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Do you agree that Madame Bovary neither glorifies nor punishes adultery? Madame Bovary was written in 1857 in a time of great social unrest in France. The Revolution in 1772 had led to some movement towards the establishment of equality between the sexes, however, this was to be temporarily abolished with the re-introduction of the monarchy and women's roles within society were redefined once more. The authorisation of divorce in 1792 was also eradicated at the beginning of the Restoration in 1816 and was not reinstated until 1884. Women were seen as pure and obedient, upholding the moral fibre of society. As Heath says: Marriage and the family are sacrosanct and women, whose position regresses with the bourgeois tightening of the forms of these institutions are the sacrosanct figure of their achievement, the linchpin of the religion and the morality they supposedly embody with their purity.1 Therefore, in this dawn of a new political era, marriage was an extremely prevalent theme of popular literature and consequently the issue of adultery was frequently approached. Another novel by Feydeaus, one of Flaubert's contemporaries, entitled "Fanny" told of an adulterous liaison in extremely graphic detail. However, despite the sexual subtlety of Madame Bovary, Flaubert was prosecuted when it was published for, as David Roe cites "an outrage to morals and religion."2 The trial of Flaubert was divided into the prosecution claiming glorification of adultery and the defence claiming condemnation of adultery, however, the case was acquitted finally. The problem which lay behind this mass outrage was that Flaubert did not appear to be making a personal moral judgement and providing an outright condemnation of adultery. English novelists of the time, such as George Eliot and Charles Dickens were offering moral guidance, and Flaubert lacked this trait in his writing. Added to this was the fact that Emma Bovary is a woman and has two adulterous affairs which was seen as extremely controversial.
Emma begins her predilection for adultery shortly after her marriage to Charles. Her passions are aroused when they are out for the evening and she meets a Viscount who asks her to dance. Emma's romantic notions are encouraged and enhanced by this grandiose world with its aristocratic inhabitants. She concludes from this episode that she is perfectly at ease in this environment and does appear to fit into this upper echelon of society. Once returned to her own life, Emma begins to fantasise about belonging to this social class and this leads to depression and a nervous disorder. These seemingly psychosomatic illnesses are frequent and characterise her dissatisfaction with her existence. In plaguing Emma with nervous complaints Flaubert could be seen as punishing her for her longings, however, it seems more likely that he is indirectly condemning this futile behaviour, whilst also indicating that this wishing for a better life is a common human trait which we all suffer from at some stage in our lives. As a result of Emma's depression Charles decides that they will move, whereupon Emma discovers she is pregnant. The move to Yonville sees Emma meeting Leon, a quiet clerk, and they immediately establish rapport, him sharing her penchant for romantic fiction. Leon appears to be a kindred spirit and their meetings are charged with an amorous undercurrent. However, the reader cannot help feeling that Emma is living in a world of sentimental delusion and although they do not actually commit adultery, this liaison initiates the rumours in the town when he accompanies her to see Berthe: By nightfall news of this had spread throughout Yonville, and Madame Tuvache, the major's wife, declared in her maid's hearing that Madame Bovary was compromising herself.10 Unfortunately, Leon ultimately lacks the conviction and courage to declare his love for Emma and he eventually leaves. Emma regrets not confessing her love for him and this causes another illness. Rodolphe Boulanger, a wealthy landowner, enters the novel, and Emma succumbs to his clichéd proposals.
Madame Bovary was not written to either condone or condemn adultery but, as has been shown, to reflect a social realism without Flaubert making a personal moral judgement. Flaubert does not glorify adultery, although he appears to sympathise with Emma's plight at times, she is ultimately punished although she attempts to elevate herself into the role of the romantic heroine and ironically this is her downfall. The neutrality of the narration forces the reader to make their own decisions about whether Emma is morally right or wrong. Flaubert used the device of adultery as a medium for documenting Emma's search for her identity and an escape from the humdrum existence of the petty bourgeois society she lives in. Emma is steeped in romantic ideology; she revels in the trite novels she reads and fails to notice their clichéd notions. Her punishment could be construed as her life becoming like one of her novels and her realisation that her affairs become akin to the repetitive routine of her marriage, for as Tanner says: For Emma to rediscover in adultery all the banality of marriage, is one of the most disturbing discoveries in the history of the novel. For once in that condition, nothing literally makes any difference. And that is death.14 1 Heath, S. (1992) Madame Bovary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. P81. 2 Roe, D. (1989) Gustave Flaubert. London: Macmillan. P8. 3 Flaubert, G. (1857) Madame Bovary. London: Penguin. P49. 4 Flaubert, G. (1857) Madame Bovary. London: Penguin. P57. 5 Roe, D. (1989) Gustave Flaubert. London: Macmillan. P35. 6 Tanner, T. (1979) Adultery in the Novel. Johns Hopkins. P550. 7 Flaubert, G. (1857) Madame Bovary. London: Penguin. P207. 8 Bloom, H. (ed.) (1988) Madame Bovary: Modern Critical Interpretations. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. P152. 9 Flaubert, G. (1857) Madame Bovary. London: Penguin. P101. 10 Flaubert, G. (1857) Madame Bovary. London: Penguin. P104. 11 Flaubert, G. (1857) Madame Bovary. London: Penguin. P251. 12 Flaubert, G. (1857) Madame Bovary. London: Penguin. P295. 13 Flaubert, G. (1857) Madame Bovary. London: Penguin. P296. 14 Tanner, T. (1979) Adultery in the Novel. Johns Hopkins. P376. 4 1
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