Literature has a profound affect on societal views. Throughout history women have been susceptible to the influence of written word. Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary illustrate how literature has shaped women’s views of how love should exist. “Flaubert depicts the trivial but persuasive ways in which a powerful style of being comes to affect the expectations which the most unremarkable people have of life” (Bersani xiii). Emma’s illusions of love are attributed to the novels and fashion magazines she thrives upon. Roxanne’s love for Christian is fueled by Cyrano’s love letters. Without these mediums, their love is weakened. Each character is dependent on a romantic view of love rather than the truth of reality until it is too late. Roxanne’s reality is that her poetic lover is not Christian, and she has inadvertently fallen for Cyrano. Emma’s reality is that Charles’ love is pure and real but not satisfactory enough for her idealistic needs. Love is a complicated emotion when literature becomes the central underlying force.
“Literature is judged by its success; and the simplified forms in which it effectively penetrates ordinary social life finally provide even the standards it has to live up to” (Bersani xiv). In both literary examples, society is influenced by the arts and literature. Throughout the seventeenth century excessive romanticism affects ordinary life. France is at the height of culture and eloquence is highly regarded. It is more fashionable to express emotions poetically rather than bluntly. Cyrano de Bergerac takes place during this refined time period. Roxanne’s views of love are dependent on this element of romance. Her love is strengthened and weakened by it alone. During Emma’s lifetime literature is also extremely influential. Fairytale romances and thrilling novels captivate its victims. These storylines become norms of society, and Emma’s happiness in life depends on them. Literature corrupts the hearts and minds of its followers and causes disillusioned happiness with fatal disappointment.
Emma has an extreme problem with reality. She lives in the imaginative future rather than the dreary present. “I hate commonplace heroes and lukewarm emotions, the kind you find in real life” (Flaubert 72). She is always looking for something that is not there while dreaming of how things ought to be. Emma bases her ideas of love on Parisian fashion: the center of French thought. She indulges in fashion magazines, gossip columns, romance novels, and luxury keepsakes. She often confuses elegance and luxury with love and refined feelings. “Love, she felt, ought to come all at once, with great thunderclaps and flashes of lightening; it was like a storm bursting upon life from the sky, uprooting it, overwhelming the will and sweeping the heart into the abyss” (Flaubert 87). These ideas are rooted in literature and the novels she reads constantly. To Emma, women are successful from love affairs, and her attraction lay upon men famous for their numerous mistresses rather than her faithful and loving husband, Charles.
Emma is convinced that had she not married Charles, her life would be full of passion, rapture, and bliss. These three characteristics are continuous underlying themes found in literary works. “Why did I ever get married?” she exclaims (Flaubert 38). Had she not married Charles, “her husband might have been handsome, witty, distinguished and attractive” like the men in her novels and magazines (Flaubert 38). Charles is considered an uncultured, mediocre, but loving husband. Emma, his second wife, is his first happiness and he claims that although he loves her deeply, he could never love her enough. Emma, on the other hand, desires more than ordinary love and is annoyed by Charles’ dullness. Emma often wonders how she could have “imagined that such a man could amount to something, as though she hadn’t clearly seen his mediocrity twenty times before” (Flaubert 159). She feels that Charles is a poor, weak man. She looks for Charles only when she is “eager to have something more solid than love to lean on” (Flaubert 150). Emma believes a man should know all the mysteries of life, but nothing is “extraordinary” about Charles’ love or education (Flaubert 37). “Before her marriage she had believed herself to be in love” she tried to find out exactly what was meant in love by the words “bliss”, “passion”, and “rapture”, which had seemed so beautiful to her in books” (Flaubert 29-30). Emma’s love could have looked towards Charles had it not been corrupted by fairytale Parisian stories of love.
Emma is described as being “the amorous heroine of all novels and plays” (Flaubert 229). She searches for love in all the wrong places, and believes she has found real love in each disillusioned relationship. She dreams of luxury and love that she experienced at the ball. “Some of the details vanished, but her longing remained” (Flaubert 48). This longing causes her to seek out lovers. Emma’s first love interest, Leon, has the same illusions as Emma. He is poetic and imaginative. He believes “it is so dull to spend your life rooted to one spot” and talks of places he has read about but never seen (Flaubert 67). Emma regards such ideas as thrilling. “You have the feeling that you are living in their costumes” (Flaubert 72). Emma’s second love interest is Rodolphe. Emma felt “she was entering a marvelous realm in which everything would be passion, ecstasy and rapture” at last she was going to possess the joys of love” (Flaubert 140). Emma is again incorrect. Each of her love affairs excite her because they are models of society discussed in books and popular gossip columns. But such ideas never allow her happiness for an extended period of time because neither relationship can withstand the high expectations devised by literature. Neither of her lovers can continue the poetic and vibrant love letters nor afford the constant luxurious lifestyle. When these elements of her romantic love die away, so does her love, and she finds herself once again unhappy. Even Rodolphe claims “the most exaggerated speeches usually hid the weakest feelings” (Flaubert 165). Literature has created an unobtainable image of love, and Emma dreams the impossible dream based on such ideas.
