It seems to her, says Flaubert, that her being, rising toward God, is going to be annihilated in love like burning incense that dissipates in vapor. But her response during this phenomenon remains curiously erotic... The waving of the green palm leaves relates this scene to the previous scenes of sexual seduction. (Duncan para, 5)
At times, the green in the novel moves from springtime to the idea of the presence of Satan, the Tempter, coming into Emma's Garden of Eden with blandishments to sin. Earlier in the novel, Emma's relative tranquility is interrupted by the appearance of a stranger wearing green and carrying a green box. This is Lheureux, "an eruption of the occult in the dismal stagnation of provincial life" (Duncan para. 9). Lheureux is a man with no clear origins and the only outsider in the community. He also serves to bring two of the Seven Deadly Sins together in his person:
Lheureux... links together the themes of adultery and usury in Flaubert's novel. His first convocation seems to endorse Emma's tentative seduction by the "refined" and Romantic Leon, and his green box is a cornucopia of frivolous rarities which solicit Emma's sexual and esthetic cravings and invite her to excess. Emma's aspiration to perfect love (mired in lust) and her desire for rich and beautiful surroundings damn her. Lheureux stimulates both "sins." (Duncan para. 12)
Whitaker and Darrow consider the nature of the provincial world that produces Emma and against which she rebels in her way. They cite the surprising banality of the subject matter in the novel and note the relentless way Flaubert examiners it in the minutest detail. Part of the surprise involves the common nature of Emma and other characters in the novel:
Emma and her provincial neighbours are little in moral stature, limited in intelligence, stunted in their ambitions, sordid in their private thoughts, and ridiculous in their public prating and posturing. Around his centrally placed married couple, locked into their miseries, Flaubert has laid out a gallery of unedifying stereotypes: Homais the self-seeking pharmacist, who represents secularism and republican virtue at their lowest ebb; Bournisien the fleshly priest, much given to empty ecclesiastical exhortation; Rodolphe the well-to-do landowner and full-time rake. No trade or profession escapes Flaubert's derision. No individual represents true decency. How can a serious novel, a work of high art, be made from material of this kind? And how can an artistic project aiming so low be sustained over hundreds of pages? (Whitaker and Darrow para. 3)
The authors also note the picturesque qualities of the town in which Emma lives and see this as part of the social order meant to be protected by the religious strictures of the time, making Emma's breaking of the code all the more threatening. They cite an early scene in which people arrive for a party and are greeted by an insufficient number of stable boys, so that the male guests in their dress clothes get down to help. Whitaker and Darrow note,
On the one hand, the narrator seems to be having fun at the expense of his country folk, and to be suggesting, by way of a determined transfer of attention from persons to clothing, that local festivities of this kind are nothing but show and pantomime: all right if you live in a village, as Gertrude Stein once remarked, but if not, not. Failures of dress sense have been sorted into a jeering catalogue by one who clearly knows better about such matters than his Norman neighbors. On the other hand, however, something more akin to a musical exposition is also going on in this paragraph. There are three thematic kernels -- dress coats, frock coats, and jackets -- and each of them is no sooner stated than subjected to an elaborate process of variation. Flaubert's prose speaks of an ordinary world that is becoming fantastical even as each separate notation is set down: these country-dwellers are beginning to flap like birds and to grow eyes in the back of their jackets. And it speaks, too, of a playful, self-delighting intelligence at work upon whatever undistinguished fragments of the real world it finds to hand. (para. 7)
The usual assessment of Emma is that she is a product of this particular corner of the world but is somehow warped by reading romantic fiction, though the depth of her temptation and the universality of it must be seen in much broader terms. As Robert Wooster Stallman states,
Her plight applies to human beings everywhere and always, the romantic pursuit of happiness being a permanent part of our nature. In the passion-pinched multitudes who crowd our movie-palaces, Emma has her present-day counterparts -- the movie-screen fulfilling for them all the impossible passions which Emma Bovary failed to obtain. Flaubert's theme, namely, that the quest for happiness cannot be realized in the world of everyday experience, is a theme of universal validity. Our world, no less than Emma Bovary's, is split by the same tragic disparity between inner dream and external reality. We, too, are betrayed by reality at every turn. (Stallman para. 2)
Emma's challenge of the Seven Deadly sins is not played up by Flaubert because he does not see her as a religious martyr or as a saint being tested the way Antoine was. Instead, he sees her as a normal individual, a product of a society that imposes rules and stifles opportunity. Society does this even more for women than for men, but both the woman and the men of this village generally acquiesce in being kept in their place by fate.
The Role of Women
Emma Bovary is a woman who lives in a society that is repressive and particularly so toward women. Emma does not fit easily into such a society because she has a romantic nature, one which is nurtured by her daydreams and her desire for excitement and change. In her world, a woman is expected to marry and then to subsume herself to the life of her husband, in essence disappearing into marriage and no longer being thought of as an individual even to the slight extent that she may have been before marriage. Emma, however, has been spoiled by the romantic notions she has acquired from romance novels she first read to escape the boredom of the convent. She is an example of someone who lives with an illusion about life and is disappointed to find that the illusion is not the same as the reality.
The life of Emma Bovary is fully developed in the course of the novel, and the novelist shows how her early life has influenced the development of her personality and the ways in which that personality is manifested in later life. Flaubert implies that the child was always sentimental in her outlook, and this sentimentality was nurtured over time rather than dissipating in the face of the realities of life. For one thing, the child was insulated for much of her life. She was sent to a convent, isolating her from the world, and it was there that she further nurtured her daydreams with the romance novels that gave her a false picture of life, a picture of heightened emotions, sentimentality, and excitement. Marriage in these novels offered the same sort of distorted picture, so it was inevitable then Emma would discover real marriage to be quite different when she encountered it in her own life. The romantic dreams of her youth could not be satisfied by the reality of marriage.
This is precisely what happens. She marries Charles Bovary with pictures of a romantic and dashing heroic figure in her head, but in truth Charles is a dull man who works as a country doctor and who is perfectly happy to remain in the same place doing the same thing for his whole life. Charles is contrasted with the more romantic figure of his father, someone who might be more to Emma's liking in terms of her vision of what a man should be like. Charles finds that nothing comes easily to him -- he must work hard for everything, and hard work is part of his nature. He is also a man who has always been dominated by women -- first his mother, then the first wife chosen for him by his mother, and now Emma. Charles is also blind to the real nature of Emma or to her feelings, and this blindness is also part of his assumption that the world is always the same, much like himself.
Emma seeks adventure, and Charles would not understand adventure. He does not seek it, and he cannot see that Emma does because he thinks she is as happy and contented as he is. Emma is always looking for something better than she has and even for something better than she is -- she believes in high ideals and grand gestures such as she has…