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Madame Bovary: A Tragic Story

In “Madame Bovary” written by Gustave Flaubert in 1856, Emma Bovary, the protagonist, is portrayed as a selfish, foolish, and irresponsible girl stuck in her own unattainable fantasies. Emma, as a young peasant girl at a farm, happily agrees to marry off to Charles Bovary, a doctor much older than her who already had had a first wife. In the book, Charles is painted as the character that the readers should empathize with, to pity, for all the misfortunes that Emma brought to him in return for his genuine affection. Charles is simply trying to be the best husband he can be and Emma was not just unreceptive of his affection but cold and cruel. Emma seen as heartless and stupid to criticize Charles for being the man that he is and setting up unreasonable expectations for her husband. However, perhaps the person that is being held up to unreasonable expectations is Emma. Emma is a young, naive girl who had no world experience before she was married off to an older man like Charles. She was always handed from one man to another like an object and had no independence. Without reliable support, Emma was an ideal target of manipulation. To understand how hypocritical it would be to criticize Emma for having unreasonable expectations for her husband, Emma’s circumstances can be compared to those of girls in modern days.

In the novel, Emma Bovary was very young when Charles Bovary proposed to her — around the age of 16 and 17 years old. In the modern world, when a girl is Emma’s age, she would still be in highschool. A girl that age is clearly not going to be able to make the most wise choices as wisdom and maturity comes with age and experience. At her age, she is inclined to dream and imagine what her future life might be like as a mature woman. This sense of imagination and dreams is even more intensified for Emma as she was just a pretty peasant girl helping her father with their farm. As a girl with wonderful imagination, her being stuck in a farm with only her farmer father must have been frustrating. Emma was merely at the stage of waiting for something to happen to her. Hence when another man, an actual man who was a doctor at that, walked into her life, she couldn’t help but take interest in him. By being married off to the first man that had set his eyes on her, even then a bland man like Charles, Emma’s opportunities to experience, experiment and learn about reality were demolished. Emma is trapped by her marriage with Charles and is stuck at that stage of waiting for something exciting and interesting to happen to her for her whole life.

As a woman in the mid-1850s, Emma had no choice but to simply wait for that something to happen to her. During her time period, the level of independence for women was depressing. The moment she entered the world, a girl would be handed from one man to another like a possession and women had to depend on the men in their lives. Unavoidably, this is what happens to Emma. She depends on her father then to Charles then on Rodolphe and Leon — the two men she has an affair with. The men in Emma’s life have the ability to influence her life in large ways while the lives of these same men will not be greatly affected by Emma. In modern times, women are encouraged to shape their lives for themselves and take control. If a modern woman doesn’t want to marry at 16, and wants to acquire experience, she can have boyfriends and then marry whenever she wants. If a modern woman hates her marriage, like Emma had, she can file for divorce. If a modern woman is frustrated by the stupidity of her husband, like Emma was, she can go to school to educate herself. If a woman wanted to go to Paris because she loved its romance, like Emma did, she can take a flight to the city. For Emma, none of this was possible and her life was thrown here and there by the hands of the men in her life.

With no control of the rein on her life, Emma had no choice but to rely on Charles Bovary, her bland, frustrating husband. Unfortunately for Emma, Charles wasn’t someone that anyone should be relying on and he was extremely unreliable as a support system. Charles didn’t know how to handle a wife like Emma and made foolish mistakes such as putting her in charge of all of their finance. Essentially, Emma was navigating through her life by herself without anyone to take advice from or rely on and this made her the ultimate target for manipulation. Again, Emma’s life is put into a frenzy by men — men like Monsieur Lheureux and Rodolphe Boulanger. Emma is seduced and exploited by Rodolphe to be in an affair with him. Rodolphe considered her as only one of his long list of mistresses and targeted her for her innocent beauty and body. Emma is oblivious to this and falls deeply into this scandalous entanglement, only to be absolutely devastated and heartbroken when he leaves her when Rodolphe gets bored with her. Not only does her heart get broken by a man, she is led to financial ruin by another. Emma falls victim to the manipulation of Monsieur Lheureux, a sly merchant and moneylender when he takes advantage of Emma’s mental instability. He tricks her and leads Emma into monstrous debt, then financial ruin, and ultimately her death. In the modern day, there are family, friends, mentors who have a continuous presence in one’s life that are there when one needs advice or warnings. All Emma had was a clueless husband who rather encouraged foolish actions.

Emma had no control over her own life, her marriage was miserable, her finances were decimated and there was not a single sight of someone who was willing to help. This was when Emma realized her life was no more, she could not change it and it was not worth living. After mental and physical health issues one after another, after one devastation to another, Emma broke under the unbearable pressure. She never had control of her life but she did have control over ending it and she took that opportunity. Emma Bovary killed herself when that young, beautiful, passionate girl inside her finally realized that life could never be happy for her.


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