Desire in Madame Bovary

Per Bjørnar Grande

Bergen University College, Norway

Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, Vol. 23, 2016, pp. 75–98. ISSN 1075-7201.

© Michigan State University. All rights reserved.

In Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Deceit, Desire, and the Novel),

René Girard attempts to explain how desire has been depicted in different

European novels. According to Girard, the lesser novelists have retracted

to some kind of romantic worldview in their description of human relationships.

While the “romantic writer” does not see that desires are mediated by

other people’s desires, and instead describes desire as object-related,

linear, and devoid of any ongoing mimetic contagion, a number of novelists, are, nonetheless,

able to reveal the illusion of romantic desire. In Flaubert’s Madame Bovary,

the author tries to peer into the desires that govern Emma Bovary’s relentless

search for a romantic life. These desires seem to be fundamentally mimetic

and triangular. In this article, I wish to further the insights originally offered by

Girard on how desire works in Flaubert’s novel, Madame Bovary.

This work originally appeared in Contagion 23, 2016, published by

Michigan State University Press.


The very movement in Madame Bovary is a movement toward death and total

undoing.1 Flaubert’s famous statement that the novel is about nothing must be

seen in the light of desire and its ability to gradually infiltrate everyone and

everything. Emma Bovary is a woman driven by unfulfilled longings. Her aim

in life is to realize her innermost dreams—dreams of romantic love, luxury,

and heroic deeds—whichare beyond the reach of a farmer’s daughter in rural

Normandy. Madame Bovary is a modern novel in the sense that character plays

no decisive role. Everything changes and shifts in tune with desire.2

In order to reveal desire, Flaubert, as a writer vacillating between romanticism

and a realism in its making, creates a world where everything is strictly

realistic and, at the same time, heavily laden with symbolic meaning. Most

of the symbols prefigure the death and decay caused by desire. According to

Corrado Biazzo Curry, desire transforms realistic descriptions into disorderly

descriptions and juxtapositions of images without causal relations.3 Desire in

the novel is such a dominant theme that the most everyday descriptions seem

to lose their original meaning and relate to some kind of strong urge. From

Chapter IV onward, the novel’s perspective seems to be related to Emma’s state

of mind: For example, the flat fields stretching their great surface until they fade

into gloom of the sky represent the monotonous existence to which she finds

herself condemned; the closed shutters indicate a gradual degeneration of her

life; and the muddy waters represent sexuality and lost love, while pure water

represents her romantic dreams.4 Landscape takes on such a “desirous” form

that it annihilates persons and events, referring to cosmic emptiness.

According to Tony Tanner, mist and water represent Emma’s disintegration.5

Landscape in Madame Bovary is generally coated in lust, longing, and despair.

Like the landscape, her two homes—theone in Tostes and Yonville-l’Abbaye—

both reflect despair and boredom, and the cathedral in Rouen is described as

a boudoir, revealing Léon’s erotic desires. Color also plays an important role in

representing desire. For example, Flaubert uses the word “bleuâtre” (bluish)

over fifty times, most often to describe Emma’s fictitious ideal of love. Hazel

Barnes has reflected on Flaubert’s frequent use of the word “vide” (empty),

claiming that it is a part of a language tinged with desire. One can say that the

symbols coincide with a certain death wish, a wish to vanish or be absorbed by

a greater whole.

Emma’s dream of liberation tends to take erotic paths, since sex seems to

be the only way in which she can realize her romantic dreams. Her dreams of

freedom are captured in the image of her sitting by an open window, immersed

in feelings of hopelessness and melancholy, as she looks longingly at some open

space and wishes that she was somewhere else.6 The erotic symbols, however,

seem to relate most often to a lack of sexuality. When Charles begins to visit

Emma at her home (Les Bertaux), the burned out embers prefigure a marriage

that holds only meager sexuality. Likewise, the burned wedding bouquet indicates

her future unhappy marriage. In contrast, bright fires from an open fireplace,

one of Flaubert’s more cherished symbols, seems to indicate real sexual

desire, as when Emma, in her bedroom, thinks of Léon.7

Religious symbols generally emphasize suffering and decay. For example,

the plaster statue of a priest, which falls off the carriage and smashes into

a thousand pieces during their move from Tostes to Yonville,8 indicates that they

are moving toward a godless existence and, at the same time, foreshadows the

disasters Emma and Charles are about to encounter.

Yonville-l’Abbaye is a wasteland, a place devoid of character, where they

produce the worst cheese in the area and where nothing seems to grow;9 it

becomes a symbol of Emma’s experience of emptiness and boredom. In addition,

her life is cramped; her sitting room has a particular low ceiling, indicative

of a life without mobility.10 The graves in this small town are steadily encroaching

on the available space,11 hinting at Emma’s own tragic death. Thus, in relation

to Madame Bovary, Proust’s statement that there is not a single beautiful

metaphor in all of Flaubert’s writing must be seen in a context of desire turning

everything into ruins.


Emma’s initial problem, and basically the cause of her suffering, seems to stem

from her confusion about what to desire. In the Ursuline convent, where she

has been raised from the age of thirteen, she reads romantic novels, which lead

her from pious ideals to romantic ideals as depicted in works of fiction. Her

childhood tendency to merge religious and romantic feelings develops into a

lifelong obsession, and part of her tragedy derives from her inability to distinguish

between these emotions. The first reference to her religious life emphasizes

an inclination toward religious extremism.

Instead of following the mass, she would study, in her missal, the pious illustrations

with their sky-blue borders, and she loved the sick lamb, the Sacred Heart

pierced by sharp arrows, and poor Jesus, stumbling under the burden of his cross.

She attempted mortification, to go a whole day without eating. She tried to think of

some vow she might fulfill.12

Although Emma is quite sincere in her religious feelings, Flaubert indicates that

there is also a certain playful aestheticism in her religious life.

