Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401

Search for Self
When Emma first marries Charles, she does not have a clear sense of identity. However, she knows that she does not want to be stuck on the farm for the rest of her life. Initially, she assumes that what she feels for Charles will develop into love and that she will become content to be a doctor’s wife. Soon, though, when her feelings for Charles fail to materialize, she enters into a severe depression, feeling herself to be displaced and unable to endure the monotony of her life and marriage.

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Passion
In an effort to alleviate her depression, she turns to sentimental novels, imagining herself as the heroine who falls passionately in love with a dashing man who rescues her from a life of poverty and desperation. Her imagination re-creates these fictional figures into two men, with whom she enters into passionate affairs. Her sexual relations with these men give her a sense of identity, at least for a time.

Class Consciousness
Emma’s search for identity and fulfillment also centers on issues of class. Soon after she marries Charles and realizes that she cannot find contentment in her relationship with him, she begins to buy things for the house and for herself. Emma’s spending, however, soon puts the family in debt. When she attends the ball at La Vaubyessard, Emma sees for the first time, “the complexion of wealth” that characterizes the upper class. From that point on, Emma desperately tries to become a part of that world through her relationship with Rodolphe and through extravagant purchases.

Emma’s desire to move up in class leads to disaster for those around her as well as herself. She transfers her ambitions to Charles, who determines that he can perform a new surgery on clubfoots. However, when he performs the untested operation on a local man, he botches the procedure, which results in the amputation of the patient’s leg.

When she realizes that Charles will never help them move above their station, her extravagant spending increases to the point of financial ruin. In a desperate attempt to acquire money and thus to save herself from the public humiliation of the auctioning off of her property, she tries to prostitute herself. When that tactic fails, Emma finds suicide her only recourse. Her death devastates Charles, who dies soon after, and Berthe, their child, becomes orphaned and impoverished.

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