Madame Bovary and Victim Rights
Recognition of the rights of victims has significantly improved since the 1970s following the rise of the Crime Victims’ Rights Movement that advocates for a justice system that is victim-centered. The Victims’ Rights vary based on the laws of every country. These rights include the right to be treated humanely, the right to notifications, the right to be protected from harm by the offender, the right to compensation or restitution, and the right to speak during legal proceedings (Beloof 3). Unfortunately, the contemporary concept of victims’’ rights was underdeveloped at the time Gustave Flaubert wrote the novel, Madame Bovary, which clearly told the tragic story of a victim. The novel was published in 1857 and reflects on the social and legal contexts of the 19th century France. Even though many lay blames on the main character, Emma, for her tribulations, including her suicide, she is clearly a victim of social forces that were operational during her time, and therefore, deserves sympathy as a victim.
Madame Bovary is a case of a woman trying to set herself free from a destiny already prescribed to her by the prevailing social customs in a male dominated society. Emma’s troubles can be considered as consequences of her spirited attempt to find meaning and happiness in life by overcoming the darkness and emptiness that covered her as it was in the case for other women in her social context. Emma is going through some emptiness deep within her that she is determined to fill. However, the avenues that she pursues towards finding happiness easily portray her as a villain that deserves all the pain and suffering she underwent. On the other hand, a keen examination of her intent and motivations reveal that Emma is a victim show requires protection instead of villain that should be condemned.
Al through the novel, Emma is endlessly looking for love, happiness and romance despite being married to a patient, tolerant and loving man. Emma seems to have unfulfilled thirst and low self esteem that she is determined to deal with because they drive her to a cycle of failed attempts to satisfy her deeply rooted desires. On the outward, her actions bring her out as a reckless, immoral and insatiable woman; however, her motivations reveal an inner need for a better life that the society was not prepared or unable to offer. The narrator points out about Emma, ‘’In her yearnings, she confused the sensualities of luxury with the joys of her heart’’ (Flaubert 76), a confirmation that her pursuit of luxury and men was an attempt at addressing her inner cravings of happiness instead of proof of her intent to cause harm to other people. If a person has alcohol addiction, it can be said that he or she is a victim of alcohol addiction, meaning that such an individual needs help and not condemnation because he or she is trapped and helpless. In the same way, Emma’s attempt at seeking what she thinks is best for her life leads her into the hands of deceitful men who promise to love her but eventually fail.
Looking at Emma’s background may provide an insight into the source of her tribulations and dissatisfaction with what life gave her. Emma spent most of her childhood reading romantic novels with lofty ideas on romance and luxury to an extent that she became not only aware of her lack of satisfaction with ordinary life but also determined to transform her idealized romance into a reality. Although she may be blamed for embarking on an obviously impossible mission of actualizing her unreasonable fantasies, the ideas that shaped her views of the world were not her own. In other terms, it can be said that Emma is a victim of the 19th century literature of romanticism characterized by imagination of romantic experiences and lifestyles reserved for the few wealthy and rich, which were obviously unreasonable for Emma considering that she was just a farm girl from a humble background.
Besides, Emma could also be excused for believing in the ideas she acquired from a novel because she was still very young and had not been accustomed to the way of life that people lived during that time. The experiences that Emma went through can help one in understanding the plight of women in the society she lived. It looks that factors outside free will determined women’s fate; no-wonder self determination was not sufficient for Emma’s success. In such a society dominated by the males, men controlled all the wealth and means of development, including education and political influence while the females were confined to household chores. In such a setting, Emma cannot be blamed for longing to become free, especially after reading romantic novels that informed her of her deprivation. However, her enlightenment and attempts at exercising her free will was the origin of her ruin, not because she was vile, but because she used the only means of elevating herself to class that the bourgeois society of that time offered her which were men.
