Jennifer Jones plays our heroine, Emma, whose overriding dream is to live out the myth of romantic love. Flaubert presents her in a compassionate light, believing her plight could be that of many women of that time, if they only had more courage to try to break free of their dissatisfaction.
Emma goes through many steps in trying to find her happiness: marriage, a home, a child, self-value through her husband’s accomplishments, being attractive, having affairs and material possessions.
From a young age, she had been exposed to many romantic books of the time, which fed her very active fantasy life. When Dr. Charles Bovary arrives at the family farm to tend to her father, her imagination is galvanized. She sees him as someone to rescue her, just like in the stories she grew up with. Charles assesses himself accurately as “just a country doctor, and not a particularly good one”, but her need to idealize him blinds her.
The wedding night is a disappointment to her, and then Emma vows to make her husband the best wife anyone ever had. Flaubert calls this substituting “new dreams for old.” As a part of this, she spends much time and energy creating a beautiful home. This also launches her into what we would call now a spending addiction, which unbeknownst to Charles, puts them horribly in debt. Alas, this dream, too, is short-lived.
In and out of depression, Emma then decides a child would be the cure for her ills. Although she gives birth to a daughter, Emma wants a son, saying a boy “can be free.” As a man, he would be able to do what he wants to in the world. She wants her offspring to be able to live the life she wasn’t able to live, due in large part to the time and place in which she was born, when men held most of the power (This belief, in my view, is still present to some degree in our collective male and female consciousness). Emma was a distant mother and we can imagine that she might have projected her own negative feelings about being female on the baby.
In another scene, she begs Charles to perform an impossible operation on the clubfoot of one of the village’s inhabitants, believing this, at last, would enable her to love and respect her husband and shine in his reflected glory. In the movie, he refuses to go through with the surgery; in the book, he does and it is a horrible failure.
New dreams for old. Her next attempt at fulfillment was to engage in an affair with Rodolphe, a rich and handsome landowner who ultimately rejects her. He shows up in her life as a predator but, in less obvious ways, she also was a predator, using him for her sense of self and aliveness.
After a long period of break-down, she has another affair with Leon, a local law student which whom she shares many affinities, including a highly developed romantic side. All of this ends badly, and finally, to end her torment, she commits suicide.
If these steps come from the “outside-in” instead of the “inside-out” they will have no inherent meaning; they will be used to fill an emptiness or void rather than as a way of expressing our aliveness, what is ultimately within us. As each element fails her, she misses the opportunity that disappointment affords to look deeper into her inner dynamics. Instead, Emma continues to do the same thing over and over again, in different guises, hoping for a different result. She is mistakenly looking for aliveness outside of herself, vitality through drama, nourishment through “junk food,” stimulation though distraction, and self-expression through acting out.
Some women go through these steps (substituting “new dreams for old”) and, upon reaching mid-life, they wonder what is wrong with them. They may have all of the above ingredients (marriage, children, material goods, etc)—the “right” things, the recipe for happiness, but are still unhappy and dissatisfied with life.
Part of Emma’s problem could be boredom. She has a greater capacity, intelligence, and creativity than there is room for in her life. She also never internalizes the beauty she frantically searches for outside; she never realizes she is that which she seeks. Emma’s tenacity and tremendous energy is admirable. Imagine if she had aimed that energy in a different way: towards insight and creativity instead of grasping for the attainment of the impossible: to fill an inner psychological void from the outside.