Its been said that Gustave Flaubert's 1856 novel Madame Bovary is a book "about nothing", in fact what it's about is woman's struggle to be or feel something "real" in an oppressive society, on middle-class women who were educated, could read about life but not actually live in the world in any active sense. Inevitably these women with ideas above their station stagnated in dreams of elsewhere and Emma Bovary is no exception to the 19th century literary tradition of tragic, masochistic, doomed heroines, (for more on this see Elisabeth Bronfen's Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic). In her consumption of literature and pursuit of Romance she herself becomes nothing. (Perhaps a cautionary tale in itself). But it is also a book very much about the author, or at least the problematics of authorship, in that by highlighting the struggle Emma faces as woman in attaining integrity as a human being, Flaubert's inevitably draws our attention to the comparisons with his desire for integrity as a writer of a type of anti-romance novel using the very language of Romance. His pursuit for autonomy is intrinsically linked to Emma’s - after all, Flaubert says “Emma Bovary - C’est moi”. But what I'm more interested in is twisting this idea of the book being "about nothing" around and propose that Madame Bovary IS a novel about something, and this something is the nothingness experienced by its protagonist Emma Bovary. Throughout the novel it is Emma’s search for fulfilment, her quest to feel something that the book is concerned. Emma’s nothingness can be seen to stem from feelings of unreality. This is not due to her submersion in her life lived by proxy to an ideal projection of life read in books, but by the lack of other people having any real understanding of her. Her feeling of never being "fully known" leads Emma to inhabit a position of unreality in herself as an autonomous being in the world. Emma’s experience of unreality, of her being nothing is heavily tied to her sex. (see The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination for more on the role of the "dangers" of female imagination)
The relationship between Charles and Emma is plagued from the outset with misunderstanding. Emma’s hopes of achieving the “bliss…passion…ecstasy” that she's read about is her first disappointment. It is not just that Charles was perhaps sexually a flop (although after the wedding night Emma is unmoved, unchanged whereas Charles “seemed a different man”) but that she did not feel the connection that he does, displayed by his new and familiar attentions to her. Charles’ love for Emma puts her on a pedestal; he doesn't get cross with her when she behaves badly or feel disappointed by her when she "lets him down", as we do with real people we love - his unconditional love makes Emma a saint and not a real person. The bonds of marriage and social expectations force Emma to acquiesce into her new life with Charles, “But as their outward familiarity grew, she began to be inwardly detached, to hold herself more aloof from him”. So without attempting to really know his wife, Charles inadvertently disconnects her. Even after Emma is dead and Charles is confronted with the full force of his denial, he is still very much in love with his phantom projection of her, “A strange thing was that Bovary, while continually thinking of Emma, was forgetting her. He grew desperate as he felt this image fading from his memory in spite of all efforts to retain it. Yet every night he dreamt of her; it was always the same dream. He drew near her, but when he was about to clasp her she fell into decay in his arms." After her death Emma is no more real to him, he remains unable grasp her reality.
When we are not truly seen by people, do we cease to exist to ourselves? Emma’s wish to be admired by men (a limited form of acceptance) is a reflection of her need to be seen as something, and in a sexist patriarchal society, it is men who she looks to for this affirmation of self. There is a long list of men Emma seeks this from, first (we presume) by Charles, then The Viscount followed by Leon then Rodolphe. But to be seen is not to be known, as Zizek states “The gaze of the men in the saloon, capable of discerning the fascinating contours of the object of desire…is literally a gaze capable of seeing nothingness, i.e. of seeing an object “begot of nothing”. The dresses and trinkets Emma bankrupts her family by buying, express her wish to attain a semblance of self-worth that “does nothing but fill out a certain emptiness”. All Emma gets from her doomed love affairs is the status of a commodity object. Emma remains nothing, to herself she is only real when she is granted love, thus it is only when men permit her passion can she achieve any substance. In the same way that Emma is unreal to herself because she is not seen as possessing her own ideas and desires, Andrea Dworkin in classic staunch style, posits that Emma is in fact a virgin in the sense that she has not/ and is not treated as an autonomous sexual being - she has not been made real (not an authentic woman) by experiencing real physical passion. “Preoccupied with fantasy, Emma does not see or experience the world outside of herself except as a deprivation of attention from her inner fog, and so she remains essentially untouched-by the husband who fucks her and by human possibility in the wider world of real events”. What Dworkin is suggesting, then, is that if we do not experience the full range of desires we are somewhat lacking in a real unromanticised sexual life. She expands on this, “virginity is redefined through her, given a modern meaning: a woman untouched is a woman who has not yet felt sexual desire enough to be made sick by it, experience sexual passion enough to crave it, and broken rules in order to be carnal; a woman fucked by her husband but feeling nothing, or not enough, no lust, no romance, no brilliance of sensation, is still a woman untouched”. It is no wonder then that Emma is desperate to act on her sexual longing, in the hope that by becoming an active participant in pleasure it allows her to truly become a sexual being- so would it therefore make her more real? The idea that we are only made real or authentic by being fucked by others is both depressing and anti-autonomous reinforcing all the sexist attitudes of women's ontological unreality and Lacainan non-existence, like women, Emma Bovary "does not exist".