The awareness of Emma about the only options she had to achieve happiness is clearly portrayed in the novel. For example, ‘’before she married, she thought she was in love, but the happiness that should have resulted did not come…’’ (Flaubert 55). Marriage was an ideal opportunity for upward mobility of women in the 18th century French society because other opportunities like education were quite limited. This explains the reason why Emma was determined to find happiness through marrying the ‘right’ person who is romantic and wealthy. Although Charles was not wealthy enough, he gave her the opportunity for a better life compared with the life she lived at the convent in her father’s farm. However, Charles could not afford the dream life that Emma believed she deserved. Even after realizing that her husband was not the kind of man she longed for, she gave the marriage a chance by trying other means of finding happiness like charity (Flaubert 209), however, all these failed. Emma must have realized that the only option available for her to achieve her dream is to be convinced that she married the wrong husband so she could leave Charles and find the right man for her.
Since Emma believes that men have the key to happiness, she would not give up her search. Unfortunately, people around her do not see her as a woman trying to find freedom from the enslavement in a society that lacks sensitivity to the will of women. Instead, they only see the superficial implication of her actions. Instead of viewing Emma’s dissatisfaction with marriage as a genuine cause for her to give in to other men, people dismiss her as an adulterous woman who is immoral. It is surprising that she does not offer herself to men until she thinks that they can offer her the happiness that she is seeking. Both Rodolphe and Leon seduce Emma, not her seducing them. However she bears all the blame and the men are allowed to walk freely. Yet, Rodolphe had to be blamed for seducing Emma when all the time he knew he had no plans of marrying her. Emma, whose desire for finding a man who could make her dream love life a reality could not resist the seductive words used by Rodolphe like, ‘’In my soul, you are a Madonna on a pedestal, exalted, secure and immaculate…’’ (Flaubert 161) considering her vulnerability as a women looking for magic love. Besides, Emma does not move in with Leon until she is certain that Rodolphe was not ready to have a lasting relationship with her, which reveals that she was not out to prove that she could have sex with any man she opted for.
The awareness of Emma about the realities surrounding women in the exercise of their will is further revealed when she enters into debts and needs money for settling them. She approaches one man after another for assistance but all need sexual favors in return. In her entire life of marriage, Emma has learnt that the only effective tool that women have against men is sex. This explains why she uses her beauty while it lasts and continually searches for the man who will fulfill her desires. She flirts with men towards the end of her life not because of the reason that her adulterous character has overgrown but she desperately needs help and cannot acquire it merely on the basis that she is human. Instead, she has to appeal to men in ways that reveal her subjection and the general subjection of all women to men.
The only peculiarity in Emma’s behavior that explains why many readers feel that she should be condemned is that she exposes the reality of women in her society, that they do not have the freedom to determine their future. Such a reality is not popular because men do not want to admit to or change things because it would threaten their superiority. Besides, women have accepted their place and fear to worsen things. It is this fear of the unknown that intimidates women in the society that Emma lives to the extent that they want to suppress their desires and accept the way things are. Indeed, this fear continues to haunt Emma as she tries to set herself free. For example, after her romantic night with Rodolphe, she asks, ‘’then why am I so sad? Is it the fear of the unknown?’’ (Flaubert 195). The fear of the unknown continuously haunts Emma and eventually leads her to committing suicide since she could no longer confront it.
With the little resources that women have for pursuing their desires in Emma’s society, it is not difficult to see her eventuality as a victim of circumstances. A society that is oppressive to a particular social faction offers that group near-impossible options for success to beat it into submission. The consequences of the choices made by Emma are harsh not because she severely went against the social norms and morals, but because she had the courage to use the only options available in realizing her dream. She eventually commits suicide (to run away from the fear of the unknown) and cause pain to her husband, her only child and creditors. Such are the results of attempting to break free from systematic and entrenched oppression, and issues a warning to those who may try to do the same by eliciting collective condemnation. Emma should be shown sympathy and any other right due to her as a victim of circumstances, events and others.
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Beloof, Douglas E. Victims’ Rights: A Documentary and Reference Guide. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2012. Internet resource.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. New York: Random House Publishing Group, 1964. Print