What to make of Emma Bovary’s dreaming constitutes a fundamental problem in the study of Flaubert’s novel. The dominant reading of Emma’s dream life adopts a critical stance toward her unwillingness, or incapacity, to accept her everyday reality. Showing how Flaubert’s text challenges our understanding of Emma as a sterile dreamer, this essay seeks to reevaluate her faculty of imagination as a powerful creative force. The argument is developed in two parts. Since no assessment of Emma’s relation to “unreality” can legitimately bypass a careful analysis of her reveries, the first part of this essay offers a detailed reading of the escape from reality that Emma fantasizes in chapter 12 of part 2 of the novel. Emma’s quixotic vision of a flight away from her husband is contrasted here with Charles Bovary’s realistic dream about their future together as a family. While Emma’s reverie seems at first glance only to throw into relief the magnanimity of Charles’s responsible but mimetically limited dreaming, a closer look at this passage reveals a textual complexity requiring further investigation into the mechanisms and implications of Emma’s dream production. This investigation is undertaken in the second part of the essay. Here, the findings that emerge from the analysis of the protagonist’s reverie will be tested against several prominent interpretations of Emma’s dreaming (by Albert Thibaudet, Gérard Genette, and Jonathan Culler). Noting their sympathetic but cautious evaluations of the enigma posed by Emma’s imagination, this essay concludes by suggesting a more radical affirmation of Emma’s force of imagination.

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