When she went to confession, she used to invent petty sins so as to stay there longer,

kneeling in the darkness, her hands together and her face against the grille, listening

to the murmuring of the priest. The analogies of betrothed, spouse, heavenly lover,

and eternal marriage that she heard repeatedly in sermons excited an unwonted

tenderness deep in her soul.13

This passage also reveals her attempts at the convent to bridge romantic and

religious sentiments ultimately leave her unable to distinguish between them.

In her fantasy mixture of the spiritual and the erotic, Jesus becomes a heavenly

lover.14 The blend of romanticism and Catholicism in Emma’s life is never

separated, although there is a certain development in the direction of a purely

worldly love. A visible shift toward the romantic seems to happen when Emma

is fifteen, at the end of her stay at the convent. She falls increasingly under

the influence of an elderly spinster who stays in the convent for a week every

month in order to mend the linen. This woman, who is a member of an ancient

aristocratic family, tells the girls stories, passes on bits of news, and lends the

older girls novels. The novels were

solely concerned with love affairs, lovers and their beloveds, damsels in distress

swooning in secluded summerhouses, postilions slain at every posting-house,

horses ridden to death on every page, gloomy forests, wounded hearts, vows, sobs,

tears and kisses, gondolas by moonlight, nightingales in woods, and ‘gentlemen’

brave as lions, meek as lambs, unbelievably virtuous, always immaculately turned

out, who weep buckets of tears.15

This exaggerated outline of the content of these books highlights the aged

Flaubert’s ironic attitude toward romantic novels. However, this is precisely the

kind of novel he himself read and believed in as a child, and he even reread all

the books on Emma’s reading list. This passage addresses the issue of childhood

influences, influences that shape Emma’s romantic inclinations to such a degree

that ordinary life must make her unhappy. Madame Bovary is, even more than

in L’Éducation sentimentale (1869), a novel about the effects of education and

learning. Like Frédéric Moreau in L’Éducation sentimentale, Emma’s spiritual

longing focuses on the higher life as depicted in romantic literature. The difference,

however, is that Frédéric only partly believes in the education of the

heart. His cynicism becomes a kind of shield against romantic myths. Emma,

on the other hand, has no cynicism in which to filter her romantic feelings; she

lives for the moment, is incapable of denying her impulses, and never considers

the consequences of her unbridled desires. However, she is strong enough

to change her life by means of her desires, while Frédéric is a passive slave to

desire, incapable of making a mark on the environment. However, Emma must

always reach a certain critical stage of unhappiness before desire is transformed

into action.

Thus, any attempt to identify the source of Emma’s unhappiness should

begin with an examination of her childhood and later role models. First, it is

important to bear in mind that Emma never seems to be able to distinguish

between profane and religious love.16 On the basis of a naïve blend of romantic

and religious sentiments, Emma begins to rebel against convent life, a rebellion

that is attributed to the nuns’ excessive religious practice. They had “so deluged

her with masses, retreats, novenas, and sermons, preached so well the veneration

due to saints and martyrs, and given so much good advice about modesty

of the body and salvation of the soul, that she did as horses do when reined

in too tightly: she stopped dead and the bit slipped from her teeth.”17 It seems

that she even rebelled against the mysteries of the faith. So, when her father,

Monsieur Rouault, comes to fetch his sixteen-year-old daughter, both she and

the nuns are relieved.

After her return home, Emma’s life is governed by sentimental dreams of

adventure, luxury, and noble feelings. The contrast between Emma’s life as the

daughter of a farmer and the luxurious lives of women in romantic novels creates

a chasm in her soul and makes her discontented with life. Not long after

returning to the farm, Emma begins to dislike rural life. She even misses the

convent and thinks of her convent friends from more wealthy backgrounds

who have already married rich and handsome men. She grows disillusioned

and decides that she has nothing more to learn, nothing more to feel.18 In her

first lengthy conversation with Charles, she tells him that she finds rural life

tedious and yearns for life in a town,19 which reveals that her unhappiness is not,

initially, the result of an unhappy marriage. Her role as a depressed romantic

in the heartland of Normandy provides her with few opportunities. Emma

is, however, privileged with regard to the quality of her environment, to the

extent of her education, which in addition to religious instruction include

dancing, geography, drawing, tapestry work, and the piano.20 Nevertheless, her

father, Père Rouault, is far from rich, and due to extravagance, his fortune is

diminishing year by year.21 Like his daughter, he despises the hard labor that

farming requires.

Both Emma and Père Rouault are prone to strong emotions. In addition,

neither of them can manage their money, so both live beyond their means,

becoming poorer by the day. The narrator, however, never explicitly highlights

these common qualities, only indicates them. According to Mary Orr, Emma’s

sentimental religiosity, rue, and depressions are, initially, a heritage from her


Although Emma is bright—always the first to answer questions on religious

themes (she has even won prizes for her abilities)23—there is no opportunity

for her to live the life she wants. Her father excuses Emma for not being

of much use in the house and thinks she has a too good a mind for farming.24 At

the same time, he sees no use in having her at home. Initially, it is his greed that

makes him choose Charles Bovary as a husband for his daughter. Although he

considers Charles “a bit of a loser,” he senses that Charles is a steady young man,

learned and careful with money; and, most important of all, one who will not

haggle too much over the dowry.25

My conclusion on the sacred and profane theme is that Emma’s background

consisting of being a farmer’s daughter, with no wealth, seeing her father living

beyond his means, helps turn her religious sentiments into worldly dreams of

style and wealth.


What was there in Emma’s education that turned her into a romantic? The official

education at the Ursuline convent could hardly be called romantic, despite

its slightly Platonic air. Nevertheless, Emma has a tendency to transform

Catholic teachings into romanticism. Gradually, her religiosity seems to fade as

she becomes increasingly preoccupied with an idea of a life of luxury and heroism.

