Emma and Charles Bovary, a Fascinating Study on Writing Unlikeable-Yet-Sympathetic Characters


Emma Bovary is a mess.

Charles couldn’t be more pathetic if he tried.

The Bovarys deserve each other, to be honest.

These are just a few of the things I have either said aloud or thought about the couple at the center of Flaubert’s literary masterpiece. It’s not very different from what others have expressed about them — Emma specifically — over the decades; and indeed, the novel is character-centric, concerned with the internal lives of its characters, so much so that the strong distastefulness of the couple is what many cannot get past, nor over. 

Emma and Charles are, simply put, awful.

But they are also much more than that. Much of Madame Bovary’s success lies in the masterful way the author has managed to tread the line between making us react (in anger, in shock, in disgust) and reflect (about motivations, about nuances…). And there is much to reflect about: the novel unfolds over a few years, as Emma navigates an unhappy marriage with an emotionally negligent husband, psychological turmoil and multiple affairs with more or less brutal men, in the 19th century French countryside.

Characters who are maddening and complicated tend to stay with us long after we’ve finished reading about them. They make better protagonists than those seemingly perfect ones, for whom everything comes easily, because they are more relatable, more human. I never shied away from writing unlikeable characters, but have always thought it a tricky feat, because I find myself hesitating between making them too sympathetic, which defeats the purpose, and not sympathetic enough, which just makes them hateful for the sake of it. I have studied Flaubert and many of the other authors of the French naturalist/realist movement in order to understand how they make us care about people that, in real life, we would dodge like the bullets they are.

When an unpleasant character is done successfully, readers oscillate between repulsion and wanting to look away (“I’m not like her”), while at the same time wanting to look closer, like seeing a car crash in slow motion, because it arouses in us something deeply familiar.

Emma and Charles are, in their own ways, the very embodiments of this: the former is callous, vain, shallow, while the latter is painfully oblivious, tactless and irritating, quite frankly. Flaubert seems to make an effort to have his readers despise them deeply, and indeed, they are easy to hate. And yet, we do not, and continue not to, even as their actions become more and more perplexing. 

The first aspect on which Flaubert relies is ambiguity: Charles is easy to write off, the way Emma frequently does it, but once readers have accepted that the characters are untrustworthy, one is less sure about the validity of the things they notice. Maybe Charles really is dense and thoughtless, or maybe Emma hates him so much she doesn’t notice that he isn’t as stupid as he appears; maybe he has just chosen to look the other way. Amos Hart, Roxie Hart’s lovable but doltish husband in the musical Chicago, or Bonnie, the too-nice rival of one of the protagonists in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies are similarly written: you cannot fully hate them because you’re sure there’s more to them; this makes them potentially interesting, which in turn gives them depth.

Flaubert seems to make an effort to have his readers despise them deeply, and indeed, they are easy to hate. And yet, we do not, and continue not to, even as their actions become more and more perplexing.

One of the reasons that this method is successful is that unlike Emma, whose innermost workings are unveiled to us, we do not get the same level of insight with Charles throughout the story. We get a peek into how he thinks (and honestly, that in itself isn’t very inspiring), but never how he truly feels. Again, this might be because he doesn’t have much depth, but it may be that we are sitting close to him, always at the periphery of his innermost privacy, and Flaubert simply refuses to truly let us in. What would we find, if we scratched the surface of Charles’ goodnatured facade? He is too-nice, too lovable, too doltish, and this makes me suspicious: I simply refuse to believe that anyone is as passive as him.

Only once, in all of Madame Bovary, does Flaubert allow us to get nearer: at the very end of the novel, Charles is faced with the irrefutable proof of Emma’s infidelity and he at last confronts the fact that he did not know her after all. It is a searing moment for him (the lasting shock of it literally kills him), and for us as readers, because at long last, we are getting something close to authentic sentiment from Charles. The moment is made even more bittersweet by the following thought: had Emma seen this side of Charles more often, would it have changed how she felt about her worth in the marriage, and would it have affected the outcome of her life?

Having said that, despite the valuable access we get into Charles’ mindset, even this moment is tinged with ambiguity: it is not a coincidence that it was left at the very end. By the time readers get to this part, they have surely already made up their mind about him (nothing to see here), so this stunningly flips the template. It is Flaubert casually making a groundbreaking observation over his shoulder as he exits a room. It is haunting, it is tantalizing: which leads us to question whether Charles’ insight, at the very end, was the author teasing us, showing us that the man was indeed observant, but that Flaubert was not allowing us to see it, or whether this is the only time in Charles’ life that he has felt something this intense? 

The answer could be argued either way, and we will really never know, because of how opaque his character has been throughout. And because of the fact that there must be more to him, I cannot fully hate Charles: this makes him potentially interesting, which in turn gives him the possibility of depth.

The second method Flaubert employs is to make the unlikeable protagonists’ struggles seem less selfish than human. Emma’s inability to be maternal and “wifely”, which society considers a crime, could be framed much more indulgently: maybe she’s just depressed, maybe she doesn’t know any better. She is not disappointed in having a girl because she is playing into sexist tropes: it is precisely because she is not, because she wants better for her daughter than what she’s had to go through that she feels that way. By making Emma seem helpless, rather than deliberately cruel, readers can’t help but feel sorry for her, even as they despise her. I think of Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy as another example of this: Salander is arguably rude and very rough around the edges. But she also has a heartbreaking story that would make anyone slightly misanthropic.

