A central theme in Flaubert’s novel, Madame Bovary, is that of reality versus illusion.
In this story, Emma Bovary attempts to escape the mundane of normal life to fulfill her fantasies. By enjoying romantic novels, traveling from place to place, indulging in luxuries, and having affairs, she attempts to live the life that she imagines while studying in the convent. It is Emma’s early education that arouses in Emma the conflict against what she perceives as confinement. The convent is Emma’s earliest confinement. Her little contact with the outside world is what intrigues her, the novels smuggled in or the sound of a distant cab rolling along the streets. At first, she is excited about her new environment and enjoys 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.” However, she was a serious student.
“She played very little during the recreation period and knew her catechism well.” The church fascinates her and she is always trying to fast, find some vow to fulfill, or some sin to invent for confession. All of the girls living within the protective walls of the convent sing happily together, assemble to study, and pray. But as the chapter progresses, thoughts of escape start to infiltrate Emma’s mind.
She wishes to live a life of royalty in a manor house. As her stay in the convent progresses, Emma continues to fantasize images of exotic and foreign lands. The escape technique that she uses to conjure up images of heroines in castles seems to lead inevitably to chaos and disintegration.
“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.” Emma’s strange 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 and the discipline, which was against her constitution.
When her father finally came to take her, no one, not even the Lady Superior was sorry to see her leave. 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. Her thoughts progress from confinement to escape to chaos and disintegration. Thus, through the course of her life, Madame Bovary changes from a woman content with her marriage to a women who rebels against the conventions of her society to a women whose life is so chaotic to the point that she commits suicide.
Indeed, Madame Bovary’s life is like a mirror that reflects upon her early childhood. Emma Bovary found pleasure in the things around her that quenched her boredom while living in the convent. One was her novels. “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 bored of, as she did Charles and Leon. This progression of images of confinement, escape, and chaos, parallel on her education and her life as Emma’s journey from boredom in reality to self-destruction in fantasy.