This strength is well highlighted as they are surrounded by other characters whose vulnerabilities are quite pronounced as the narratives develop. The women in both stories aside from Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary exhibit the usual frailties of women during those particular times in history. They are submissive to their husbands and to men, in general, and play the traditional roles expected of them by society. The men, on the other hand, are portrayed as insensitive and fixated only with matters outside domestic affairs. This insensitivity and aloofness towards affairs of the home are presented as weaknesses by both Tolstoy and Flaubert. In the midst of the aforementioned weaknesses of the men and women that surround the lead characters in each of the stories, the uniqueness of Anna Karenina’s and Emma Bovary’s outlook on life and on their womanhood, in particular, is underscored.
In contrast to such weaknesses, their strengths are emphasized. However, at the end of both stories, these characters turned out to be weak when confronted by the social norms of their times. The rejection they got for asserting their concepts towards relationships overwhelmed them to a point that they both commit suicide.
Anna Karenina is a member of the Russian nobility by birth. She is married to a bureaucrat, which only made her place in society as part of the upper class more established. Tolstoy saw the necessity of putting an emphasis on this point because, as the story progresses, of the concept that the social class to which a woman belongs does not guarantee that she is free from the issues that generally haunt women during such times. Among these issues that affect Anna Karenina most is the seemingly lack of freedom to satisfy herself emotionally. In the midst of the limitations that she experiences in a society with norms that generally bind women to child-rearing and the role of a wife, Anna wishes at first settle the contradictions between her own desires for happiness and the moral and traditional concepts of femininity.
Such notion, however, is created through a process in which she witnesses how other women have suffered the disparities between genders. Tolstoy presented this in a dialogue between Anna and Dolly, wherein the latter said that “everything is at an end, and that’s all… And the worst of it is, you understand, that I can’t leave him: there are the children, and I am bound. Yet I can’t live with him; it is torture for me to see him” (Anna Karenina 2004 p.67).
These dialogues with women who express their discontent towards marriage and men’s treatment are significant factors in the creation of Anna’s viewpoint on how she should deal with her own desires and her marriage.
The affair with Vronsky is the result of her passion to free herself to a dull marriage with Karenin. Anna’s strength is seen in her decision to enter into an adulterous affair despite the likelihood of rejection from a society that continues to uphold the traditional concepts of women’s role and of marriage. Although Karenin did not pursue her seriously, the relationship with Vronsky indeed becomes the cause for her condemnation by society. Tolstoy narrated that “she felt that, insignificant as it had appeared that morning, the position she held in Society was dear to her, and that she would not have the strength to change it for the degraded position of a woman who had forsaken husband and child and formed a union with her lover; that, however much she tried, she could not become stronger than herself” (Anna Karenina 2004 p.293). In this regard, Anna becomes a pariah for asserting her beliefs on the freedom to choose whom to love in a society that continues to restrict women to traditional roles. This is primarily the reason why Anna apparently goes to the level of despondence. Despite this, however, Anna never went to the extent of bowing down to social pressures.
She continues to hold on to her beliefs even as nearly everyone that mattered to her, including Vronsky, has turned their backs on her. Nearing the end of the story, Anna Karenina commits suicide. Tolstoy wrote “And death, as the sole means of reviving love for herself in his heart, of punishing him, and of gaining the victory in that contest which an evil spirit in her heart was waging against him, presented itself clearly and vividly to her” (Anna Karenina 2004 p.744). For others, this may be the height of Anna’s obstinacy in clinging to her different concepts on femininity. Anna, however, is clearly a victim of a society that continues to oppress women’s emotions while tolerating the misconduct of men that do.
For the most simplistic description of Emma Bovary, she may seem to be an individual who is either a hopeless romantic or someone who simply cannot see the differences between reality and fantasy. However, a more profound analysis on her character would reveal that she is, in fact, a woman who dares to assert her desires despite the prevailing traditional concepts in society. It is this characteristic of Emma that defines her strength as a woman. Her marriage, however, is not a decision that she so willingly made according to what she wished for. Her father encouraged her wedding with Charles as a matter of convenience as he was indebted to the Bovary’s and he deemed it better have Emma get marries since she is not an asset in the farm. In the first few chapters, Flaubert described Charles as one who conforms to the norms and who does not raise any interest from others.
Flaubert wrote that Charles in his youth was “of even temperament, who played in playtime, worked in school-hours, was attentive in class, slept well in the dormitory, and ate well in the refectory” (Madame Bovary 1960 p.7). Such character is very much different to Emma’s dreamy disposition, one who fantasizes way beyond the confines of what is real, especially when it comes to satisfying her sentimentalist wants.
Marriage to Charles is unsatisfying for Emma. In fact, she immediately notices such absence of satisfaction during their first night as a couple. Later, she realizes that Charles is the reason why she remains unhappy. She considers him and her marriage as the main obstacles towards realizing her dreams.
She also considers her life in the countryside as bereft of any source of happiness for her. She sees that “all her immediate surroundings, the wearisome country, the middle-class imbeciles, the mediocrity of existence, seemed to her exceptional, a peculiar chance that had caught hold of her, while beyond stretched, as far as eye could see, an immense land of joys and passions” (Madame Bovary 1960 p.53). This resulted into her idealization of urban life. This can be explained by the fact that the cities have become the bastions of cultural liberalism, where individuals, including women, can do anything to realize their dreams without the restrictive norms that still envelop the countryside. Prompted by her discontentment in her marriage with Charles as well as by her continuous search for romantic bliss as defined by her books, Emma enters into adulterous relationships, first with Rodolphe and then with Leon. She finds her fantasies realized in such affairs. In her first sexual encounter with Rodolphe, she “recalled the heroines of the books that she had read, and the lyric legion of these adulterous women began to sing in her memory with the voice of sisters that charmed her” (Madame Bovary 1960 p.156).
Both Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina may be considered by people today as women whose concepts on womanhood, marriage, and sexuality were just too advanced for their times. The first wave of feminism occurred only in the late 1800’s and even this did not yet delve into the more comprehensive understanding of gender equality but only in suffrage (Magarey 2001 p.16). It was only in the 1960’s onwards that women began to assert on equality in all spheres, including sexual and romantic relationships through second-wave feminism (Mead 2004 p.107). The difference between Anna and Emma, however, is based on their dissimilar social and cultural background. Anna, being of the upper class and educated, was conscious of the restrictive norms in society that confronts her behavior. Emma, on the other hand, was simply in love with the notion of being happily in love with a man of her choice. Because of this, their bases for suicide differ too; Anna for her desperation with how society treats her and Emma for the loss of her lover.
Flaubert, G. (1960). Madame Bovary. Stockholm, Sweden: Sohlman.
Magarey, S. (2001). Passions of the First Wave Feminists. Sydney, Australia: UNSW Press.
Meade, T., & Wiesner, M. (2004). A Companion to Gender History. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Tolstoy, L. (2004). Anna Karenina. Oxford, UK: Oxford University.