II General comparison
III The suicide scenes in comparison
Emma Bovary and Edna Pontellier are two of many nineteenth-century female protagonists who fail in their struggles out of the boredom of married life. Among Anna Karenina, Effi Briest, Hedda Gabler and others, they, too, commit suicide. In this essay, Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” will be compared to the American novel “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin. First of all, general similarities and differences, such as the historical background, characters, plot, conflicts and motifs, will be examined. In the third chapter, the scenes of suicide will be compared more closely in order to point out the differences between Chopin and Flaubert concerning language and style. Finally, a summarizing conclusion will be given.
II General comparison
a. Historical background
Astonishing similarities can be found in the two nineteenth-century novels “Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert and “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin. The latter was published 1899, 42 years after Flaubert’s novel. A reason for the main differences between the two novels is the beginning of the feminist movement in the end of the nineteenth century. In spite of Edna being the “Creole Bovary”, as Willa Cather states (Knights 2000: xlii), her motifs and struggles differ from Emma’s. While Emma Bovary is guided by her romantic illusions and ideals only, Edna Pontellier is much more of a woman struggling for independence and self-control. Emma wants to be possessed by her lovers; Edna rejects even Robert’s wish for her being his wife: “I give myself where I choose.” (Chopin: 119). However, both women have a lot in common. Both Edna as well as Emma are victims of their societies. Emma lives among citizens who obey to the moral codes and rules of the French bourgeoisie, while Edna’s role is to follow the pattern of a Creole wife and mother. Being capricious and showing their own will is being seen as unheard-of in their societies. Especially the marital status of both women is cause and reason to boredom. Charles (as a doctor) and Léonce (as a businessman) are very busy with their work and extremely concerned about upholding their social status. In Edna’s case, her husband even sees her as one of his possessions: “[…] looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.” (Chopin: 4) Although not spending much time with their wives, both husbands expect them to be exemplary wives. Thus, feeling oppressed and bored by the burdens of marriage and motherhood, the protagonists of both novels indulge in romantic love affairs.
Realistic influences can be found in both novels. Whereas “Madame Bovary” is seen as the seminal work of Realism, “The Awakening” also shows signs of other literary streams as for instance Romanticism. Realistic descriptions of persons, relationships and economic aspects concur with sentimental images of nature, Edna’s rebellion against society including her final suicide as well as the motif of music, which all are typically romantic (Virginia Commonwealth University). In turn, Flaubert even criticizes romanticism by adding shocking realistic devices to the description of Emma’s love affairs (see the description of Emma and Léon making love in the carriage, p. 3, ch. I). Apart from this, the author shows his protagonist’s doleful disappointment of romantic expectations which she has derived from romantic novels (see also ch. III in this essay). Moreover, he describes her cruel death very closely. Thus, the romantic motif of suicide is ironized by a precise and realistic description of the scenery.
b. Characters and plot
The protagonists of each novel respectively are Edna Pontellier and Emma Bovary. Not only their first names are similar and therefore bear similar connotations, but also in their characters and stories of development some important parallels can be found. Both women are betrayed by romantic illusions in their very youth. Emma is intrigued by romantic novels and love songs during her time at the convent (see p. 1, ch. VI). The expectations she receives from these novels seem to accompany her a lifetime. When married, she does not find the happiness she was imagining and is therefore disappointed by her new life. Later, Emma seeks the fulfillment of her longings in love affairs:
“Before marriage she thought herself in love; but the happiness that should have followed this love not having come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words felicity, passion, rapture, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.” (Flaubert: 23)
Edna Pontellier has two romantic infatuations in her earlier life which probably influence her later behaviour. In her youth, she was in love with a “sad-eyed cavalry officer” (Chopin: 20) and, as a young woman, she regularly kissed the picture of a great tragedian. Taking these observations into account, both Emma and Edna have their romantic ideals, which their married life fails to fulfill.
Being often absent, Charles Bovary and Léonce Pontellier do not take enough attention to the emotions and longings of their wifes, which is another reason for their wives to feel bored. Both men have a good reputation trying hard to maintain their status.