An Education in Escape: Madame Bovary and Reading.
A theme throughout Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is escape versus confinement. In the novel, Emma Bovary attempts to escape the ordinariness of her life by reading novels, having affairs, daydreaming, moving from town to town, and buying luxury items. Emma’s early education, described for an entire chapter by Flaubert, awakens in her 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 her, such as the books smuggled into the convent or the sound of a faraway cab rolling along boulevards.
The chapter mirrors the structure of the book. It starts with a satisfied woman content with her confinement and conformity at the convent. Initially, she enjoyed the company of the nuns who would take her into the chapel through a long corridor from the dining hall. She played very little during the recreation period and knew her catechism well (Flaubert 30). The chapter is also filled with images of girls living within 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. However, 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-waisted 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 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 events, 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. There were sultans with long pipes swooning on the arbors, on the arms of dancing girls. There were Giaours, Turkish sabers, and fezzes. Above all, there were wan landscapes of fantastic countries: palm trees and pines were often combined in one picture with tigers on the right and a lion on the left. (Flaubert 33.)
Emma’s dreams at this point are chaotic, with palms, pines, lions, and tigers all mixed together. These dreams continue and transform into a death wish, with swans becoming dying swans and singing turning into funeral music. Despite being bored with her fantasies, Emma refuses to admit it and starts to rebel against the confines of the convent. Eventually, the Mother Superior is 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 woman content with her marriage to a woman who escapes the ordinariness of her everyday life through affairs and novels, to a woman 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 prevented her boredom. In her early education, it was the novels she read. She said, 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 bored 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. 1Flaubert, Gustave.
Madame Bovary, translated by Lowell Bair, published by Bantam Books in 1972.