Just before she leaves the convent, all her ideals revolve around tragic or

heroic characters, such as Héloïse, Bayard, Clémence Isaure, and Joan of Arc;

or privileged women such as Agnès Sorel, the mistress of Charles VII, and La

Belle Ferronière, the mistress of Françoise I. The royals whom she especially

admires are those who display a special penchant for cruelty, such as Louis XI,

who is famous for his unscrupulous methods for retaining power; and Henry IV

who is famous for slaughtering the French Protestants (Huguenots). All of

Emma’s heroes are people who are out of the ordinary, extreme, and dramatic;

people whose lives least resemble the simple lifestyle in a village and small

town in Normandy. Emma’s ideals are evidence of a woman who is living a life

dissociated with anything in her current environment. To understand such a

chasm between dream and life, it is necessary to examine romantic ideology

more closely.

According to Henri Peyre, the notion of a romantic and sensitive nature

has always existed, characterized by features such as a predominance of passion

over reason, an emphasis on the extraordinary, dissatisfaction with the present,

and a delight in suffering.26 In this respect, Emma is the quintessential romantic.

Other characteristics of romanticism include a longing for death and a taste for

the morbid.27 Romanticism implies a feeling of ennui in relation to everyday life

and the confines of rationality.28 Emotion is set up against reason. Ideal love is

praised, while the inability to love is a source of agony.29 Romantic poems tend

to delight in solitude and in the contemplation of moonlit nights, employing

various metaphors to underline feeling, referring to natural elements such as

sea, trees, sky, dramatic mountains, deserts, and sunsets. Romantics are often

enthusiastic about the Middle Ages and take a keen interest for travel and exotic

places.30 The loss of oneself in something exotic is a typical feature of romanticism.

In keeping with this, Emma thinks that she can achieve happiness as long

as she can travel and discover new places. Paris, in particular, is the place where

all her dreams are centered. Flaubert, however, does not grant her access to the

capital of desire.

Seen from this perspective, Emma fits neatly into the category “romantic.”

An exception is her preference for novels instead of poetry. This preference is

based on novels’ ability to stir her sensations and make her feel fear.31 Moreover,

her view of nature is basically unromantic and very typical of people who live in

rural villages. In her first conversation with Charles, she admits that she longs

to live in a town: “But she knew the country too well; she was too familiar with

bleating sheep, with milking, with ploughing.”32 Nevertheless, if nature could

to stir her emotions and benefit her personally, she would willingly adopt a

romantic view of nature: “She loved the sea only for its storms, and the green

grass only when it grew in patches among ruins.”33, 34

Her preoccupation with madness, another characteristic of the romantic

period, is limited to a certain focus on her own melancholy. With regard to religion,

she is also basically romantic in her emphasis on the emotional elements.

However, Emma did not turn to pantheism, as quite a few nineteenth-century

romantics did, giving up their traditional Christian beliefs in favor of a pantheistic

belief in a God inherent in all creation.35 Nor does she revel in the cult

of Greek religion and ancient Greece, perhaps because she does not have that

kind of academic education and because the French romantics never joined

that movement.36 Unlike the romantics, Emma does not venerate the barbaric

and primitive.37 However, her fascination with the superman, which is strong

in romanticism,38 is clearly one reason why she gradually comes to despise her



Emma’s tragedy is partly rooted in her belief in the myths of romantic literature.

Her life, especially at first sight, seems to illustrate perfectly what Denis

de Rougemont describes as “the passion-myth” in our lives. According to de

Rougemont, the passion-myth has, like a cancer, worked its way into the human

breast of every individual in the Western world and created a perverse concept

of love. It magnifies and deifies unhappy, nonsensual love; and is, according

to De Rougemont, a love for nothingness, for death.39 De Rougemont characterizes

this love as narcissistic love, in which the lover’s self-magnification

is emphasized more than the relationship with the beloved.40 The love that is

represented in romance literature is a love gained through obstacles, or even a

love of obstacles. Thus, if there were no obstacles, there would be no romantic

love. So, in reality, there is no love, only love of obstacles. Within the masochistic

realm of love of obstacles, there is a pathological fear of falling in love in a

simple, straightforward manner.41 According to De Rougemont, this myth was

bound to change the Western attitude toward adultery,42 which he considers to

be materialized in contempt for marriage.43

Turning to Madame Bovary, Emma’s initial obstacle is the result of her dissatisfaction

with rural life and longing for a life in style and luxury far beyond

her reach. Looking at Emma’s life from the perspective of obstacles, it may seem

that Emma does not love her husband because he is no obstacle. Admittedly,

Charles does not seem to understand her and is not able to provide her with

a stylish life and great passion, but his status as village doctor lifts her status

somewhat—despite her having got an admirable cultural education in a convent.

The more Charles seems to admire and even worship Emma, the more she

seems to detest him. Her hate is partly self-hate.

Like her, Charles represents the vulgarity of village life. This is highlighted in the vivid contrasts in Part One,

Chapter VIII, when they spend a weekend with the aristocracy of the region;

the party at the chateau (La Vaubyessard) stands in striking contrast to their

own wedding party.

Emma’s dissatisfaction with her husband seems to derive from a number

of sources. Although Père Rouault undoubtedly played a part in encouraging

Emma’s marriage to Charles, she was not forced. As Emma watches Donizetti’s

opera, The Bride of Lammermoor, at the Théâtre des Arts in Rouen, she admits

to herself that she, in contrast to Lucie, the heroine in the play, was full of joy

when she was newly married.44 However, Emma soon becomes bored and feels

confined. There is no hint that she is being mistreated. On the contrary, Charles

is depicted as a caring and loving husband. Emma’s dissatisfaction seems to

arise from a certain vulgarity in his appearance and his lack of ambition.45 This

causes her to long for something else.

From the perspective of modern mainstream psychology, it is possible to,

at least initially, view Emma’s problem as psychological: Her mother died when

she was a little girl, and she seems to have had an unhappy childhood, except

during periods of exaltation. Just after the weekend at La Vaubyessard, before

they move from Tostes to Yonville, Emma’s state of boredom and melancholy

become so serious that she may be considered clinically depressed, verging on

madness.46 However, there are too few textual examples of early mental problems

to determine whether this was an issue. Instead, the textual emphasis lies

on Emma’s extraordinary capacity for imitation.

One may question whether Emma would have been so easily beguiled by

the representations of the noble life in literature if she had not been so discontent.

