An Education in Escape: Madame Bovary and ReadingA theme throughout Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is escape versusconfinement. In the novel Emma Bovary attempts again and again to escape theordinariness of her life by reading novels, having affairs, day dreaming, movingfrom town to town, and buying luxuries items. It is Emma’s early educationdescribed for an entire chapter by Flaubert that awakens in Emma a struggleagainst what she perceives as confinement. Emma’s education at the convent isperhaps the most significant development of the dichotomy in the novel betweenconfinement and escape. The convent is Emma’s earliest confinement, and it isthe few solicitations from the outside world that intrigue Emma, the bookssmuggled in to the convent or the sound of a far away cab rolling alongboulevards.
The chapter mirrors the structure of the book it starts as we see asatisfied women content with her confinement and conformity at the convent. At first far from being boredom the convent, she enjoyed the company ofthe nuns, who, to amuse her, would take her into the chapel by way of a longcorridor leading from the dining hall. She played very little during therecreation period and knew her catechism well. (Flaubert 30. )Footnote1The chapter is also filled with images of girls living with in theprotective walls of the convent, the girls sing happily together, assemble tostudy, and pray.
But as the chapter progresses images of escape start todominate. But these are merely visual images and even these images are eitherreligious in nature or of similarly confined people. She wished she could have lived in some old manor house, like thosechatelaines in low wasted gowns who spent their days with their elbows on thestone sill of a gothic window surmounted by trefoil, chin in hand watching awhite 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 theconvent the images she conjures up are of exotic and foreign lands. No longerare the images of precise people or event but instead they become more fuzzy andchaotic. The escape technique that she used to conjure up images of heroines incastles seems to lead inevitably to chaos and disintegration. And there were sultans with long pipes swooning on the arbors on thearms of dancing girls; there were Giaours, Turkish sabers and fezzes; and aboveall there were wan landscapes of fantastic countries: palm trees and pines wereoften 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 mixedtogether with lions and tigers. These dreams continue and change themselves intoa death wish as swans transform themselves into dying swans, and singing intofuneral music. But Emma although bored with her fantasy refuses to admit it andshe starts to revolt against the confines of the convent until the MotherSuperior was glad to see her go. The chapter about Emma Bovary’s education at the convent is significantnot only because it provides the basis for Emma’s character, but also becausethe progression of images in this chapter is indicative of the entirety of thenovel. The images progress from confinement to escape to chaos anddisintegration. In Madame Bovary Emma changes from a women content with hermarriage, to a women who escapes from the ordinariness of her everyday lifethrough affairs and novels, to a women whose life is so chaotic that shedisintegrates and kills herself.
Indeed, Madame Bovary is like a poem comprisedof a progression of repeating images. Emma Bovary found interest in the things around her which prevent herboredom in her early education it was the novels she read, “They were filledwith love affairs, lovers, mistresses, persecuted ladies fainting in lonelycountry houses. ” She also found interest in the sea but only because it wasstormy. But all the things that Emma found interest in she soon became board offrom Charles to Leon. This cycle of boredom and the progression of images ofconfinement, escape, and chaos, parallel both in the Chapter on Emma’s educationand the novel as a whole the entire mural of the novel as Emma’s journey fromboredom in reality to self-destruction in fantasy. Footnote1Flaubert, Gustave.
MADAME BOVARY. trans. Lowell Bair. New York: Bantam Books,1972