Madame Bovary, the story of the frustrated wife of a simple doctor in rural France, was written in 1856. When it was first serialized between 1 October 1856 and 15 December 1856, the novel was attacked for obscenity by public prosecutors. The resulting trial, held in January 1857, made the story notorious. After Flaubert's acquittal on 7 February 1857, Madame Bovary became a bestseller when it was published as a single volume in April 1857. Its story of adultery and explicit sexual passions were considered unique and groundbreaking.
The story is familiar enough – a woman marries for conventional reasons but soon finds herself trapped in a small, narrow-minded community with an honest but dull and clueless man. After much doubt and self-recrimination and guilt, Emma Bovary acts on her desires and takes a lover. After the long affair with Rodolphe ends, she soon takes another. Now that her passions have been awakened, she cannot live without a man who can satisfy them. She is infatuated more than in love with both Rodolphe and Leon, and more than anything views them as instruments of sexual pleasure. Neither one is the dashing, chivalrous lover she has always dreamt of, but they are available, interested, and well above the sexual, social, or intellectual caliber of her husband.
She is so consumed by her sexual desire, so demanding of her lovers, and so insistent on their reciprocal love and attention, that they grow impatient and disillusioned with her, and eventually leave.
Emma was like all his other mistresses, thought Rodolphe; and as the charm of novelty gradually slipped from her like a piece of her clothing, he saw revealed in all its nakedness the eternal monotony of passion which always assumes the same forms and always speaks the same language.
Enough of the book’s notoriety has remained so that it is still considered an important work of French literature; but in fact it is a very familiar but one-dimensional portrait of a discontented and unsatisfied woman. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is a far more complex woman. Although she also finds herself married to a similarly dull and passionless husband, she is not compulsive in her sexual desires. Both women are intelligent, strong, and willful, but Anna , very aware of the moral, ethical, and religious implications of her love affair with Vronsky, pursues it nonetheless. She is less rebelling against her husband’s oppression than searching for a more complete emotional relationship than he can provide. One admires Anna because of her respect for her husband, her love for her son, and her devotion to Vronsky.
Although life is not easy for either woman , we feel empathy and respect for Anna just as we do for Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Nora is patient to a fault and suffers her obtuse husband Torvald for too long. Finally, the exhaustion of surviving such a suffocating relationship becomes overwhelming, and she walks out. Anna is patient with Karenin, but for her forbearance has its limits. She too walks out on the marriage but can never assuage the guilt of having abandoned her son by so doing.
Emma Bovary has no such compunctions. Her daughter Berthe is a second thought in her life. The young girl is suckled by a wet nurse and cared for and brought up by nursemaids and nannies. Emma is indifferent to her, and as she pursues her love affairs, her daughter is the last thing from her mind. She wants only to satisfy her sexual desires and to defy her ignorant, plodding husband.
Carrie Kennicott, the heroine of Main Street is much more like Anna than Emma. She marries for the same conventional reasons, moves to a small prairie town in Minnesota, and becomes increasingly frustrated with her husband, a rural doctor like M. Bovary, and the confines of the bourgeois society of Gopher Prairie.
At first Carrie has no thoughts of taking a lover. Introducing ideas, books, art, and culture to the provincial and unlettered town is challenge and satisfaction enough. Only when she realizes that even her modest initiatives to form a local theatre group, to enhance the library collection, and to encourage intellectual discussion groups, are ignored does she think of new personal relationships. She does not permit herself to think that her male friendships are anything more than stimulating and Platonic, she eventually realizes that her frustration with Gopher Prairie is far more personal and intimate. It is a question of her lack of sexual fulfillment and realization as a woman.
Emma has none of these concerns. While all three women share a common frustration, only Emma is single-minded in her pursuit of of sexual satisfaction. Her affair with Leon devolves into a purely animal coupling. All pretense of a renewed womanhood or feminine expression is gone. She becomes defiant in her sexual obsession. She wants to be caught in her adultery, not to expiate or atone for her guilt, but to show up the bourgeois piety of the town.
She and Anna Karenina commit suicide; but it is for Anna that we have sympathy and compassion. She has tried everything to accommodate her life within accepted social principles, but has failed. She has lost her husband, her son, and is afraid of losing Vronsky. Bitterly unhappy with herself for being unable to extricate herself from her dilemmas; and angry at a world which has no give or accommodation, she kills herself.
Emma has been profligate and irresponsible in the pursuit of her passions. She has deceived her husband, ignored her child, and accumulated ruinous debts. She feels sorry for herself when Leon and Rodolphe want nothing more to do with her, and rather than accept a return to the rack of her marriage, she resorts to a painful, agonizing death by arsenic poisoning.
Feminists have always admired Emma Bovary for her independence, will, and determination. Yet, while one can understand and commiserate with her plight – life for women in 19th century Europe and America was not an easy one – it is hard to admire her. She is a self-centered, callous, dismissive woman only concerned with herself and her own satisfaction. She has none of the dignity of Anna or Carrie Kennicott; none of the principle of Nora; or none of the strength, canniness, and ability of Shakespeare’s women. She is shallow, insensitive, and deeply immoral.
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter in 1850, only six years before Madame Bovary; and it is a far more complex, nuanced story of ‘adultery’ than Flaubert’s work. Hester Prynne, the protagonist of The Scarlet Letter has an adulterous relationship early in her life. Hawthorne chooses not to describe the circumstances of the affair, preferring to focus on Hester’s absolute commitment to secrecy to protect the reputation of her lover. She has risked death at the hands of the Puritan clerics of 17th century Salem because of her adultery, but she refuses to name the man with whom she has had her child, Pearl.
Her lover suffers far more than she because he is too weak to admit his guilt and to at least share the town’s censure with Hester. The story is more about the psychological torment of her lover, Rev. Dimmesdale , the vengeful actions of her former husband Chillingworth, and the frighteningly otherworldliness of Pearl than Hester; but Hester is an admirable, fully-realized woman. One has far more admiration for her than for Emma Bovary.
Flaubert never suggests why Emma is the way she is, tells very little about her childhood and adolescence, her relationships with her parents, or her growing up. The reader has no clues as to what turned her into such a libidinous, immoral destroyer. She is no more than a week into her marriage when she realizes she has done the wrong thing; frustration and anger set in quickly, the love affairs follow; she is abandoned and bankrupt; and she commits suicide. But why? We understand Anna, Carrie, and Nora; but not Emma.
Is she the stereotypical woman who always falls for the wrong man? At her first ball at the estate of the local aristocrat, her childhood ambitions became much more real. This is what she wanted – wealth and the love of a powerful, confident, sexually mature man. Yet she had no inkling that Rodolphe was a manipulative womanizer? How was this intelligent woman so ignorant of one of the most common masculine traits? Why did she assume that there was a future in the relationship when there clearly was none? Anna knew precisely what she was doing, and always felt that she would be able to negotiate a reasonable compromise with her husband; but Emma was ignorant of men, society, and life itself, blinded by her own self-centered passions.
Hester Prynne, Anna Karenina, Nora Helmer, and Carrie Kennicott are my heroes – not Emma Bovary.