Roxanne, unlike Emma, may have had both feet on the ground, but her head is not always out of the clouds. Roxanne is a frivolous, intellectual beauty. All men want her, but Roxanne’s heart falls for Christian, whose only attribute is that he is handsome. He even admits, “I’m one of those men who don’t know how to speak of love” (Rostand 96). Although it is his physical features that capture Roxanne’s glance, it demands a poetic voice to keep her interest. This is ultimately why Christian agrees to cooperate with Cyrano. Cyrano exclaims, “Lend me your conquering physical charm, and together we’ll form a romantic hero” (Rostand 96). Christian needs a voice to speak of love and Cyrano needs someone to express his soul with a handsome physique. If society had not have been influenced by the poetic and soulful verse of the times, Christian would not need an expert poet to express his love. His handsome physique and a simple “I love you” could have sufficed.
Roxanne is completely dependent on eloquent, figurative language, both spoken and written. Christian confesses his love, but that is not enough to please Roxanne. His lack of poetic verse turns her heart away from him. She exclaims, “You’re giving me water when I expected cream!”(Rostand 114). She thinks he is becoming a fool. “It displeases me! As it would displease me if you became ugly” (Rostand 115). Roxanne uses physical appearance and language as an indicator of a person’s character. Roxanne believes that because Christian does not talk eloquently, but rather bluntly about his feelings for her, that he does not love her anymore. Only when Cyrano speaks for Christian does she regain interest. This absurd notion is a reference to the importance of literature at the time.
Cyrano’s daily love letters to Roxanne ultimately drive her to the battlefields of the war. She tells Christian, “It’s your fault if I’m in danger: your letters made me lose my reason!” (Rostand 171). Cyrano has warned Roxanne that elegant language has no place in true love but to keep her loving Christian, he has had to continue the vibrant love letters. “It’s only a game, and those who love will suffer if they play too long “there comes a time” when they feel a noble love inside themselves that’s saddened by every grandiloquent word they say” (Rostand 122). Roxanne has adored Christian ever since she heard his “different” voice beneath her window and through the letters that express this “different” voice. Unbeknownst to her, this voice is Cyrano’s, and at the time of Christian’s death she has shed her frivolous views and confesses, “I now love you for your soul alone” (Rostand 172). Christian’s physical attributes no longer appease her heart. Only the refined voice and poetic nature of his letters keep her loving him. The romantic love letters have caused her to change. Christian and Roxanne’s relationship is tragically bounded by Cyrano’s soul.
Literature has distorted the image of love in everyday ordinary life. It has characterized love by mystery, thrill, extraordinary emotions, and vivid refined language. Emma and Roxanne have been fooled by love letters. Emma is further demised by romance novels. Each character envisions a fantasy love where she will be serenaded by her lover, and when reality interrupts, disappointment results. Both Emma and Roxanne learn truth at the fatal end, having spent years shadowed by societal romance. On Emma’s dying breaths she realizes that Charles’ love is pure and faithful unlike her disappointing lovers. “In his eyes she saw a love such as she had never seen before” (Flaubert 274). But it is too late to reverse events and reclaim lost moments. For Charles, “he felt his whole being collapsing in despair at the thought of having to lose her just when she was confessing more love for him than ever before” (Flaubert 275).
Roxanne also came to a similar realization of truth. Cyrano finds her still mourning and faithful to Christian years after his death. She carries the last letter like a holy relic over her heart. Roxanne recalls, “Sometimes it seems to me that he’s not really dead” (Rostand 189). The letter has Christian’s blood, but Cyrano’s tear as well. Roxanne realizes all too late that Cyrano is the one whose words she fell in love with. Her beliefs have fooled her and she quickly says that she loves Cyrano as he is at death’s door. Her love fluctuates depending on whom she believes has written and spoken such eloquent romance. Roxanne and Emma learn truth too late, corrupted by literature’s plot.
Literature is a powerful force with the ability to influence who and how ordinary people love. Society has been shaped by poets and creators of thrilling romantic tales. Ordinary people, especially women, are easily influenced and persuaded to adapt views of love from fashion articles and love letters. Roxanne and Emma, women from different societal eras, both become victimized by this false love and suffer when love’s truth reveals itself during life’s final hour. Literature corrupts society, corrupts weak hearts, and in turn, inevitably and brutally claims victims.