Her first encounter with the life she has read about and longed to have

for many years is at the weekend at La Vaubyessard where she and Charles are

invited to a party at Marquis d’Andervilliers. Once she has been introduced

to this life and been able to taste the refined atmosphere among the aristocracy,

her preoccupation increases. Everything she sees and experiences at La

Vaubyessard becomes, for the rest of her life, a norm and ideal. For example,

the fact that she vaguely remembers the Marquise calling some girl Berthe leads

her to choose Berthe as a name for her own daughter.47 Shortly after their return

home from the weekend, Emma’s dissatisfaction becomes so strong that she

sinks into a state of depression. The brief glimpses into the world of style and

refinement has made her daily life seem ten times worse than before. Her intensified

discontent culminates in her sacking her maid and hiring a new one who

is required to imitate the service etiquette practiced among the aristocracy.48

Emma projects her feelings of dissatisfaction onto Charles. One of the

reasons why one looks down on Charles is because he is generally depicted

through the eyes of Emma. Thus, Charles is depicted through the eyes of romantic

desire. From other perspectives, a more balanced picture may be obtained:

“His health was good, he looked well; his reputation was firmly established. The

country folk were fond of him because he was not proud. He was affectionate

with children, never went into a bar, and, indeed, inspired confidence by his


Viewing Charles from outside Emma’s desire for success, he becomes one

of the finest persons in the novel. According to Mary Orr, Charles Bovary is

perhaps the character in the whole of Western literature who is most often misunderstood.

He is often viewed as a servile idiot, while, according to the text, he

is generous, hardworking, faithful, and dutiful. Orr goes so far as to say that his

goodness, his selfless concern for others, his kind and respectful humanity, and

his belief in the best of others makes him one of Flaubert’s many saints.50 He is

a good father and extremely loyal toward both his wives. The only hint of any

moral fault in Charles is when he breaks the promise to his first wife to never

again visit the farm where Emma lives. Charles represents the nonmasculine

man without social ambitions. He is the only character in Madame Bovary who

is content with life.51 His lack of desire hinders him in becoming a stereotype,

unlike the other men in Yonville. He also represents an absolute contrast to his

own bragging and brutal father. Nevertheless, Charles is not capable of enhancing

his career as a doctor, and is slightly clumsy and lacking in imagination; seen

through Emma’s romantic lenses, these shortcomings constitute a deadly sin.

Emma is not interested in such a dull relationship. She dreams of seeing

the name Bovary displayed at the booksellers, repeated in the newspapers, and

known throughout France. For her, love is something extreme, a way to experience

the otherworldly. According to De Rougemont, such a dualism regarding

Eros, in which it is simultaneously divine and frenzied, is a Platonic legacy.52

This kind of dualism in love became common in twelfth-century

France in connection

with the emergence of dualistic religion. This sparked a powerful rise

of the cult of love. 53 It was during this period that marriage became an object of

contempt and passion was glorified.54 According to the Cathars, the yielding to

a purely physical sensuality was the supreme and original sin, and to love with

pure passion was the pure virtue.55 According to De Rougemont, the troubadours’

songs of love are also a legacy of this perverted understanding of love.

Our language of passion comes down to us from the rhetoric of the troubadours.

It was supremely ambiguous rhetoric. Its symbols of sexual attraction were the

product of Manichean dogmatics. Little by little, as it was gradually separated from

the religion in which it originated, it passed into manners, and became part of the

common language.56

One of Emma’s heroes is Clémence Isaure,57 who in 1323 founded the first literary

institution in the Western world (Academy of the Floral Games, which revived

a game of verses among troubadours). This linking of Emma’s passion to troubadour’s

love makes De Rougemont’s critique of the concept of love, as elaborated

by the Cathars, relevant to her romantic legacy. Although Emma seems to

develop a more refined literary taste after the weekend at La Vaubyessard—she

begins to read contemporary French novelists such as Sand, Sue, and even

Balzac, who tends to flutter between romanticism and realism—her


motivation is to find “vicarious gratification for her secret desires.”58 With

regard to literature, Emma is like Don Quixote, who, after having read too many

books on chivalry, becomes mad in that he sees the world through the deeds

of the knight, Amadis of Gaul. Like Don Quixote, Emma’s desires are mediated

through the desires raised by fiction; and like Don Quixote, she is forbidden by

her own family to read romantic novels for a period.59 Although I don’t believe

that De Rougemont is entirely accurate in blaming Western moral decay on literature,

since literature can, as René Girard has shown in Deceit, Desire, and the

Novel, also reveal the illusions of the passion myth. Romantic literature is clearly

a source of great unhappiness for Emma. The question is whether literature is to

blame. A certain desire seems to be a necessary prerequisite for such a reading

since means identifying with the hero however badly his or her deeds afflict the

other. In a way, De Rougemont echoes the prosecutor, Pinard, who, during

the court case concerning whether Madame Bovary should be banned, claimed

that the novel destroyed people’s moral consciousness.60


In order to go further in our investigation on how desire works in Madame

Bovary, it is necessary to shift the focus from ideas to relationships, and to

examine the relationships between the characters. I will therefore gradually

leave De Rougemont’s idea-oriented analysis in order to focus on relationships

more than ideas. This means transferring, from the ideological realm to the

mimetic, and from De Rougemont to Girard. Although offering an alternative

understanding, Girard praises De Rougemont’s theme of obstacles,61 even saying

that De Rougemont is one of the few thinkers gaining Novelistic insight.62

Girard claims that De Rougemont has not only seen the significance of

the obstacle, but has also highlighted the double structure of desire: the same

movement that makes us worship life actually hurls us into negation and

(inner) death. According to Girard, this view of desire, in which negation of life

is depicted as vitality, is De Rougemont’s most masterful insight.63 Girard goes

on, however, to elaborate a more technical device to illustrate the way desire

works, introducing the triangular structure of subject, object, and mediator. He

gently criticizes De Rougemont for not perceiving the third party in the desire

for obstacles.64 According to Girard, De Rougemont has revealed the fundamental

content of desire, but his analysis lacks structure. Desire for obstacles

is, for De Rougemont, a subject-object relationship, and he sees the obstacle

as something within the subject (hero). The object is hindered by the subject’s

own mind, by the deceitful ideas of love created by myths and heretical religion.

