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Does Emma Bovary Every Truly Love?

Updated on May 10, 2012

The novel Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert depicts the life of Emma Bovary, a beautiful young woman who finds herself caught up in a fantasy life of romance. Over the years, Emma has read many romance novels and she imagines her life to be just like the novels she reads. She imagines herself marrying a rich, handsome man, living in a life of luxury and being truly in love. However, her own life does not turn out to have the same romantic fate. Despite her husband’s true love for her, she does not love him, even though she frequently tries to feel in love. She seeks other romantic affairs in hopes of feeling the romance she longs for in her novels, but without success. Emma Bovary never truly loves anyone in this novel, despite her attempts at finding storybook romance, even to the point where she does not even love her own daughter.

Madame Bovary takes place in France in the 1840s which was a time of industrial progress and growth. In France, socialism was spreading quickly. During this time, Romanticism was in full swing, though the it had been around since the late 18th century, primarily in literature and arts. The idea in Romanticism is that reason can’t explain everything. Romantics searched for deeper, subconscious appeals, which lead them to view things differently than others. While some viewed the Middle Ages as “Dark Ages”, the Romantics idealized the Middle Ages as a time of spiritual depth and adventure. They also tended to glorify dark events and art, making them seem desirable.

Women in this time period did not have a lot of rights and were mostly considered as house wives. They took care of the house and the chores, along with raising the children. They did the cooking and cleaning and even educated their children if they did not go to school. Emma Bovary was both a middle class house wife and a Romantic, which fit the society in this time. However, she did not like her role as a housewife and she often romanticized about a fantasy life.

She is wed to Charles Bovary, a man who has truly fallen in love with her. Right away, however, Emma starts to notice all of her new husband’s flaws. She is disappointed in the honeymoon and begins to notice that Charles is dull and uninspiring. He is clumsy and unsophisticated, and this embarrasses Emma. She soon begins to wonder why she even married him in the first place. She forces herself to believe she loves Charles and that she could live her fantasy with him like in the novels she reads. However, she quickly begins to realize that she, in fact, does not love Charles, which results into her many affairs.

Emma takes the books she’s read seriously in comparison to her life, which, in the end, becomes the mistake that leads to her death. She not only confuses literature for reality, but tries to combine them both. She refuses the separation between the material enjoyment of material goods and the spiritual enjoyment of art, literature, and ideals (Ranciere).

According to Roland Champagne, “the habitus… of what is expected of a bourgeois wife is assimilated internally, though not thoroughly, into Emma…” (Champagne). In this article, Champagne explains Emma as an incompetent wife. He mentions that she can’t even knit properly without pricking her finger, which she does frequently in the novel. Not only is she incompetent as a wife based on society’s expectations of a wife, but she is also incapable of loving her husband like a wife should. She feels the need to live up to the expectation of society as the perfect house wife, and the expectations of the romance novels she reads as being truly in love, thus forcing herself upon that life, even though she doesn’t truly love those she’s with, nor makes an adequate wife of this time period.

Charles brought an opportunity to Emma – a chance to live her fantasy, and Emma was quick to grab on to it. Right away, however, she notices all the things she does not like about him. He is not the man she pictured being with. He is not rich, sophisticated, or even handsome. He is clumsy and embarrasses her on many occasions. “Charles’s conversation was as dull as a street pavement, and everybody’s ideas defiled through it in their ordinary dress, without exciting emotion, laughter, or reverie…” (53). She feels superior to him and regrets marrying someone of such a low class. “She questioned whether, indeed, there might not have been some means, through other combinations of chance, of encountering some other man; and she sought to fancy what might have been those events that had never happened, that different life, that husband whom she did not know. All men, in truth, did not resemble the one she had married” (54).

However, she does not leave Charles. In fact, more than once, she forces herself to try to love him. “If Charles had but wished it, if he had guessed it, if his look had but once met her thought, it seemed to her that a sudden plenty would have gone out from her heart, as the fruit falls from a tree when shaken by a hand. But as the intimacy of their life became deeper, the greater became the gulf that separated her from him” (43).

Emma begins to look for another way to achieve her fantasy. She does so by having affairs with other men. Through her affairs she forces herself to believe that she is in love with these men. The affairs are thrilling for her and increase her romantic fantasies. She had these affairs because of the discrepancy between the life she dreamed of out of the romance novels she had read and the life she had to live as a poor wife (Ranciere ). She begins to believe that, some day, she will marry one of these men and have that romantic life she fantasizes having. She believes that her marriage to Charles was the beginning of her own novel, and the affairs the climax. She anticipates the resolution where true love will be confessed and she will run away with one of these men.

