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Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary are both tales
of women indignant with their domestic situations; the distinct differences
between the two books can be found in the authors’ unique tones. Both authors
weave similar themes into their writings such as, the escape from the monotony
of domestic life, dissatisfaction with marital expectations and suicide.
References to "fate" abound throughout both works. In The Awakening,
Chopin uses fate to represent the expectations of Edna Pontellier’s aristocratic
society. Flaubert uses "fate" to portray his characters’ compulsive
methods of dealing with their guilt and rejecting of personal accountability.
Both authors, however seem to believe that it is fate that oppresses these
women; their creators view them subjectively, as if they were products of their
respective environments. Chopin portrays Edna as an object, and she receives
only the same respect as a possession. Edna’s husband sees her as and looks,
"…at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which
has suffered some damage." (P 2 : The Awakening) Chopin foils their
marriage in that of the Ratignolles who, "…understood each other
perfectly." She makes the classic mistake of comparing one’s insides with
others’ outsides when she thinks, "If ever the fusion of two human begins
into one has been accomplished on this sphere it was surely in their
union." (P 56 : The Awakening) This sets the stage for her unhappiness,
providing a point of contrast for her despondent marriage to Mr. Pontellier. She
blames their marriage for their unhappiness declaring that, "…a wedding
is one of the most lamentable spectacles on earth." (P 66 : The Awakening)
She sees their lifetime pledge to fidelity and love as merely a social trap; the
same forces that bind them oppress her. Simultaneously, Mademoiselle Reisz, who
"…sent a keen tremor down Mrs. Pontellier’s spinal column…" which
perhaps is the tremor that marks the beginning of Edna’s self discovery. "A
certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her, – the light which, showing
the way, forbids it." (P 13 : The Awakening) As she explores her world,
other men, swimming, and her other romantic pursuits, she experiences her
epiphany; she finds that the world has much to offer and kills herself in the
lamentation of that which she cannot truly have. Edna finds herself filled with
"An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar
part of her consciousness…She did not sit there inwardly upbraiding her
husband, lamenting at Fate, which had directed her footsteps to the path which
they had taken." (P 6 : The Awakening) Edna takes an active part in finding
happiness within her world. She pursues her swimming and other men in the
interest of ending the monotony she lives with as a result of her being confined
into her aristocratic society. Emma Bovary, being both protagonist and
antagonist, by contrast experiences her epiphany solely at death. She takes the
arsenic when she realizes all that she will not get from what she already has.
Her light of discovery is found only in the darkness of her death. She laments
not what she does not possess, but what happiness her world does not give her.
Hers is a story of spiritual emptiness and foolish idealism. "…Emma tried
to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words bliss, passion, ecstasy,
that had seemed to her so beautiful in books." (P 24 : Madame Bovary) She
searches for that which is found in the fantasy world of books in her own world
and falls short of her expectations. Charles, her husband, she takes for granted
as "She would have done so to the logs in the fireplace or to the pendulum
of the clock." (P 44 : Madame Bovary) Flaubert allows her to see Charles as
an object just as Mr. Pontellier sees his wife as an object. Although the
characters are of the opposite sex, leaving both of the women displeased with
their men, and moreover, their lives. Edna and Emma both use people (Emma is
also used herself) when needed, and are discarded when they have outlived their
usefulness: "Charles was someone to talk to, an ever-open ear, an
ever-ready approbation. She even confided many a thing to her greyhound!"
Emma treats Charles as her personal dog, she uses him as she uses everyone else
in the book. Perhaps it is because of her antagonistic nature that, "She
would open his letters, spy on his whereabouts, and listen behind the partition
when there were women in his consulting room." (P 35 : Madame Bovary) It is
ironic that she would do these things, as she is the adulterer, searching to
assure herself that he is not doing the same harm to her which she is doing to
him. Through this paranoia, "Once lively, expansive, and generous, she had
become difficult, shrill voiced, and nervous as she grew older, like uncorked
wine which turns to vinegar." (P 30 : Madame Bovary) As she sours in her
downward spiral she takes those from whom she would reap happiness with her.
Both women indulge in their new findings, and subjectively fall into their
desires. Flaubert compares Emma with a martyr as, "…she looked at the
pious vignettes edged in azure in her book, and she loved the sick lamb, the
Sacred heart pierced with sharp arrows, and poor Jesus stumbling as He walked
under His cross… She attempted to think of some vow to fulfill." Emma
indeed carries her own cross, but she does not stand for anything but her own
greed; "…she stays home darning his socks. And so bored! Longing to live
in town and dance a polka every night. Poor little woman. Gasping for love, like
a carp on a kitchen table gasping for water." Indeed, Emma has almost as
much sense as the carp, her mind reduced to only fulfilling her carnal desires.
She wants to feel nothing: "She was in a blissful state of numbness. Her
soul sank deeper into this inebriation and was drowned in it…" (P 188 :
Madame Bovary) Because living brings her only disappointment she is only
pacified when she is comfortably numb. When she finally discovers that her
feelings are as empty as her desires and that her desires are as empty as her
relationships she kills herself. The Awakening and Madame Bovary both have
nearly identical subject matter; distinct from one another only by the authors’
tones. Two passive women are subjected to situations where they feel oppressed
and constrained. They have extramarital affairs and explore their worlds. At the
ends, they die at their own hands. Chopin sees her protagonist in the light of
sympathy, using literature as a device portraying her characters in a
sympathetic light. Flaubert, using nearly the same characters, produced a
300-page soap opera, having once described literature as Athe dissection of a
beautiful woman with her guts in her face, her leg skinned, and half a
burned-out cigar lying on her foot"
his tone is apparent in his commentary. The two stories are actually quite
identical, as if two different narrators had told the same tale.
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