Escape and Dreams in Madame Bovary
A theme throughout Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is escape versus confinement. In the novel Emma Bovary attempts again and again to escape the ordinariness of her life by reading novels, having affairs, day dreaming, moving from town to town, and buying luxuries items. It is Emma’s early education described for an entire chapter by Flaubert that awakens in Emma a struggle against what she perceives as confinement. Emma’s education at the convent is perhaps the most significant development of the dichotomy in the novel between confinement and escape. The convent is Emma’s earliest confinement, and it is the few solicitations from the outside world that intrigue Emma, the books smuggled in to the convent or the sound of a far away cab rolling along boulevards.
The chapter mirrors the structure of the book it starts as we see a satisfied women content with her confinement and conformity at the convent.
At first far from being boredom the convent, she enjoyed the company of the nuns, who, to amuse her, would take her into the chapel by way of a long corridor leading from the dining hall. She played very little during the recreation period and knew her catechism well. (Flaubert 30.)Footnote1
The chapter is also filled with images of girls living with in the protective walls of the convent, the girls sing happily together, assemble to study, and pray. But as the chapter progresses images of escape start to dominate. But these are merely visual images and even these images are either religious in nature or of similarly confined people.
She wished she could have lived in some old manor house, like those chatelaines in low wasted gowns who spent their days with their elbows on the stone sill of a gothic window surmounted by trefoil, chin in hand watching a white plumed rider on a black horse galloping them from far across the country. (Flaubert 32.)
As the chapter progresses and Emma continues dreaming while in the convent the images she conjures up are of exotic and foreign lands. No longer are the images of precise people or event but instead they become more fuzzy and chaotic. The escape technique that she used to conjure up images of heroines in castles seems to lead inevitably to chaos and disintegration.
And there were sultans with long pipes swooning on the arbors on the arms of dancing girls; there were Giaours, Turkish sabers and fezzes; and above all there were wan landscapes of fantastic countries: palm trees and pines were often combined in one picture with tigers on the right a lion on the left. (Flaubert 33.)
Emma’s dreams by this point are chaotic with both palms and pines mixed together with lions and tigers. These dreams continue and change themselves into a death wish as swans transform themselves into dying swans, and singing into funeral music. But Emma although bored with her fantasy refuses to admit it and she starts to revolt against the confines of the convent until the Mother Superior was glad to see her go.
The chapter about Emma Bovary’s education at the convent is significant not only because it provides the basis for Emma’s character, but also because the progression of images in this chapter is indicative of the entirety of the novel. The images progress from confinement to escape to chaos and disintegration. In Madame Bovary Emma changes from a women content with her marriage, to a women who escapes from the ordinariness of her everyday life through affairs and novels, to a women whose life is so chaotic that she disintegrates and kills herself. Indeed, Madame Bovary is like a poem comprised of a progression of repeating images.
Emma Bovary found interest in the things around her which prevent her boredom in her early education it was the novels she read, “They were filled with love affairs, lovers, mistresses, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely country houses.” She also found interest in the sea but only because it was stormy. But all the things that Emma found interest in she soon became board of from Charles to Leon. This cycle of boredom and the progression of images of confinement, escape, and chaos, parallel both in the Chapter on Emma’s education and the novel as a whole the entire mural of the novel as Emma’s journey from boredom in reality to self-destruction in fantasy.
Flaubert, Gustave. MADAME BOVARY. trans. Lowell Bair. New York: Bantam Books, 1972