In Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, the character Emma is noted and analyzed as tremendously selfish. However, this analysis is simplistic in its view. While Emma is certainly selfish and even cruel, her husband Charles also displays selfish tendencies. It is his selfishness combined with Emma’s character that causes their marriage to fail.
Emma is described as very beautiful, but vain and childish in her worldview. During her childhood she enjoyed reading romantic novels which shape her ideas of how relationships and life should be, making her discontented with everyday life. This perception causes her to constantly seek more—more fine things, more passion, and more exciting adventures, as evidenced in, “Everything immediately surrounding her—boring countryside, inane petty bourgeois, the mediocrity of family life—seemed to her the exception rather than the rule. She had been caught in it all by some accident: out beyond, there streched as far as eye could see the immense territory of rapture and passions. In her longing she made no difference between the pleasures of luxury and the joys of the heart, between elegant living and sensitive feeling” (Flaubert 66).
When confronted with the disappointment of mundane life, Emma gives in to her selfish tendencies, such as seeking romances with Leon and Rodolphe. This causes her to ignore and humiliate her husband behind his back, wrecking any chance her marriage has for happiness. Her selfishness also condemns her daughter Berthe. So distracted by her pursuit of romance and luxury, Emma completely neglects her daughter and is remarkably cold to her.
Charles is a simple creature, unintelligent and unrefined. However, he is deliberately oblivious and often just as selfish as Emma but in less direct ways. One key moment is when he looks at Emma, and he sees his own self reflected back at him. He is unable to see anything from anyone else’s point of view and is incapable of empathizing with Emma’s needs or desires.
Charles is literal and sees things only in his own mindset. This causes a great deal of resentment from Emma, as seen in, “What exasperated her was that Charles did not seem to notice her anguish. His conviction that he was making her happy seemed to her an imbecile insult, and his sureness on this point ingratitude. For whose sake, then was she virtuous?” (Flaubert 93). Because he does not know her, or even recognize how unhappy she is, Emma loses the ability to respect or be faithful to him.
When Charles looks at Emma, the reader is treated to a detailed analysis of her appearance, of her dress, and her beauty, but when it comes to her mannerisms or personality, Charles is unable to describe her in any terms at all. He selfishly sees only what matters to him—Emma’s beauty. This is further examined in, “”Emma lost flesh, grew pale and haggard. With her dark, plaited hair, her large eyes, her straight nose, her bird-like and ever-silent tread, she seemed like one passing through the world without so much as touching it, bearing on her brow the shadowy promise of some glorious and heavenly destiny. She was so sad and so calm, so gentle and, at the same time, so reserved, that you felt a sort of icy charm when you were with her, the kind of shiver that comes over you in a church from the perfume of flowers and the cold of the marble. The others too came under her spell. (Flaubert 68). In this, Emnma is clearly depressed and miserable, but Charles only sees her appearance and the idea of matrimonial solemnity.
It is this complete obliviousness to Emma’s needs or views, and his selfish concerns with his own desires, that leads to the disillusions of their marriage. Emma frequently complains about their current situation, and rather than really hear what Emma needs, Charles instead just relocates to Yonville, which is just as boring and dull to Emma as Tostes. Charles does not truly know his wife, leading to a destroyed and dysfunctional marriage that he plays a significant role in ruining.
Charles’ selfishness is also exemplified in his relationship with his daughter with Emma. So out of touch with Emma’s doings, the family ends up in severe debt. In his attempts to keep Emma’s memory alive after her suicide, he adopts some of her preferences for things, worsening their already difficult situation, as seen in, “To please her, as if she were still living, he adopted her preferences, her ideas; he bought patent leather boots and took to wearing white cravats. He put cosmetics on his moustache, and, like her, signed noted of hand. She corrupted him from beyond the grave” (Flaubert 292).
This need to emulate Emma’s lifestyle causes both Charles and Berthe to live in poverty, as seen in, “He suffered, poor man, at seeing her [Berthe] so badly dressed, with laceless boots, and arm-holes of her pinafore torn down to the hips; for the charwoman took no care of her. But she was so sweet, so pretty, and her little head bent forward so gracefully, letting the dear hair fall over her rosy cheeks, like those ill-made wines that taste of resin” (Flaubert 293). While Berthe is in a deplorable state, Charles is once again distracted by outer beauty. So concerned with outer grace rather than inner feelings that he continues to selfishly ignore Berthe’s needs as he did Emma’s. This causes Berthe to have to be sent away as a poor relation after his death, as the family is penniless and Berthe’s situation is pitiful.
While Emma is frequently described as the vapid villain of Madame Bovary, her husband Charles is not blameless as he is often depicted. Oblivious, obtuse, and focused on Emma’s superficial beauty, Charles never bothers to get to know who his wife really is. His treatment of her and his ignorance of her desires cause their marriage to fall apart and his family to end up in financial ruin.
- Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. 5th ed. Ed. Lowell Blair. New York: Bantam Books. 2005.