As the obstacles are the result of heretical ideas, and not of something concrete

and contemporary, De Rougemont is therefore not able to explain the mechanism

that links myth to mind.


Emma’s desire is constantly mediated by romanticism, transforming it into

what Girard calls metaphysical desire, a desire that has lost its natural object and

instead is mediated by a secondary desire.65 What characterizes both Emma and

the novels she reads is an inability to understand that desire is something borrowed

from the desire of the other, and does not contain some kind of essence

or originality. As a result, she refuses to see the repetitions in her life. The overall

mimetic development in Madame Bovary goes from the real to the unreal. All

relationships tend to move toward the unreal. Her blindness to the fact that her

own desires are being created by the desire of the other is a result of her narcissism

and prevents her from seeing her own clichés.66

Although Emma is strong in the sense that she dares to live out her desires,

she is passive in the initial stages of seduction. She does not act until she really

believes that there is a way out of her unbearable situation, and then she acts

without any sense of the consequences.

Emma’s desires are constantly being mediated by romantic desires, desires

that turn and twist her spontaneity and make her loathe her environment.

Before arriving in Yonville, Emma’s erotic desires have vacillated between

lifeless romantic dreams, on the one hand, and resentment of her husband’s

spontaneous and uncomplicated expressions of love, on the other. In Yonville,

her desperation grows, and her romantic inclinations begin to materialize in

real erotic relationships, although she is, initially, the passive partner in both her

liaisons. Her feelings toward Léon are ignited the first evening in Yonville when

she and Charles have a meal together with some of the locals at the Lion d’Or.

Her rather innocent and platonic love for Léon begins when they converse

about travels, sunsets, music, and romantic novels.67 Their immediate feeling

that they are soul mates derives from the feeling that they are different from and

superior to the others in Yonville. This sense of superiority is partly the result of

their “sentimental education,” which they feel enables them to understand the

finer and more cultivated sides of life. Sentimental or romantic education

becomes a catalyst for difference, facilitating an escape from the dreariness of

rural life. Sentimental education seems somewhat similar to today’s notion of

“cultural capital,” in that it distinguishes certain individuals from the masses.

However, both Emma and Léon reveal a rather shallow concept of culture,

solely based on feeling.

The spark of love is ignited by romantic sentiments and gradually develops

during Homais’s evening gatherings, where Emma and Léon, instead of playing

cards and dominos, look through Emma’s fashion magazines or recite poems.68

However, Léon’s naïvity and timidity, his bourgeois loyalty to good behavior

and his shyness, prevent him from acting in a definitive way. Their relationship

becomes an aching and a longing, with Emma listening daily to his footsteps on

the pavement.

Léon never expected that, when he left her house in despair, she immediately rose

and went to watch him walk down the street. She wanted to know about everything

he did and everywhere he went . . . Emma considered Homais’s wife a most fortunate

being, to sleep under the same roof as him. . . . But the more she became aware

of her love, the more Emma repressed it, to keep it hidden, and also to weaken its

hold. She would have liked Léon to guess her feelings, and she made up fantasies

about coincidences and disasters that might precipitate a revelation.69

The decisive moment in Emma’s feelings of love toward Léon is emphasized by

its occurrence in a moment of acute dreariness, a winter Sunday in Normandy

when Emma, Léon, Charles, and the Homais family are visiting a flax mill. On

this outing, the contrast between Léon and Charles is highlighted. Emma suddenly

turns her gaze from the white wintry sun, to see Charles with his cap

pulled down to his eyebrows; his thick lips are quivering, which makes him look

stupid, and his coat seems to sum up all the banality of his being. Suddenly,

Léon steps forward. For Emma, his good looks and cultivated presence establish

a definitive difference between him and her husband.70

After this very shallow experience of difference, Emma suddenly begins to

change her lifestyle,71 choosing a religious life based on duty and resentment.

There does not seem to be any other reason for this shift from romanticism to

Puritanism, other than her feeling of despair that her love for Léon is impossible.

But she was filled with lusts, with rage, with hatred. That neatly pleated dress

concealed a tempestuous heart, and those chaste lips uttered no word for her

torment. . . . And then the pride, the joy of telling herself: “I am a virtuous woman,”

and admiring herself, in her mirror, in attitudes of resignation, consoled her somewhat

for the sacrifice she believed she was making.72

In this part of the novel, readers gain a marvelous insight into how resentment

works, as Emma’s meekness is revealed as a form of rebellion. Behind her new

Puritanism lies not much more than the admission of the impossibility of her

dreams. In fact, “the mediocrity of her home provoked her to sumptuous fantasies,

the caresses of her husband to adulterous desires. She would have liked

Charles to beat her, so that she could more justifiably detest him, and seek her


If Charles had shared the combative nature of Emma’s desires, their marriage

would immediately have developed into a sadomasochistic relationship

built on the thwarted desire for the other’s desire. However, Charles never

joins in erotic games based on rivalry. Instead, he adores Emma no matter what

happens. Instead of serious rivalry, which would have suited Emma’s romantic

temperament, her unfulfilled desires turn into rage, and her feelings of dissatisfaction

gradually evolve into depression.