In Julia Kristeva’s analysis of Helen, a woman who has removed herself from a society which isolates her by not sharing her ideas nor allowing her opinions, the notion is reinforced that a state of dysphoric unreality can be created in one by not being understood by others. Kristeva writes “a total paralysis of psyche and body, an irremediable dissociation between herself and everything else, and also what should have been “she”. I find “what should have been “she” particularly interesting here as it shows how our ideas of self-hood are shaped by others’ treatment of us. Also, is this not an apt description too of how Emma’s melancholia is experienced physically for much of the book; “An attack of dizziness came on; and this evening her illness began again, though this time it was of a more uncertain nature, with more complex symptoms. Sometimes she had pains in her heart, sometimes in her chest, then in the head or limbs. She started vomiting”. The vomiting here follows Kristeva’s theories of abjection, a reading along which lines might state that Emma’s vomiting is her body reacting under great stress- against her loss of control, of slipping into unreality, after she discovers Rodolphe is leaving her. The vomiting is an expulsion of the abject, which is reassuring in the sense that it displays the boundaries between inside and outside, therefore an understanding of self is ascertained through its purification from the other of waste.
After Rodolphe abandons Emma she becomes nothing. In (the wonderful) Intercourse Dworkin discuses Emma’s state after being rejected; “she becomes sick, retreats again into a world of fantasy, wants to die, to go to heaven, to be a saint, until Leon returns to Rouen and they have an affair”. Although Emma does recover somewhat before she meets Leon again, essentially she is not really living in the real sense, she just exists until she is made real again by the passions of being desired by a man. Charles is the only man who does not treat her harshly nor discard her, but as I have previously stated, his love damages her, she can only fail at every turn to live up to his erroneous projected idea of her. She is not once treated as a person in entirety. To Rodolphe she is a challenge to master, to make subservient. Although he sees her as different from his usual mistresses as her passions are expressed to such an extreme pitch, she is still "just another mistress" to him, using the same "romantic language" as all the women he’d had before. To Rodolphe she is a half thing, a lover not a loved one, “it was not an attachment but a continual enticement”. To feel alive she willingly becomes an object, her desire to "feel" leads her down the path of masochistic desire, better to feel pain than nothing at all is the rationale of the tragic heroine. Dwokin expresses my salient point here when she writes “inevitable and terrifyingly, the men become cruel in their indifference; and to have them she still submits. Having them means the sensation will prevail over her own blank empty life. Her self-destruction, including her death, is the final reckoning for what she has become: not because she is an adulteress but because she has no integrity. She is nothing”
Flaubert’s lengthy treatment of Emma’s suicide, described in long drawn out detail, does nothing to give her death dignity. In death she losses any semblance she may have previously had of an intellectual, emotional and physical humanity. (see Bram Dijkstra's excellent Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture for the ways women have been dehumanised by erotisation of the wasting bodies of the consumptive) Instead, Emma’s death bed becomes the site of pure abjection, turning Emma into a horrific and monstrous figure. An almost religious scene of agonised “writhing limbs” “sweat” “vomit” and “blood”. (This is represented to a manic fetishistic pitch in Claude Chabrol film adaptation that sadistically lingers on Emma's death scene). It is as if Flaubert has her punished, making her more unreal to those around her (and the reader) by making her a monster. Does the act of suicide give a sense of escape, if so where is the place of escape other than escape from the body as object. Kristeva’s Helen plays dead to escape, “playing dead seemed for Helen, when she could talk about it, therefore after the event, like a “poetics” of survival, an inverted life, coiled around a imaginary and real disintegrates to the extent of embodying death as if it were real. In the world-view swallowing a vial of barbiturates is not a choice but a gesture that imperative on the basis of an elsewhere”. Rather than Emma feeling unauthentic, made of nothing, perhaps it is the world that is nothing/unreal to her - unreal unless it is making her ache, desire, revel in the "exquisite pain" of love and loss, making a tragic martyred heroine out of her. She has reached her limit of endurance when she is finally abandoned by her lovers (excluding Charles) - she no longer exists to them, as they have turned their backs on her. Kristeva’s Helen has another insight for us; “I am not killing my frustrators or my tyrants, I am killing their baby, which they have dropped”. If Emma is nothing but a vessel that can only be filled by others, when her lovers deny her substance and leave her empty, they make her disappear. She therefore destroys herself - “their baby” - as an act of completion on the job started when she became a disposable object in love. To quote Dworkin: “Romance was her suicidal substitute for action; fantasy her suicidal substitute for a real world, a wide world. And intercourse was her substitute for freedom”. For Emma, love and romance are just other forms of nihilism.