In Book Two of Madame Bovary, Flaubert is the architect of Emma’s ultimate downfall. She meets the characters who alter her life in ways that she cannot foresee – Homais, Lheureux, and Leon Dupuis. At the beginning of Book Two she is hopeful that her life will improve, and will be more satisfying. She develops an unfortunate habit of buying things that she wants, but cannot afford. Emma is a strongly sensual character, attracted to beautiful things.
Then Monsieur Lheureux delicately exhibited three Algerian scarves, several packets of English needles, a pair of straw slippers, and finally, four eggcups in cocoanut wood, carved in open work by convicts. Then, with both hands on the table, his neck stretched out, his figure bent forward, open-mouthed, he watched Emma’s look, who was walking up and down undecided amid these goods. From time to time, as if to remove some dust, he filliped with his nail the silk of the scarves spread out at full length, and they rustled with a little noise, making in the green twilight the gold spangles of their tissue scintillate like little stars.
She also meets and falls in love with Leon, although their relationship remains platonic at this point in the book. If Emma Bovary had a soulmate, it was Leon Dupuis.
She is shallow, but in some ways she is grasping desperately for depth.
“She wanted to learn Italian; she bought dictionaries, a grammar, and a supply of white paper. She tried serious reading, history, and philosophy. Sometimes in the night Charles woke up with a start, thinking he was being called to a patient. “I’m coming,” he stammered; and it was the noise of a match Emma had struck to relight the lamp. But her reading fared like her piece of embroidery, all of which, only just begun, filled her cupboard; she took it up, left it, passed on to other books.”
She wants more, always more, than the stolid and uninspired life with her stolid and uninspired husband. She is looking for beauty, for passion, for joy, and for love. Emma is a great emptiness, seeking to be filled. Ultimately, she finds this passion in an adulterous relationship with the womanizing, rakish Rodolphe. It is painful to watch him play her like a fish on a line – Flaubert even uses the analogy to describe her: “Poor little woman! She is gaping after love like a carp after water on a kitchen table. With three words of gallantry she’d adore one, I’m sure of it. She’d be tender, charming. Yes; but how to get rid of her afterwards?”
Emma is one extreme or the other in this section of the book. Some readers have speculated that Flaubert may have envisioned her as what we would, in modern parlance, call bi-polar. She goes from an excess of passion for Rodolphe:
She repeated, “I have a lover! a lover!” delighting at the idea as if a second puberty had come to her. So at last she was to know those joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired! She was entering upon marvels where all would be passion, ecstasy, delirium. An azure infinity encompassed her, the heights of sentiment sparkled under her thought, and ordinary existence appeared only afar off, down below in the shade, through the interspaces of these heights.”
“Then she recalled the heroines of the books that she had read, and the lyric legion of these adulterous women began to sing in her memory with the voice of sisters that charmed her.”
And then, when he inevitably leaves her (as Flaubert made sure that we, the reader, understood that he would), she goes into the depths of despair. As she did at the end of Book 1, being deprived of her lover causes Emma to utterly collapse.
It is really easy to develop a dislike of Emma Bovary. It is impossible to respect her, she is such a flighty fool, so easily distracted with the “ooh shiny” pretty bauble or calculated compliment. But, at the same time, it is possible to sympathize with her. She has been poorly educated and raised to be nothing more than a pretty ornament on the arm of a bourgeoise husband. She has been given desires well beyond her station, and no resources to either fulfill them or discover their emptiness on her own.
I see parallels between Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and The House of Mirth. The desperate beautiful woman is a staple of classic fiction.