With Rudolph, she almost lives up to this fantasy. Their affair together is exciting for Emma, and it is beginning to live up to her romantic expectations. Rudolph avoids her in hopes that she will long for him more. Emma is at first cold towards him when he finally approaches her, but she quickly falls for him, just like in the novels she reads. For Emma, it is the perfect amount of drama, excitement, and romance, playing out right before her. She is excited for this new affair, but becomes dramatic when Rudolph avoids her. When he approaches her again, she tries to act harshly towards him, like a female character would at the start of a romance novel. And like the character, she falls for him, though Emma does not truly fall in love, but merely falls in love with the idea of her real life romance novel coming together before her.

Emma begins to buy expensive gifts for Rudolph and eventually begs him to run away with her. This is just another step in her real life romance novel. Like any romantic affair in the novels, the two lovers run away together, thus, they are able to live “happily ever after.” For Emma, this next step is crucial to obtaining her real life romance story. However, after planning their run away, Rudolph backs out of the plan, devastating Emma. He becomes bored of their affair, but only stays with her because she is beautiful. When she begs him to run away with her, he realizes he needs to end the affair by not going with her. Emma, however, still clings on to this real life love story – this change is just a bump in the story – a dramatic moment to keep the reader hooked, and she goes with it. She becomes dramatic and eventually makes herself ill until she is close to death, hoping that this close encounter with death will bring Rudolph running to her side, realizing his mistake.

Rudolph, however, does not return for her. It is at this point that Emma starts to worry that she’s lost her chance for her real life romance story. She becomes suddenly very religious and prays devoutly. She starts to become friendly with the villagers and goes out with Charles, where she meets up with Leon, the man who will become her next lover.

With Leon, Emma’s fantasy world is once again opened up to her. She sees a chance to reclaim her life of romance and proceeds to have an affair with Leon. They become close and see each other every day, even neglecting work and other duties. However, they soon become bored of the affair. The fact that they are simply bored of each other shows a lot about both Emma and Leon. Like Rudolph, Leon does not truly love Emma and simply uses her for his own sexual pleasures. Emma, too, does not truly love Leon, nor did she love Rudolph. She, too, was merely using them for her own romantic fantasies. Neither men, however, were good enough for her real life love story.

It is at this point that Emma realizes once again that her fantasy is not going to happen. Despite her husband’s love, she cannot love him back, as much as she tries. She has become so engulfed in her own fantasy romantic world that she never gets to truly love anyone, even though she forces herself to have feelings for the men in her life. The romance novels that she’s read have impacted her life so much that she believes that these novels are how reality really is. She believes that she can have the excitement, the drama, and the passion, both good and bad, that will eventually lead to her happy romantic ending with her one true love. Her feelings are not true, though, and this is what leads Emma to take her own life. She has forced this fantasy upon herself, forcing herself to love men who she truly didn’t love, and when those attempts at her fantasy life failed, she knew she had nothing left. She realized that she could not achieve her real life love story. She will not leave Charles for fear of being alone and with no money, yet there has been no sign of a life with Leon, or any of the other men she’s has had an affair with. She has forced herself to love these men when in reality, she does not. Her fantasy world has crumbled beneath her, and she does not love anyone in her life, not even her own daughter. Without this, she no longer has a goal in life, and this causes her to grow very depressed, which leads to her eventual suicide.

This internal revelation, though not obvious in the novel, is what I believe truly lead Emma to her death. It is the realization that she could not achieve the passionate and romantic life she’s read about. She could not truly love anyone, despite those who truly loved her. Without being able to truly love and without the hope of this fantasy life, her life was no longer worth living. For her, it was over; she had failed. The only thing left for her was her suicide. Even though she could not have the dramatic, passionate, and romantic life she fantasized about, she could at least make one final attempt at reclaiming her fantasized life.

Emma drinks a bottle of arsenic to poison herself. Much like with Rudolph, she does this as a dramatic attempt to get the attention of Leon. She believes that this is her last chance of having her fantasized life. If she succeeds, she will have the perfect amount of drama, passion, and excitement. She hopes that Leon will come rushing to her side to admit his love for her. However, like Rudolph, Leon does not, and Emma dies, realizing at the last moment that she had failed in living the life she thought she could have. With no one left to love, she has nothing; no goal in life, no dream to achieve – it all failed, thus her life had to come to an end. Her suicide was the last consequence of a chain of causes that reached back to her first mistake: she had too much imagination.


Champagne, Roland A. "Emma's Incompetence as Madame Bovary." EBSCO Publishing
Service Selection Page, 2002. Web. 13 Dec. 2011.

Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. New York: Random House, 1957. Print.

Ranciere, Jacques. "Why Emma Bovary Had To Be Killed." The French Centre for
Research on Contemporary China. Web.


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