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Berthe appears only a few times in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and is too young to contribute much to the novel by her speech or actions, but she is nevertheless extremely important to the story. Emma’s lack of maternal aptitude and weakness of moral character are made evident by Berthe’s presence. Because of Berthe’s young age and innocence, she is able to act as a foil to contrast with Emma’s lifestyle of immorality and self-gratification. Berthe’s primary functions in the novel are to bring to light Emma’s character flaws as well as the consequences of her actions and to serve as a symbol of Emma’s union with Charles.
The first reason for the inclusion of Berthe in the novel is that Berthe’s presence exposes Emma’s maternal ineptitude. Flaubert makes it apparent from the beginning that Emma Bovary is far from being the ideal mother. Although she is not altogether against the idea of having a child, Emma views motherhood simply as a way to try something new and fuel the romantic fire within her. She cares little for her relationship with her child. At the beginning of her pregnancy, Emma showed little interest in becoming a mother. Charles, however, convinced her by his continual enthusiasm about their future roles as parents that it would be an interesting experience (902). While Emma does view parenthood as something novel and fascinating, she fails to show true love for her child throughout the remainder of her life.
Emma’s reaction to having a daughter reveals her selfish attitude. She wants a baby boy who “would be strong and dark” and “free to range the passions and the world” (902). Contrarily, Emma herself certainly embodies this sort of freedom much more than her husband Charles does. She wants a boy so that he can live the passionate and romantic life that she dreams of and attempts to live for herself. Flaubert states that “a woman is continually thwarted” and that “there is always a desire that entices, a convention that restrains” (902). Emma, however, defies this restraint, opting to yield to the temptation provided by Rodolphe and Lon. Although she proves that it is quite possible for a woman to live a “free” life, Emma wants a son so badly that she convinces herself that her child will be a boy. Upon learning that her child is a girl, her disappointment is so great that “she turned her head away and fainted” (902). Emma has not yet even considered a name for a daughter because she has been so confident that she would have a baby boy, thus demonstrating her desire not to experience the joys of motherhood, but instead, to placate her own selfishness. She wishes not for the joy of having and nurturing a child, but rather a child through whom she can vicariously experience the same thrills that she seeks in her own life.
Berthe’s existence provides a catalyst for Emma’s relationship with Lon, and thus brings to light another flaw in Emma’s character – infidelity. It is on the way to visit her daughter that Emma goes on the first of several walks with Lon. When Emma meets Lon on the road to the nurse’s house, Lon begins to ask Emma if she would like his company. He stops short though, realizing the awkwardness that would be created if he were to accompany another man’s wife to visit her child. Emma, however, is not deterred and asks Lon to go along with her, unimpeded by the thought of losing her reputation. Throughout the visit, Lon’s discomfort with the situation is evident, while Emma does not appear at all bothered by the fact that she is holding Charles’ child in the company of another man. Even Berthe seems to realize her mother’s faults when she throws up on Emma (904-905). Although this is a common behavior in babies, it is also indicative of disgust with Emma’s actions.
Emma’s selfishness and lack of concern for Berthe are demonstrated yet again during her next affair when she is making plans to move to Genoa with Rodolphe. Their lust for each other has become too great for the two to remain apart, and Emma asks Rodolphe to run away with her. She does not consider what would happen to her daughter until Rodolphe asks her, “What about your little girl?” Emma pauses to think and then replies, “We’ll take her with us – it’s the only way” (967). Rather than doing everything she can to make her daughter’s life better, Emma decides to drag Berthe along with her in order to please her own illicit desires.
Emma’s maternal incompetence is further exemplified when she grows tired of Berthe’s playful attempts to be close to her and pushes the child away so hard that she falls into a cabinet and cuts her face. When Charles arrives, Emma tells him calmly that Berthe “fell down and hurt herself playing” (919). Emma’s mild and quickly dissipating concern for her child again demonstrates her selfishness. She appears to be more worried that she will appear inept because Berthe was hurt under her care than she does about the fact that her child has been hurt. As Emma is caring for Berthe during the evening after the girl was hurt, she notices “what an ugly child [Berthe] is” (919). Far from being a typical motherly thought, this observation indicates a tremendous lack of maternal love. This is another example of the same unnatural attitude that led to Berthe’s injury. Instead of feeling tender compassion for her daughter, Emma feels only frustration and disgust.
In addition to highlighting Emma’s faults, both as a person and as a mother, Berthe serves as a constant reminder to Emma of her union with Charles. While packing to move to Yonville, Emma discovers the bouquet from her wedding. She then tosses this symbol of her marriage in the fireplace and watches it burn. After demonstrating the extent to which she deplores her marriage by destroying this transient icon of her union with Charles, Emma ironically obtains a much more enduring symbol. The chapter ends with the short and seemingly trivial sentence, “When they left Tostes in March, Madame Bovary was pregnant” (890). Although Emma’s pregnancy receives little attention here, Berthe becomes a pungent reminder of Emma’s tie to Charles later in the novel.
Berthe acts as a symbol of Emma’s marriage when Emma’s relationship with Rodolphe leads to the discussion of running away together. Rodolphe presents Emma with the question of what to do about Berthe. She answers that the child will have to go with them; “it’s the only way” (967). Emma’s struggle to achieve her romantic ideals is emphasized by the fact that the only way for her to pursue her passion for Rodolphe is to take with her a reminder of her union with Charles.
Finally, Berthe serves as a means to accentuate the effects of Emma’s attitudes and actions. This is most apparent after Emma’s death. Soon after the funeral, Berthe asks Charles where her mother is, and Charles responds that she is “away on a trip.” Berthe “mentioned her again several times, then gradually forgot her” (1057), but Berthe would never recover from the effects of Emma’s behavior.
Berthe was doomed to a life of poverty by her mother’s unconscionable lifestyle. Not too long after her mother’s death, Berthe finds her father dead. In Charles’s hand was the lock of hair that he took from Emma after her death (1063). In this way, Flaubert brings the deaths of both of Berthe’s parents together, as if they were both lost at the same time. As an orphan, Berthe is sent to live with her aunt who can not afford to take care of her, so she is forced to work in a cotton mill to pay for the necessities of life. Emma’s extravagance and romantic idealism will never have a place in Berthe’s life because she lacks the means to pursue those dreams. Although Emma claimed that she wanted her child to be “free to range the passions and the world, to surmount obstacles, to taste the rarest pleasures” (902), she failed to provide Berthe with the necessary resources to achieve this freedom. Berthe was “thwarted” not by her status as a woman, as Emma implies (902), but rather by her mother’s poor choices and selfishness.
Berthe’s presence is vital to the novel because Flaubert uses her character to develop Emma, the protagonist. Without Berthe, the reader would not understand the character flaws in Emma that Flaubert wishes to convey. Emma’s worst attributes are brought forth only when she is contrasted with the foil of Berthe’s innocence and placed in a position where her maternal inability makes evident her selfishness and depravity. Without Berthe, the effects of Emma’s actions after her death would not have been as apparent. Berthe plays an important symbolic role in the novel as well, most notably by serving as a constant reminder of Emma’s marital attachment to Charles. Even though Berthe does little in the way of acting or speaking throughout the novel, Flaubert uses her effectively to help to define Emma as a character and to show the effects of Emma’s lifestyle upon those who truly loved her.
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