Madame Bovary and Truth


2/22/97

Madame Bovary - Timed Writing

question: Select a moment or scene in a novel that you find especially memorable. Write an essay in which you identify the line or the passage, explain its relationship to the work in which it is found, and analyze the reasons for its effectiveness.


The novel Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert has many lessons hidden in seemingly ordinary dialogue, or scenes in the text. One of the most memorable and powerful passages contains what is a veritable moral of the novel. In the last third of the book, Emma Bovary’s life goes on a rapid downward spiral, and in one significant scene, she reflects on her life, past, and what she has learned from her affairs. One line strikes the reader: "everything was a lie!" This avowal can be applied to many different situations in the novel, and can be said to be the chief lesson Flaubert wishes to incorporate.
In this passage, Emma remembers her past, a time when she was more innocent and perhaps less preoccupied with her troubles. She remembers her time in the convent as a young girl—a time when she was happy and passionate about life, for awhile. Then she grew bored with the ordinary life of a student in a convent, and the stories of love and passion called to her more than ever.
She remembers how she had longed for the love affairs that she had read about in her romance novels, and how she had imagined her future. She recalls how her imagination had carried her away into the depths of the story; perhaps it is her imagination that is at fault for implanting these ideas in her head. Life certainly has not turned out the way she dreamed.
Next, she remember the few precious moments in her life: the waltzes, lovers, etc. She then decides that she was never happy. Even though Emma has just listed several of the most happy moments in her life, she feels that life is simply not satisfying.
The tone throughout this passage conveys what Emma feels—betrayal, sadness, and anger. These three tones are very important throughout the novel. Also, the sentiments she expresses are ironic—she recognizes that her dreams will never come true, and yet she clings to them. In the end though Flaubert expresses his cynical outlook, which Emma shares: "each smile hid a yawn of boredom…" Emma also ponders why she feels that everything she touches turns to dust.
Next, she imagines the man of her dreams, and not surprisingly, he resembles her string of lovers. However, a mere mortal is still not good enough, and besides, she thinks her dream will never happen. Perhaps she should have learned that by now. But she still retains her fantasies, which is not a crime in itself. The problem is that her dreams are unattainable, impossible and futile.
One of Flaubert’s most profound assertions in the entire book is the line "everything was a lie!" Although this sentiment may not be true, it certainly seems plausible and quite conceivable, especially from Emma’s point of view. This is definitely a worthy moral. Although most readers would usually like to believe that they can take people or situations at face value, more often than not the entirety is a lie. The majority of Emma’s life, and even her suicide was based on lies or fantasies—"everything was a lie!"—as are many people’s lives. Still, it is hard to be a cynic when we all conceive ourselves to be so much more aware than poor Emma—or at least a little bit more sensible.
This specific passage is so effective because it comes at a point in the novel when Emma is utterly desperate. Shortly after these sobering comments, she finds herself bankrupt, and her debtors come to repossess and sell all of her possessions. Reflecting on her love life, her marriage, and especially her business affairs in her life, the idea that her life is a lie seems very plausible. The reader knows that her marriage is a lie, and we have seen her love affairs end in lies. It is obvious that her debts were based on lies, and she is too scared to tell her husband anything, adding another lie