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The Themes Of Madame Bovary

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1503 words Published: 24th Apr 2017

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Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary are exceptional literary works which are well-known internationally and have been translated from the original languages of Russian and French into many other languages. The popularity of these novels is mainly due to the theme of infidelity put forward by Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina and by Gustave Flaubert in Madame Bovary. The reasons for these novels being regarded above all else as classic novels of infidelity, is due to the exceptional usage of this theme in developing the plot of the novels and teaching a moral lesson to the readers . Also, the concept of writing about a common dilemma that no one dared talk of at the time, let alone write of, has made these novels stand the test of time.

Due to the common theme of infidelity the two novels are constantly compared. One Russian poet dubbed Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary’s “Russian cousin”1. However, the development and purpose of the theme of infidelity in these novels has both similarities and dissimilarities, which can be investigated using textual evidence and critical theories.

The time of the initiation of infidelity in Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina differ, however to make an accurate judgment, the meanings of infidelity, libido, and platonic love must be defined. The characters who commit acts of infidelity will be introduced and compared. The reasons for acts of infidelity will be looked upon using a ‘Romanticism’ versus ‘Neoclassicism’ approach. The use of binary opposition in developing this theme will be discussed. Some of the common literary devices in the two texts, that help to develop the theme of infidelity, will be explained, including; theme of marriage, motif of being trapped in and motif of lack of communication. Finally, the emotional influence of infidelity on the husbands of the two women, will be evaluated.

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Infidelity is a rather controversial word; the oxford dictionary may define it as “unfaithfulness to ones sexual partner”3, but in reality, the meaning of this word depends on the point of view of the person who’s defining it, and this makes it difficult to identify the initiation of infidelity in both novels. Some may see infidelity as sexual betrayal; some may see it as emotional betrayal, and some both. Libido (sexual forces) is a cause of sexual unfaithfulness, and platonic love is a cause of emotional unfaithfulness. It could be said that clear and direct reference to infidelity in Anna Karenina is made in the third line of the first chapter, where it is said that “Oblonsky’s wife has found out that he has been having an affair with the French governess who used to live with them, and told him she could no longer stay under the same roof with him.”2 As for Madame Bovary, the theme of infidelity develops more gradually, and direct reference is made on page 152 of chapter 9.Anna Karenina consists of emotional and physical infidelity where Madame Bovary majorly consists of physical infidelity. This can be proven through the use of imagery in Madame Bovary. The image of a ‘Galloping horse’ is often created in Madame Bovary, which is a sign of libido. However this is not the case in Anna Karenina.

In Madame Bovary there is one character who commits acts of adultery and infidelity, Emma Bovary. However, Anna, Oblonsky (Stiva) and Vronsky all give in to such acts in Anna Karenina. There are certain qualities belonging to these characters, which we can relate to their actions. Anna, Stiva and Vronsky are all from the higher class aristocratic society, therefore their financial independence causes them to feel a kind of emotional freedom. On the contrary, Emma is financially dependent and cannot afford the life she pleases to have; this causes her to pursue adulterous acts in return for financial support and favors. Emma and Anna are beautiful and elegant yet they do not have strong morals and they rail emotionally against the society. Stiva and Vronsky are rich and charming, therefore they are uncommitted due the feeling that they are on top of the society. Though the society in both novels is male dominated, all of these unfaithful characters are dominant in relationships with those around them, including the women. The characters could be said to have an idealistic nature, and they long to have the perfect romantic lives which neither of the married ones (all besides Vronsky) have. Anna, Emma, and Vronsky are great readers, and this reading sort of provides an escape of ordinary life into a perfect, fantasy world.It is said that Emma “dreams of the purest, most impossible forms of love and wealth, ignoring whatever beauty is present in the world around her.”3 Anna is “an ideal aristocratic Russian wife of the 1870’s. She is a beautiful, elegant, educated, passionate woman. She enjoys reading and is guilty of desecrating her marriage and home, but is noble and admirable nonetheless.”4

Unfaithfulness is partly due to the emotional imbalance of the characters’ personalities. This could be described through the artistic, literary and intellectual5 movements of Neoclassicism and Romanticism. Neoclassicism originated in the second half of the 18th century and was the age of enlightenment, when it was believe d that everything must be logical and formulated. Neoclassic believed that nature should be peaceful and harmonic. Romanticism was born in 19th century during the French revolution. Romantic believed that man should be free, and nature should be wild and mysterious.

The characters which are infidel in these novels are too ‘Romantic’. They rely too much on their emotions or passions rather than their reasoning. Vronsky makes a realization near the end of the novel, where It is stated that “It showed him the eternal error men make in imagining that happiness consists in the realization of their desires”. If the characters were able to maintain a balance between emotion and reason, it would have prevented their unfortunate fates.

In developing the theme of infidelity, Flaubert and Tolstoy make great use of binary opposition. Charles’ faithful nature is in contrast to Emma’s deceit. Charles is very honest with Emma, and tells her everything about his daily life and patients whereas Emma hides so many things from him. Emma’s idealistic behavior, visible in the emphasis put on her manner of eating, elegant wardrobe and habit of reading provides an incompatibility with Charles’ realistic and less romantic nature, which leads to Emma’s search for her idea of perfection and romance. Also, the successful aged marriages of the members of the neighborhoods in which Emma and Charles live provide an opposition to their unsuccessful marriage.

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In Anna Karenina, Levin’s love and faithfulness towards Kitty provides as negative comparison with Stiva’s love affair, and the adultery of Anna with Vronsky. Levin’s belief in monogamy emphasizes on Stiva’s belief in sexual freedom. Dolly is in opposition to Anna in the sense that Dolly is the culprit in her relationship with her husband whereas Anna is the wrongdoer.

There are many literary devices that help to develop the theme of Infidelity, including the theme of marriage, motif of being trapped in and motif of lack of communication. The theme of marriage foreshadows the theme of infidelity. Before Charles marries Emma, her having a love affair would not be considered as unfaithfulness as she is not emotionally and legally bound. The same is true for the other characters. Dissatisfaction with marital lives causes acts of adultery and emotional infidelity. Even those who are satisfied with their marital lives, a good example being Levin, emphasize the dissatisfaction of the others. Therefore the theme of marriage contributes greatly to the theme of infidelity.

The motif of being trapped in accounts for Anna and Emma. The belief that they are trapped in a male dominated society causes them to see adultery as a way for independence and a doorway to emotional freedom.

The motif of lack of communication between husband and wife makes the characters start a search for love and understanding outside of their homes, and this too contributes to their disloyalty.

Charles suspects that Emma is having an affair, but as he is very optimistic and simple-minded he ignores his instincts and continues to think that she is faithful to him. However, after her suicide when he finds her love letters, he is emotionally destructed. Karenin quickly realizes when Anna starts an affair, and ignores it at first at the hope of it ending, but asks for a divorce when he sees that Anna is not giving up her love affair. Then after she kills herself he feels a slight amount of sympathy towards her, and finds salvation from his sorrow in religion.


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