But Flaubert doesn’t just tell us this: he takes us through her emotional rollercoaster, whether we like it or not. We witness as she gets into periods of excitement (positive ones, like her lust for her various lovers, or negative ones, like her constant restlessness), and periods of deep depression. During those latter instances, time moves at a crawling pace, the writing becomes very entrenched in the small, humdrum details she observes, and the language is dull, bitter, bleak. When looking at the world through Emma’s eyes in those moments, even the most hardened reader begins to think: I’d lose my mind too if I were her.

Similarly, when Emma is excited, the pacing accelerates, the language becomes flowery and vivid, the frequency of dialogue increases and we become as breathless as she, as she relays the way the world becomes riveting, exciting. Again, even if we don’t necessarily like or agree with her, we cannot help but be taken in nonetheless (hey, this is sort of nice).

The constant upswing and downswing in the story, as seen through Emma’s viewpoint makes accomplices of us; and from the moment that we can relate to her, from the moment that we are on the same frequency, we are closer to liking her. This was not unintentional for Flaubert, I believe, and it wouldn’t have worked with any other character, because this is Emma’s story, despite the “ping-ponging” happening with other characters’ viewpoints. 

A third method Flaubert employs is filtering those characters through the eyes of others; that is, slightly shifting their descriptions and the impression they make depending on who’s seeing them. The general consensus is that Emma is reserved and kind of frigid, but depending on the characters, she appears more or less sympathetic: through Rodolphe’s lustful gaze, she is almost romantic, while Charles’ mother sees her as a snob. Similarly, Charles is described more hatefully by some than by others, who find him rather pitiful.

This has to do, in my opinion, more with tone than the actual words Flaubert uses while writing about Emma and Charles. After all, much of the descriptions are similar (Emma has dark hair parted in the middle, Charles is kind of awkward), but the purpose they serve is different, depending on who is looking at them. In other words: Flaubert plays with the language he uses, which is bound to affect readers differently. When, for example, Charles describes Emma’s hands, they are “not beautiful, perhaps not white enough, and a little hard at the knuckles … too long, with no soft inflections in the outlines” (16); Rodolphe however finds it “warm and quivering like a captive dove that wants to fly away” (120). This clever contrast highlights, in Emma, something that might not be immediately apparent: a woman who is seen by some as beautiful and fragile, and by others as rough, steely. Emma’s frailty is something Rodolphe sees as an opportunity to exploit; Charles’ slightly insensitive thoughts sheds a light on their dynamic. 

From the moment that readers accept that there is room for interpretation, they are not so quick to judge.

So, from the moment that readers accept that there is room for interpretation, they are not so quick to judge (let me hold off of criticizing this woman. Maybe I’m just getting a biased account of her). This, for example, is what made Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre more likable for me. It taps into what makes the Unreliable Character trope so fascinating: the idea that we are not getting the whole story, because of the way it is told, or who is telling it. Although we get inside the heads of many characters (from Emma to random villagers), it’s clear that most of the story belongs to Emma. If Madame Bovary had been written through the point of view of the elder Madame Bovary, I can guarantee that we would like Charles a bit more, and Emma much less. Similarly, if Madame Bovary had been told by Justin, Charles would be even more pathetic (if possible).

When all else fails, Flaubert’s last method is perhaps the most effective, and the one I not only like the most, but have simultaneously hesitated to emulate: instead of trying to mollycoddle his characters, he shows them in all their spiteful glory. Emma is often cruel, and her internal thoughts are described with a savagery and a viciousness that are almost refreshing. This is probably because the writer allows their protagonist to go where others would be uncomfortable: Emma thinks the kind of things we all could, or have at some point, but would not dream to say aloud because it’s inappropriate. We feel closer to her, in a way, because we recognize some of the lesser, and more shameful aspects of our Selves: it is the reason Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, Alex in A Clockwork Orange, or the main protagonist in We Need to Talk About Kevin made such a powerful impression on me, even as I recoiled from the terrible things they thought. 

This effect is achieved throughout the book primarily by contrast: long descriptions of events are punctuated by a short stab of Emma’s thoughts on the matter: “She recalled all her instincts of luxury, all the privations of her soul, the sordidness of marriage … And for what? for what?” (p.149). It’s cutting, it’s jarring, but it’s to the point: much like the way we sometimes have these flashes of irritation or anger. Another contrast that Flaubert often uses is humor. Emma is in the throes of something deep and horrible, only to look across at Charles who is light-years away, in a completely different emotional frequency, either being oblivious, or embarrassing himself — yet again. This contrast makes us want to laugh, maybe even poke fun, or look away in contempt, the way we do when we allow ourselves to be petty (it should be noted that Charles is not the only one who is taken through the wringer: Homais, Mr. Bovary (Sr.) and Rodolphe are comparably written with an undercurrent of dark humor which makes them palatable).

In the end, these characters who produce such mixed feelings in us are an asset to a story: they are more realistic, because of their similarity to people we know in real life; this in turn anchors the story in plausibility, in relatability.

Additionally, feeling drawn to these damaged characters is not necessarily a bad thing, because it challenges us, and makes us halt and ponder how far is too far, whether every subject is admissible in writing, or should be. If a novel makes us ask those questions, the author’s probably doing a great job.