Many people, myself included, at one point may have lumped Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary into the same category. On the surface they do bear close similarities. Though Madame Bovary is by far the shorter of the two, both novels feature unhappy women who commit adultery and who are both summarily punished for their actions with unremitting guilt that drives them to suicide. But their situations in life, and how they come about these ends, are different. Emma Bovary’s story is infused with a kind of fate that Anna Karenina’s is not, or at least isn’t to the same extent. These themes, of fate and inevitability, are what drive the plot of Madame Bovary, because instead of trying to subvert the conventional tropes of a woman’s fall from grace, Flaubert leans into these pre-established ideas and harnesses them for all they’re worth. And therein lies Flaubert’s extraordinary skill: by placing Emma’s story in the great romantic tradition of heroines and romance, Flaubert creates a story which is itself a story about adultery. Madame Bovary then can be viewed as an extremely meta work and that this works so brilliantly is because Emma spends her entire life living in a drama of her own making. Emma Bovary succeeds as a romantic heroine because this is how Emma views herself.
From the very beginning, we as readers are told that Emma is of a romantic disposition. She spends much of her girlhood and adolescence at the convent where she goes to school reading romance and adventure stories, and as the story progresses it is clear that these tales have shaped her view of not only life, but love as well. For Emma, “true love” is a love that is defined by passion between two people. This would seem to fly in the face of Victorian convention that viewed marriage as little more than a financial contract, one often in which affection and even fondness were lacking. This kind of arrangement is, in fact, the exact type of marriage in which Emma finds herself and what leads to her desperate unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Her husband is dull, unromantic, and lacks the fire that Emma finds so enchanting in the heroes of her beloved books. Since she is unable to find love with her husband, Emma begins to seek the satiation of her desires in other men.
There is some debate as to whether Flaubert takes a judgemental stance toward Emma’s actions. Many contend that despite the ending, the novel doesn’t read as overly moralistic in tone. Flaubert even admitted to finding Emma relatable personally. If this is true, it is harder to see why he would be condemning a character that he felt carried many of his own traits. However, it is impossible to ignore a few of the comments that Flaubert makes in the story, and the story’s ending, without contextualizing it in the era in which he was writing and people’s views of women with “loose” morals. Even today there still exists an underlying sexual double standard in which men are allowed to be promiscuous but women who have relations outside of marriage are ostracized. In the time Flaubert was writing, this was even more true. It was also widely believed that romantic novels encouraged unseemly proclivities in women, i.e. sexual desires. Since women were not supposed to have sexual feelings, books like these were regarded as highly dangerous. Emma’s actions and upbringing then to many would have been considered reprehensible, and that she was able to get away with her behavior so long unscathed was enough for people to clamor for the book to be banned. What may have ultimately been the novel’s saving grace though is that since Emma meets an unfortunate end, it could not be claimed to be entirely encouraging her behavior since Flaubert punishes the “wanton” woman for her sins. What is interesting though to note, are the double standards and inherent contradictions that existed between the accepted social mores of the times and the themes found in popular literature, including the kind of books Emma so enjoyed reading, regarding women’s sexual purity and fidelity.
Many of the greatest love stories include adultery by a beautiful woman as a central motif: Tristan and Isolde, Guinevere and Lancelot, the list goes on. All of these stories have endured for centuries, and why? Because people view these stories as being representative of what to aspire to in a romantic relationship. Throughout time, adultery has been regarded as a staple of the romance narrative and later the romance genre. This was something that, though not encouraged in real life, was tacitly accepted in fiction. How then is Madame Bovary different? Perhaps it was because the story of Madame Bovary was a contemporary one, making it hit too close to home for its readers and critics. It does raise questions though of the inherent contradiction that stories revered even in as repressive an era as the Victorian time, and which were held up to be examples of true love, contain the very kind of relationships condemned as improper and wrong by that very same society. It also would be remiss to compare Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary without discussing the impact of class. Emma, as a middle-class, bourgeoisie woman married to a country doctor, is in an inherently different situation than Anna who has access to considerably more wealth. Emma’s struggles during the end of the novel are not merely ones of frustrated love, but of finances, due to the crippling debt she has ensnared herself in, in her attempts to buy happiness through material objects.
This again raises the question of what Flaubert is trying to say about people of Emma’s class, and particularly women of her class. It is quite possible to read his portrayal of Emma as unflattering: a middle-class, bored housewife who underhandedly grovels for anything she can get her hands on. But to stereotype Emma this way is to overlook the ample evidence of her actions that show Emma is not primarily motivated by money. If money had been her end goal she would have been less careless with how she spent it. She wouldn’t have needed to have affairs with two different men in order to accomplish this either; she would have probably been able to gain enough of an allowance from merely being Rodolphe’s mistress, but we see by her very inability to hold onto wealth, as well as her desire to leave her husband and to pursue a life with Rodolphe, that money is not what she truly values. Material possessions for Emma are merely a substitute for the love she truly craves.
The final piece of the puzzle though I believe, and what serves to explain the novel’s conclusion, is the significance of Flaubert’s decision to select Lucia di Lammermoor, an opera based off of Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Bride of Lammermoor, as the opera that Emma and her husband attend. The Bride of Lammermoor is a story of two star-crossed lovers, Lucy Ashton and Edgar Ravenswood who are prevented from being together because of a longstanding enmity between their families. At the end of the story, Lucy goes mad and kills her bridegroom who she was forced to marry by her mother, and then dies of the horror of her actions only days later, while Edgar mysteriously vanishes in quicksand on his way to a duel against Lucy’s brother, never to be seen again. The two lovers are never united then, at least in this life, but how their story is significant to Madame Bovary is that it seems to be deliberately chosen by Flaubert to herald Emma’s tragic fate. Emma and her husband exit the theater though, before watching the conclusion. Perhaps, even subconsciously, her lack of desire to see the end of the story is Emma’s attempt to ward off what she felt was her own impending death? This then ties back into the idea that destiny is what brings about Emma’s doom, much in the way it dooms the marriage of Edgar and Lucy. The story ends with Emma being granted her greatest wish by a twist of fate, though perhaps not in the way she imagined. She becomes a heroine of romance, but she is not given a happy ending. This transforms her story then into a cautionary tale for women who dared to seek more than what they were given. Emma is representative of the dissatisfaction of generations of women trapped in loveless marriages, and that is why her story still resonates today.