Awake Essay, Research Paper

Compare The Awakening to Madame Bovary

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” (…docs/webdescrips/flaubert191-des-.html); 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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