In Chapter 18 of "Madame Bovary," Gustave Flaubert writes, "But when she looked at herself in the glass she was amazed at her own countenance. Never had her eyes looked so big, so dark, so unfathomably deep. Some subtle transfiguring influence had come over her and made her another woman."
Here, Flaubert depicts Emma Bovary, who has pursued that which she desired, and her character will be forever tainted in literary history by her actions. But, what did she do? Gustave Flaubert captured her in the pages of his novel, and forever immortalized her there...
Flaubert once described literature as "the dissection of a beautiful woman with her guts in her face, her leg skinned, and half a burned-out cigar lying on her foot." So he takes this young woman who is innocent to the ways of the world and throws some kinks into all of her dreams and plans. He makes her "real." We can see and feel what's going on in the story. At the same time, though, he leaves Emma somewhat removed--at a distance.
Raised on an isolated farm, then educated at a Catholic convent school, Emma dreams of the life that romance novels have depicted for her. Instead of the fairy tale, she finds herself enmeshed in an all-too ordinary life, with a dull country doctor, Charles.
Emma becomes involved in several affairs: with Rodolphe Boulanger (a wealthy landowner) and with Leon Dupis (a young law clerk). With the sexual freedom, exercised by Emma in a time when such actions were not widely accepted, it's not surprising that Flaubert and his editor were prosecuted on charges for "offenses against public morality." Although the charges were later dropped, the case against Flaubert created a literary sensation.
Of course through all of the debate and controversy, it's interesting to note how Flaubert really is depicting the object of the uproar: Emma. She isn't being held up as a virtuous or upright woman. Instead, he paints a devastating portrait. She's gone through marriage, childbirth, affairs, and other life experiences, but nothing has brought her happiness. In fact, if she ever thought she was happy for a moment, that moment quickly passed.
Early on, Emma's unbalanced and romantically disillusioned mind imagines that her situation will get better. She doesn't recognize the reality of her situation, as her world falls apart. Instead she devotes herself to the dreams she has built upon thin air - borrowing money to maintain a lavish lifestyle (along with the gifts and traveling associated with her affairs). All of her dreams begin to evaporate into the nothingness... and she's left with a harsh reality that she can no longer ignore. Finally, to escape the consequences of her actions, she swallows arsenic and dies.
Ultimately, Emma's death is meaningless, made even more tragic and fatalistic by the subsequent death of Charles and the destitution of her daughter, Berthe. We see here a very dark vision of reality.