The real affair starts three years later when a more self-assured

and cynical Léon, who has been living in Paris, returns to Rouen. By this time, Emma

has already had an affair with Monsieur Rodolphe Boulanger de la Huchette,

a wealthy landowner in Yonville, and is prepared for the physical sides of a

liaison. The affair between Emma and Léon, which takes place in Rouen,

becomes an imitation of the romantic love with which Emma has fed her mind

during the years of boredom. However, Emma has more scruples during this

second encounter than during the first. The narrator reveals that the attraction

and temptation is stronger this time (she has never thought any man as handsome

as Léon) than it was when Rodolphe rather insensitively and brutally

seduced her.74

Léon knows exactly how to undermine Emma’s moral scruples. In order

to persuade her to share a cab with him, he says that a cab ride with a man is

not considered improper in Paris: “Everybody does it in Paris!” Emma, who,

through fashion magazines, novels, and maps, has dreamed of a life in Paris’

high society, is unable to resist such an argument. The cab ride becomes an aimless

tour. It may remind the modern reader of a road movie where desires have

run wild. There is a certain awkwardness, even brutality in the description of

this seduction. The driver’s extreme discomfort seems to reflect Emma’s own

discomfort, and Léon’s repeated angry shouts directed at the driver,75 emphasize

a lack of joy and pleasure. Moreover, the cab is compared to a tomb,76 once

again prefiguring Emma’s tragic death caused by desire.

Both of Emma’s love affairs begin with her being reluctant and passive

initially, and end with her becoming absolutely desperate to continue the relationship,

while her lovers gradually come to fear the extremities of her desire.

This can, of course, be seen in the light of gender: if a married woman in mid-nineteenth

century first gave in to forbidden love, there was no way back. The

other reason, also slightly gender related, is that both Léon and Rodolphe are

only interested in a sexual liaison that will not affect their daily lives. For both

Léon and Rodolphe, careers, comfort, and reputation are more important than

Emma. Emma, on the other hand, feels she has nothing to lose.

Both of Emma’s lovers are disturbed souls, who have grown up without

fathers and are therefore unusually concerned with achieving manliness

by seducing women. However, there is a basic difference between Léon and

Rodolphe; Léon is a weaker, kinder, and more sensitive character, and seems to

treat Emma as a mother substitute, while Rodolphe is a genuinely cynical loner

with good looks and outward charm, and is mainly interested in conquering

women, especially if he can take her from another man. Rodolphe is unable to

develop friendships with men77 and compensates with his many rivalrous affairs.

When Rodolphe enters Emma’s life, he is a good-looking,

vain thirty-four-year-old bachelor, who is in Yonville for the agricultural fair. He decides

to seduce Emma and dump his current mistress, Virginie, who is too plump,78

and he strives to win her over by talking about the mediocrity of all things

provincial. Rodolphe’s romanticism is, at first sight, even loftier than Emma’s,

but closer examination reveals that his romanticism is only a way of hiding his

naturalistic worldview. Rodolphe speaks in such a lofty way in order to attain

sensual pleasures. The situation of Rodolphe in the midst of an agricultural

fair serves to reveal his purely sensual desires toward Emma. The juxtaposition

of Rodolphe’s romantic monologues with Monsieur Lieuvain’s and Monsieur

Derozerays’s speeches on agricultural development aggrandizes Rodolphe’s

animalistic desires.79

If one considers Rodolphe’s naturalistic sensuality in relation to De

Rougemont’s understanding of the passion-myth, the correspondence between

romanticism and naturalism is highlighted. For example, De Rougemont claims

that naturalistic sensuality is by nature the same as romance-desires,

only sublimated to fit into an animalistic ideal.80 He seems to consider animalistic ideals

to be as illusory as romantic ideals.81 It represents the same aspiration for the

sublime, but viewed from the animal side. 82 According to De Rougemont, these

animalistic ideals have been internalized and become a part of modern ideologies,

as well as being prevalent in the mind of men, and have thereby become

a glorification of instinct of the here below.83 Both naturalistic ideology and

romanticism operate with the notion that access to nature and love is straightforward

and direct. Thus, this naturalistic approach is manifest as a belief in

desire without a mediator. For example, in his attempt to seduce Emma, the

figure of Rodolphe may, at first sight, resemble straightforward desire. However,

it gradually becomes evident that everything is mediated by the characters’

sentimental education. Both Leon’s and Rodolphe’s idea of love consists of the

same sentimental education as Emma’s.

When Rodolphe contemplates seducing Emma, he evaluates her as he

would a horse: lovely teeth, black eyes, neat feet.84 These sensual elements,

combined with the fact that there is the air of a Parisienne about her, makes

her irresistible for both the outward romantic and inward naturalistic. In order

to seduce her, Rodolphe needs to present himself and Emma as completely

different from anyone else in Yonville; they are more stylish, their passions

are stronger and more refined, and they belong on another plane of existence.

Rodolphe reiterates exactly the same romantic ideals as Emma, but in an even

more extreme form. In addition, his romanticism, which hides his naturalism, is

much more cynical than Emma’s. The irony is that the reader sees Rodolphe in

the context of the smelly, dirty, and deeply primitive agricultural surroundings,

emphasizing his animalistic desires. Placing this seduction scene right in the

middle of the novel seems to emphasize desire as the novel’s main motif.85

When Rodolphe first seduces Emma, her reluctuant manner is not simply

coquetishness; she expresses genuine moral doubt. Immediately after having

been seduced, however, Emma feels no remorse.

Then she recalled the heroines of novels she had read, and that poetic legion of adulteresses

began to sing in her memory with sisterly voices that held her spellbound.

She was actually becoming a living part of her own fantasies, she was fulfilling the

long dream of her youth by seeing herself as one of those passionate lovers she had

deeply envied. Besides, Emma felt a satisfying sense of revenge. She had suffered

enough, had she not? But now her moment of triumph was here, and love, so long

repressed, flowed freely, in joyful effervescence. She gloried in it, feeling no remorse,

no anxiety, no disquiet.86

Emma’s feelings quickly go from being embarrassed and frightened, to feeling

that at last her dreams have come true. The mediation of desire through romance

literature has completely transformed her outlook, from initial uneasiness to

fulfillment. Moreover, after the seduction, Emma becomes the active party,

so active and unreserved in her search for love that it makes Rodolphe feel ill

at ease and frightened. The intensity of her desire causes their relationship to

develop in a way that seems to be typical for all of Flaubert’s erotic relationships.

According to Flaubert it is impossible for two people to love each other

at the same time. Desire works in such a way that as love turns one party on, it

simultaneously turns the other off.

