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An education in escape madame bovary and reading

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.

(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 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.

(Flaubert 33.)

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,


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