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 again and again to escape the
ordinariness of her life by reading novels, having affairs, day dreaming, moving
from town to town, and buying luxuries items. It is Emma’s early education
described for an entire chapter by Flaubert that awakens in Emma 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 Emma, the books
smuggled in to the convent or the sound of a far away cab rolling along
The chapter mirrors the structure of the book it starts as we see a
satisfied women content with her confinement and conformity at the convent.
At first far from being boredom the convent, she enjoyed the company of
the nuns, who, to amuse her, would take her into the chapel by way of a long
corridor leading from the dining hall. She played very little during the
recreation period and knew her catechism well. (Flaubert 30.)Footnote1
The chapter is also filled with images of girls living with in 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. But 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 wasted 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 them from far across the country.
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 event 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.
And there were sultans with long pipes swooning on the arbors on the
arms of dancing girls; there were Giaours, Turkish sabers and fezzes; and above
all there were wan landscapes of fantastic countries: palm trees and pines were
often combined in one picture with tigers on the right a lion on the left.
Emma’s dreams by this point are chaotic with both palms and pines mixed
together with lions and tigers. These dreams continue and change themselves into
a death wish as swans transform themselves into dying swans, and singing into
funeral music. But Emma although bored with her fantasy refuses to admit it and
she starts to revolt against the confines of the convent until the Mother
Superior was 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 women content with her
marriage, to a women who escapes from the ordinariness of her everyday life
through affairs and novels, to a women 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 prevent her
boredom in her early education it was the novels she read, “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 board 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.
Flaubert, Gustave. MADAME BOVARY. trans. Lowell Bair. New York: Bantam Books,