Jealousy plays a fairly minor role in Madame Bovary. Instead of jealousy and

rivalry between lovers, one affair follows after the other; and Charles, due to

his trusting nature, never discovers these affairs while Emma is alive. Charles’s

jealousy flares suddenly after Emma’s death when he first finds letters to her

from Rodolphe and then those from Léon, and finally discovers a portrait of

Rodolphe.87 These findings tear Charles apart, physically and mentally. There

is even a scene where he is on the verge of attacking Rodolphe. However, the

scene culminates with him telling Rodolphe, twice, “I don’t hold it against you,”

placing the blame on fate instead.88 By not seeking revenge, Charles is ultimately

able to quench the potential violence generated by Emma’s infidelity. Nevertheless,

the mingled jealousy and sorrow quickly ruin his life. Shortly after Emma’s

death, Charles also dies. The fact that the doctor finds nothing concretely wrong

with Charles89 emphasizes the deadly effect of desire.

Desire in Madame Bovary is a craving for the impossible, causing Emma

to fight obstacles which are both illusory and unnecessary when viewed from

outside the torments of desire. At the same time, the logic of mimetic desire

enables the reader to decipher Emma’s dilemma. For Emma, life becomes more

and more tangled and twisted. As the end approaches, the narrator asks, “Why

did life fall so short of her expectations, why did whatever she depended on turn

instantly to dust beneath her hand?”90

In contemplating her own downfall, Emma seems able to see the paradoxes

in life, in which there is always a negative side to the positive:

Everything was a lie. Every smile concealed a yawn of boredom, every joy a curse,

every pleasure brought revulsion, and the sweetest kisses left upon your lips only a

vain craving for a still more sublime delight.91

In her desperation, Emma perceives the downfall, but not the reasons for it.

Both Emma and Charles blame fate for this downfall,92 thereby displaying a lack

of any great insight. Actually, all the characters in Madame Bovary lack depth of

insight. All with the exception of a little old woman named Cathrine Leroux,

who receives a medal for fifty-four years of hard labor,93 are under the spell of

desire, nurturing some kind of deceit about others and themselves. Thus the

truth of the novel is revealed in the story’s development, not any grand idea or



According to Sartre, the reason why readers so often dislike Flaubert’s characters

is because they are a result of Flaubert’s dislike for himself.94 This lack

of self-esteem, however, seems to enable the author to pull potential heroes

down from their pedestals and present their downfall without taking sides.

Although not completely objective, Flaubert has an impressive ability to keep

to the psychology of the story without giving in to any sentimental conclusion.

The tragic ending of Madame Bovary seems to indicate a deep understanding of

how desire works in peoples’ lives. At the same time, the single-minded

manner in which Emma tries to break out of her bourgeois prison seems to reflect

Flaubert’s sympathy for his main character.

However, if one restricts the analysis solely to the evolution of the novel and

does not consider Flaubert’s letters, the novel’s ideology seems to correspond

to the ideas expressed by Homais, despite being such a limited and tiresome

bourgeois pharmacist. Homais is a parrot of the ideals of the Enlightenment, in

which rationality, science, and progress are highlighted, and romantic feelings

are discounted. His whole identity is based on critique of religion and expressing

liberal values; Homais is an unstoppable networker, always sucking up to the

right people, and somewhat of a charlatan in his work. Nevertheless, he seems

to represent a more successful alternative to romanticism. This rather one-sided

interpretation of Homais, with its focus on his dullness and non-romantic

temperament, which is evident in so many analyses of Madame Bovary, does

not correspond well with the text, especially if one restricts the analysis to the

development of the story: Emma falls into debt, and Homais becomes wealthy;

Emma’s reputation is lost, while Homais becomes relatively famous. It seems

as if the novel parts from any preconceived ideology. In fact, Homais’s success

seems to mark the novel’s conclusion, and everything associated with him and

his family has turned out well. The fact that the enlightened though nondescript

Homais is the recipient of the Legion of Honour while the romantic Emma

commits suicide can be viewed from two perspectives: ironically, in the light of

life’s absurdity; or metaphorically, as representing the victory of rationality and

enlightenment over romanticism.

While those who display greed and materialistic desires in Balzac’s novels

tend to end badly, the materialists in Madame Bovary, such as Lheureux, Maître

Guillaumin, and Homais, seem to succeed. In Madame Bovary, it is those who

turn to romantic love who taste the bitterness of desire most intensely. The relative

success attained by they who misuse the other, is, although not emphasized

in this article, a part of Flaubert’s irony.

If Homais, despite his mediocrity and egoism, represents a concluding

moral in Madame Bovary, there seems to be a certain flaw in the understanding

of desire represented in the main characters. According to Mary Orr’s

critique of masculinity, Homais is one of the novel’s foremost representations

of masculinity, judged on the basis of good reputation and success. From her

perspective of masculine survival and success, desire is motivated by a “more”

in life, and everything centers around the need to outdo others and victimize

anyone who does not desire or strive for this “more.” Charles becomes a prime

scapegoat in the realm of masculinity, due to his submissive attitude, respect

for women, and lack of ambition.95 In this context of male rivalry, where reputation

and success are all and where women are brutally subordinated, the worst

characters become the most successful. The worst of these male figures seem

to be Charles’s father and Lheureux; the former is a brutal braggart while the

latter slowly kills Emma by tricking her into insurmountable debt. The flaw in

Orr’s overall interpretation, despite the precise analyses of the novel’s characters,

is the tendency to demonize everything masculine, thereby creating

a dualism between masculinity and femininity in which the former is all bad

while the latter is all good. In this interpretation, Emma Bovary, although suppressed

by masculine desire, is mostly bad because she acts in a typically masculine

manner. Although there are, in relation to Flaubert’s forced objectivity,

many themes in the novel that lend themselves to analysis in the light of feministic

theory, the theme of desire is so all-encompassing in its very nature that

even the masculinity/feminity theme becomes secondary.

