All of us make use of both detail and abstraction in the effort to interpret our experience. We arrange a vast amount of sensory detail into lower-level abstractions, like the concept of a tree, and higher-level abstractions, like the concept of loyalty. We interpret new experience according to previously established abstractions, and we alter our abstractions to fit our experiences. We cycle between experience and abstraction, adjusting the one and the other, in order to maintain a connection between them – the connection that we call knowledge. But the balance between abstraction and experience is different for each person. Madame Bovary explores the psychology of a person who always chooses abstraction over experience as a guide to action, and who derives her abstractions not from her own life but from sentimental novels.
Like Don Quixote, Emma abstracts a set of rules from a literary genre and then imposes those rules onto a complicated reality, which exceeds and contradicts those rules at every turn. But unlike Quixote, Emma never learns to adjust her abstractions according to her experiences. She ignores everything that does not fit well with the rules of romance novels, and deems irrelevant anything that falls outside their province. That means she blinds herself to anything not directly related to love, beauty, and sensual luxury, and to any love that doesn’t strongly resemble the love in novels. She then finds that almost her entire life is unreal to her: her marriage, her child, her town, all her pursuits. Only her love affairs with Léon and Rodolphe, which are made to resemble the affairs in books, seem to have any value. Léon himself lives in similar world of abstractions, and Rodolphe knows that world well enough to pretend as part of his efforts at seduction. The men’s artificiality and insincerity paradoxically allow Emma to experience the affairs as real and true. The affairs dissolve shamefully, life seems to run to nothing, and Emma senses a vague disillusionment: the exhaustion of ideals growing stale. But she holds fast to them, and dies with them.
Abstraction, Fantasy, and Experience ThemeTracker
Abstraction, Fantasy, and Experience Quotes in Madame Bovary
The universe, for him, did not extend beyond the silken round of her skirts.
Familiar with the tranquil, she inclined, instead, toward the tumultuous. … From everything she had to extract some personal profit; and she discarded as useless anything that did not lend itself to the heart’s immediate satisfaction.
It was Paris, rippling like the ocean, gleaming in Emma’s mind under a warm golden haze. The swarming tumultuous life of the place was divided into several parts, classified into distinct tableaux. Emma grasped only two or three of these, and they hid all the rest from her, apparently representing the whole of humanity.
She wanted a son; he would be strong and dark, she would call him George; and this idea of having a male child was like an anticipated revenge for the powerlessness of her past. A man, at least, is free; he can explore each passion and every kingdom, conquer obstacles, feast upon the most exotic pleasures. But a woman is continually thwarted.
At last, she was to know the pleasures of love, that fever of happiness which she had despaired of. She was entering something marvellous where everything would be passion, ecstasy, delirium; blue immensity was all about her; the great summits of sentiment glittered in her mind’s eye, ordinary experience appeared far below in the distance, in shadow, in the gaps between these peaks.
Emma was just like any other mistress; and the charm of novelty, falling down slowly like a dress, exposed only the eternal monotony of passion, always the same forms and the same language. He did not distinguish, this man of such great expertise, the differences of sentiment beneath the sameness of their expression.
And yet, in the immensity of this future that she conjured for herself, nothing specific stood out: the days, each one magnificent, were as near alike as waves are.
Whenever she went to kneel at her Gothic prie-dieu, she called upon her Lord in the same sweet words she had once murmured to her lover, in the raptures of adultery. It was meant to arouse faith, but no delectation descended from on high.
…for that was how they wanted it to have been, each of them now devising for the other an ideal rearrangement of their past. Language is indeed a machine that continually amplifies the emotions.
But, if there were somewhere a strong and beautiful creature, a valiant nature full of passion and delicacy … What an impossibility! Nothing, anyway, was worth that great quest; it was all lies! Every smile concealed the yawn of boredom, every joy a malediction, every satisfaction brought its nausea, and even the most perfect kisses only leave upon the lips a fantastical craving for the supreme pleasure.