Madame Bovary and the Dangers of Social Media

An analysis of Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel “Madame Bovary”. Contains spoilers.

Madame Bovary is a novel written by French author Gustave Flaubert, published in 1856. It is one of the most influential literary works in history, and a prime example of literary realism. Literary realism is a movement which emphasizes the representation of reality, often depicting everyday activities and life, primarily among the middle or lower class society, without romantic idealization or dramatization. Realism was in many ways a reaction to romanticism, and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is one of the most important novels of the movement.

Madame Bovary

The main character of Madame Bovary, Emma, may be said to be the embodiment of a romantic: in her mental and emotional process, she has no relation to the realities of her world. One reason for this is her obsession with sentimental novels. She frequently reads novels in which characters are idealized, love is glorified, and life is always happy ever after.

”It was all passions, suitors, sweethearts, persecuted ladies swooning in lonely summer-houses, postillions slain at every staging-post, horses ridden to death on every page, dark forests, troubles of the heart, eternal vows, sobbings, tears and kisses, little rowing boats in the moonlight, nightingales in the bushes, gentlemen as brave as lions, as gentle as lambs, as virtuous as no one ever is, always well dressed, and who cry in bucketloads.”

This inspires Emma to believe that passionate emotions will reliably guide her to a partner who can provide her happiness for the rest of her life. So when she experiences the frustrations of marriage, she is overcome with disappointment and despair. She compares her humble existence to the extraordinary lives she has read about in novels. She dreams of big cities and adventures. She becomes bored by what is humdrum and ordinary, instead longing for the special, the rare, the distinctive and the exclusive.

”She would have liked to have lived in an old manor-house, like those châtelaines in their long dresses, who, under the trefoil of pointed arches, whiled away their days leaning on the stone and cupping their chin, to watch a white-plumed knight on a black horse gallop towards them from the depths of the countryside.”

There is a term for the irking feeling that Emma is experiencing, namely “Fear of Missing Out”, or “FoMO”. This phenomenon has been recognized in recent years as a growing problem and cause for anxiety, especially among young people. FoMO can be described as a compulsive concern that one might miss an opportunity for social interaction, a novel experience, profitable investment or other satisfying events. It perpetuates the fear of having made the wrong decision on how to spend time, as you can imagine how things could be different.

For the last 20 years, the awareness of FoMO has increased, but also its recurrence as a social problem, especially in connection with the increasing popularity of social networking services. With applications such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc, people are able to remain in contact with their social network continuously. This may result in compulsive checking for status updates and messages, for fear of missing an opportunity.

Moreover, people’s user profiles on social media tend not to reflect their real selves. Most people establish an idealized picture of themselves, to appear more interesting or attractive. They can make their life seem more fulfilling, successful and prodigious by choosing what to post. People tend not to show of their failures, but gladly boasts of their feats and adventures. This also adds to the social anxiety caused by social media; when comparing one’s own modest life to the seemingly spectacular life of others, FoMO occurs. It creates the belief that, somewhere else, interesting and attractive people are living exactly the life that should be yours.

In Madame Bovary, Emma’s fixation with romantic novels can be compared to the social media obsession that is so common today. Both behaviours lead to FoMO; Emma deplores her plain existence, instead dreaming of being the heroine of a romantic novel, and likewise, social media leads to the fear that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent. Thus we can relate to Emma and her distress.

To achieve happiness, Emma begins to live the adventurous life she dreams of. She has secret love affairs, she buys luxurious accessories, she travels to new cities. However, these thrills are not enough to make her happy. Her lovers are not the heroes of her imaginations, outward objects give her no inner contentment, and traveling becomes tedious. If anything, this only makes her even more disappointed and depressed, eventually causing her to commit suicide.

FoMO can lead to the same behaviour. To avoid missing out, one might seek to experience as much sensation as possible; partying, traveling, shopping, etc. However, these things will eventually become dull and repetetive, and give no sustaining fulfillment. Paradoxically, too much satisfaction leads to dissatisfaction. Constant gratification is an impossibility.

Ultimately, Madame Bovary teaches us the dangers of idealizing other people and glamorizing existence. Emma’s FoMO was a great pain for her, and many people suffer from a similar anxiety, partly caused by social media. Social media can incite unreal hopes, make us impatient with ourselves, turn us away from our realities and lead us to lament the normal conditions of existence. As we see in the case of Emma, this angst might lead to extreme measures and tragic consequences.

True fulfillment is reached not by searching the perfect life, but embracing the imperfection of existence. We need an acute, pessimistic awareness of the frailties of human nature. Our emotions frequently over-power our better insights. We repeatedly misunderstand ourselves and others. Love can be futile, relationships are never frictionless, and life is often boring, mundane and exhausting. Once we admit the downside of existence, only then can we realize the true value of life.