If the concluding chapters in Madame Bovary represent the author’s own

values, Flaubert certainly becomes, ideologically, less prophetic and more

traditional. This is, however, in accordance with Flaubert’s own defence of the

novel, especially in the court case against him. In the court case, he emphasizes

that Madame Bovary is not a novel that propagates immorality but instead highlights

the immorality of infidelity.96 However, the loving way in which Emma is

depicted indicates that the novel is first and foremost a tragedy, not a morality

story. It is a tragedy devoid of any easy consolations, apart from the deeply moving

scene at the end of the novel, in which at Emma’s deathbed, the priest dips

his right thumb in oil, touching the various parts of her body. First the eyes,

then the nostrils, then the mouth, then the hands and lastly the soles of her feet,

as if all these sensual parts of her body have been reconciled to God.97


1. Victor Brombert, “The Tragedy of Dreams,” in Modern Critical Interpretations of Flaubert’s

Madame Bovary, ed. Harold Bloom (Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishing, 1988),


2. Leo Bersani, “Flaubert and Emma Bovary: The Hazards of Literary Fusion,” in Modern

Critical Interpretations of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, ed. Harold Bloom (Philadelphia:

Chelsea House Publishing, 1988), 28.

3. Corrado Biazzo Curry, Description and Meaning in Three Novels by Gustave Flaubert (New

York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1997), 35.

4. Curry, Description and Meaning in Three Novels by Gustave Flaubert, 19–31.

5. Tony Tanner, Adultery in the Novel (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1979), 320.

6. Brombert, “The Tragedy of Dreams,” 18.

7. Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 91.

8. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 79.

9. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 63–64.

10. Brombert, “The Tragedy of Dreams,” 22.

11. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 64–66.

12. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 33.

13. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 33.

14. See Brombert, “The Tragedy of Dreams,” 17.

15. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 34.

16. Stirling Haig, “The Madame Bovary Blues,” in The Madame Bovary Blues: The Pursuit of

Illusion in Nineteenth-Century

French Fiction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University

Press, 1987), 83.

17. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 36–37.

18. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 37.

19. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 22.

20. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 18.

21. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 23.

This work originally appeared in Contagion 23, 2016, published by

Michigan State University Press.

Desire in Madame Bovary 95

22. Mary Orr, Madame Bovary: Representations of the Masculine (Vienna: Lang, 1999), 31–34.

23. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 41.

24. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 23.

25. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 23–24.

26. See Henri Peyre, What Is Romanticism? (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press), 1977.

27. Peyre, What Is Romanticism?, 24.

28. Peyre, What Is Romanticism?, 18–19,


29. Peyre, What Is Romanticism?, 77 ff.

30. Peyre, What Is Romanticism?, 89.

31. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 75.

32. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 34.

33. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 36–37.

34. This love, however, refers to things she has never seen.

35. Peyre, What Is Romanticism?, 109–127.

36. Peyre, What Is Romanticism?, 104.

37. Peyre, What Is Romanticism?, 98–108.

38. Peyre, What Is Romanticism?, 125–127.

39. Denis De Rougemont, Love in the Western World (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 38 ff.

40. De Rougemont, Love in the Western World, 260.

41. De Rougemont, Love in the Western World, 267–268.

42. De Rougemont, Love in the Western World, 276.

43. De Rougemont, Love in the Western World, 275.

44. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 199.

45. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 55.

46. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 57–61.

47. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 81.

48. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 50, 54.

49. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 55

50. Orr, Madame Bovary: Representations of the Masculine, 193–194.

51. Orr, Madame Bovary: Representations of the Masculine, 170 ff.

52. De Rougemont, Love in the Western World, 61.

53. De Rougemont, Love in the Western World, 112.

54. De Rougemont, Love in the Western World, 71.

55. De Rougemont, Love in the Western World, 135.

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96 Per Bjørnar Grande

56. De Rougemont, Love in the Western World, 166

57. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 34.

58. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 52.

59. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 112–113.

60. See Dominick La Capra, “The Trial,” in Modern Critical Interpretations of Flaubert’s

Madame Bovary, ed. Harold Bloom (Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishing, 1988).

61. De Rougemont is mentioned in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel on pages 48, 108, 165, 177–179,

192, 226, 285, 287.

62. De Rougemont, Love in the Western World, 226.

63. René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure (Baltimore:

John Hopkins University Press, 1965), 287.

64. Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, 177–178.

65. Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Chapter I.

66. Michael Peled Ginsburg, “Narrative Strategies in Madame Bovary,” in Modern Critical

Interpretations of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, ed. Harold Bloom (Philadelphia: Chelsea

House Publishing, 1988), 133, 152.

67. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 72–76.

68. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 88–89.

69. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 96–97.

70. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 90–91.

71. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 94–98.

72. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 96–97.

73. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 97.

74. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 210.

75. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 216–217.

76. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 217.

77. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 123.

78. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 116.

79. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 126–133.

80. De Rougemont, Love in the Western World, 186.

81. De Rougemont, Love in the Western World, 186.

82. De Rougemont, Love in the Western World, 186.

83. De Rougemont, Love in the Western World, 237.

84. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 116.

85. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, Part 2, Chapter VIII.

This work originally appeared in Contagion 23, 2016, published by

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Desire in Madame Bovary 97

86. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 145.

87. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 304, 309.

88. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 310–311.

89. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 311.

90. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, xxx.

91. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 252.

92. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 138, 311.

93. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 133–134.

94. Hazel Barnes, “The Biographer as Literary Critic: Sartre’s Flaubert and Madame Bovary,”

in Modern Critical Interpretations of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, ed. Harold Bloom

(Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishing, 1988), 102.

95. See Orr, Madame Bovary: Representations of the Masculine, 212.

96. Geoffrey Wall, Flaubert: A Life (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), Chapter 17 (“The Pangs

of Art”).

97. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 289. See also Tony Tanner, “The ‘Morselization’ of Emma

Bovary,” in Modern Critical Interpretations of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, ed. Harold

Bloom (Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishing, 1988), 47.

This work originally appeared in Contagion 23, 2016, published by

Michigan State University Press.

98 Per Bjørnar Grande

This work originally appeared in Contagion 23, 2016, published by

Michigan State University Press.