Madame Bovary and Romantic Escapism

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From an article over at the Touchstone website, on the danger of us all becoming like Madame Bovary.

One of the ironies of the quest for autonomy is that it inevitably results in the imitation of models provided by someone else. Advertisers and marketers elicit, feed upon, and profit from Romantic desire by providing an endless diversion of goods, and by promising ever-new identities. In Madame Bovary the merchant Lleureux is the pander of Emma’s illicit desires, profiting handsomely at each step of her demise. “Emma lived all absorbed in her passions and worried no more about money matters than an archduchess.”

The ultimate futility of the consumerist promise rests in the fact that the “home” of human nature is to be in a body with an unchangeable genetic makeup and history. The trappings of fashion cannot re-create one’s identity but only change it in the most superficial way.

Emma also manifests a fourth aspect of Romantic escapism: adultery and promiscuity. She is only alive in the thrill of her extramarital affairs:

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 a marvelous world where all would be passion, ecstasy, delirium. She felt herself surrounded by an endless rapture.

She also “recalled the heroines of the books that she had read . . . an actual part of these lyrical imaginings.” But her affair, like her marriage, inevitably becomes ordinary, a point Flaubert again makes with laconic precision: “She was as sick of him as he was weary of her. Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.”

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