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"Madame Bovary is about the frustration of dreams, about the failure of Emma's attempt to find a world ordered to her expectations." These are the words of Jonathan Culler, a leading post-modern critic. They fully capture the essence of the novel. Emma, the protagonist, displays effusive romanticism from the days of her adolescence. Brought up by nuns for a brief period of her life, she is enraptured by the passionate and sentimental side of Catholicism. Interpreting the symbols of Christian life through her vivid imagination, she takes delight in the "metaphors of betrothed, spouse, heavenly lover, marriage everlasting, that recur in sermons." She reads romantic novels and conceives a fierce "passion for the historical." She venerates "all illustrious or ill- fated women."
To escape her boring life on her father's farm, Emma marries at an early age and is quickly disillusioned by marriage. Her husband Charles is a country doctor, who is naïve, clumsy, and coarse; he has no ability to comprehend Emma's emotional needs and yearnings. Emma looks for an escape from her boring existence with Charles. When she meets Rodolphe, her exuberant romanticism is unleashed, and he at first soaks it all up. When Emma gets too demanding, however, Rodolphe backs out, leaving a void in her life that devastates her. Betrayed and disillusioned, she falls grievously ill. Apparently she cannot face the harsh truth that reality does not match dreams. Her suicidal thoughts at this juncture foreshadow the manner of her death.
Emma quickly replaces Rodolphe with Leon, who earlier proved himself to be romantic and sentimental like his new lover. They live in a dream world and pretend their hotel room in Rouen is a home for them as husband and wife. Like Rodolphe, Leon also tires of Emma's excessive romanticism.
To maintain her romantic lifestyle with Rodolphe and Leon, Emma has borrowed considerable amounts of money. When her creditors begin to close in on her, in a typical manner, she refuses to accept the reality of her situation. When the situation becomes desperate and she is unable to raise the needed money, even from Rodolphe or Lheureux, she chooses the romantic's way out: death by suicide. Ironically, she feels that the arsenic that she takes will lead to a peaceful death in her sleep; instead, she writhes in pain.
Throughout the novel, Flaubert, the realistic, points out the foolishness of a romantic outlook on life, for it can never be satisfied. To quote Culler again,"The successive episodes of the book record Emma's failure to find a life which accords with her expectations and show how the form of each failure leads to hopes which animate . . . her next attempt at self-fulfillment. To escape life on the farm with her father is to move to a village with a husband: boredom with one village leads to another village; exasperation with Charles makes her desire a more ardent and romantic lover; jilted by Rodolphe, the professional seducer, she seeks to dominate the more innocent and tractable Leon, and her death merely crowns a series of failures. In a world too small for her desires . . . she is fated to disappointment and self-destruction." It is clear that Emma's romantic nature leads to her ruin, as well as the ruin of Charles and Berthe. On the other hand, the more realistic characters, like Lheureux, Homais, and Rodolphe, prosper at the end of the novel. Flaubert's theme on romanticism is very clear.
If the major theme depicts the dissolution of the romantic fantasies of Emma, the minor theme delineates the lives of ordinary persons. Flaubert paints portraits of Rouault, Madame Bovary (Charles' mother), Homais, Leon, and Lheureux as ordinary townspeople; despite their own inimitable quirks, they are typically mid- nineteenth-century provincial folk. They come from the middle- class and aspire to a better life. Even Emma falls into this category as she tries to rise above the mediocrity of village life, and her tragedy really stems from middle-class ennui. She cannot bear the commonness of life in Les Bertaux, Tostes, or Yonville. Similarly, Homais, Leon, and Lheureux demonstrate a desire to rise above the rank of their middle-class status. Homais chooses to be verbose and politically "progressive." Lheureux attempts to better his position by acquiring financial strength. Leon goes away to Paris to study law.
Despite the romantic descriptions that abound, Flaubert is not sentimental in his portrait of provincial life. Homais' journalism is ludicrous; Charles' medical practice is pathetic; Justin's devotion from afar is totally sad; and the Agricultural Show at Yonville, with all its trappings, is ridiculously pretentious. Neither is Flaubert complimentary to the provincial characters, who all come under his satiric comment. Lheureux, Madame Bovary, senior, Homais, Charles, Leon, and Justin are all judged harshly for their manner, customs, and eccentricities.