblown, extravagant Gothic tragedies ever to hit the stage.
Lucia di Lammermoor is based on The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott, one of the romance writers whose work Emma devoured in her youth. In the story, the heroine Lucy is deceived and trapped into a loveless marriage. She goes insane, murders her unwanted bridegroom, and then commits suicide. The romantic lead role is being sung by the famous tenor, Lagardy, and Emma falls completely into the production. Like many women in the audience, she briefly identifies as Lucy. She wondered why she didn’t do as Lucy did, and physically resist to the point of having to be carried down the aisle. She now reflects that she was just as unhappy and unwilling to marry Charles—a fact not supported by the early part of the text. She adopts the fictional Lucy, complete with the dramatic hyperbole, as her romantic ideal. Not only should she be as full of emotional excess as an operatic heroine, but if things get bad, perhaps instead of fainting or collapsing, she should do as Lucy did instead. So now she regards herself not as a member of the nobility born by accident into the wrong class, not as a “noble soul” who feels emotion more keenly and is therefore above the mundane conventions that govern ordinary mortals, and not as a repentant religious devotee. She’s an over-the-top dramatic diva. So she does what an operatic heroine with a bent for adultery could be expected to do: in the cab on the way home, when her old fondness for Léon returns, she acts on it.
Emma’s hedonic adaptation, and her new self-identification as a tragic heroine, requires that she see Léon as much as possible. She capitalizes on the death of Charles’s father to spend time in Rouen pretending to settle the estate, then she pretends to take piano lessons and spends even more ridiculous sums of money traveling to Rouen and renting a room for their weekly trysts. When the bills come due she combines them and takes out further loans from Lheureux at an exorbitant rate of interest, and she tries to sell off the little house with the cherry trees in order to pay the bills but is cheated out of the money by Lheureux and his cronies. She insists on entertaining her lover lavishly, as she did Rodolphe, but she is also sexually aggressive and proactive. Her tastes in reading change again: she reads violent pornography with stories of Rabelaisian orgies, and she begins to believe as though she thinks such behavior ought to be normal. Her excesses begin to frighten Léon, who tries to end the affair when Emma starts showing up at his office. The first time it’s charming; after that, it becomes creepy. Until one of his colleagues writes to his mother, saying your son is ruining himself with a married woman, the young man does not break off the affair.
When the storm cloud of debt finally breaks over the Bovary household, Emma tries to get money from many sources. Her maid suggests that she negotiate with a local wealthy man who admires her, however when he proposes an affair Emma draws herself up like an offended opera heroine and flees, only to go to Rodolphe with the exact same proposition, which Rodolphe refuses. With Charles away, she submits to the indignity of having the house gone through and itemized, right down to the contents of the secret drawer in her desk with its hidden cache of love letters. Presently Emma begins to do what Lucy did in the opera: she starts to go insane. First she proposes that Léon steal the money from his employer, and when Léon fobs her off she walks home hallucinating. She imagines scenes from her past, including the waltzing Viscount who fails to materialize and save her from the predictable consequences of her decisions.
At this point, there is nowhere for Emma to turn and nobody who can help her. Indeed, the consequences of her bad decisions are closing in on her and there’s only one more pasture left to flee to where the grass might be greener. Emma therefore does not melt down as she has done in the past. Instead, she seeks “the other side” with a lethal dose of arsenic.
Lurching from one disappointment to the next, Emma never succeeds in enjoying happiness or pleasure for more than a few hours at a time. Yet when each new circumstance fails to bring a permanent improvement to her mood, instead of understanding that pleasure and excitement are fleeting and transitory by nature, Emma continues to seek out what appear to be more promising circumstances based on her superficial observations. This she does without regard to her actions’ effect on other people. When the reality fails to measure up to her grotesquely inflated expectations, she responds with the kind of tantrum consistent with her chosen identity. Self-absorbed she may be, yet self-absorption is only a symptom of Emma’s deeper problem, which is her inability to understand that life is short, pleasure is fleeting, and envy of others is ultimately pointless because there is no such thing as a life without pain, frustration, or boredom.
Dumas, Alexandre (Père). The Three Musketeers. Le Siècle, March-July 1844.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. La Revue de Paris, October-December 1856.
Scott, Sir Walter. The Bride of Lammermoor. 1819. (Donizetti’s opera came out in 1835).
Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair. 1847-1848.
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