Last year I read two books that are considered classics and are included in all the “must read” lists. Anna Karenina by Tolstoy and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Both books have a similar subject: unfaithfulness in marriage committed by the wife at an era that such an act was considered a scandal.
Madame Bovary cheats on her husband who loves her passionately and till the end refuses to believe that his wife has done something like this, while Anna Karenina has to face her unyielding husband when her liaison becomes known.
Both are fascinating books and one can’t really attempt a comparison between them. Tolstoy is an author I have admired in the past thanks to his “War and Peace” and “Resurrection”. He manages to cast a philosophical glance at life and draws deep conclusions on human nature. The descriptions of his heroes are unique. Surely his “Anna Karenina” is another one of his masterpieces. As it always happens with his books, his pages are full of persons with eccentricities, with moral integrity or the opposite. Sometimes Tolstoy surprises the reader with an observation that the reader himself (or herself) had once made. It’s as if he reads the reader’s mind. However, despite my great admiration for this author and his oeuvre, I found Madame Bovary more amazing. Or, to be precise, more heartbreaking.
Madame Bovary is shallow and she doesn’t want to admit it. She doesn’t know how to cope with her superficial self and suddenly she finds fault with everything and everyone. She blames life in the country, her husband who seems so boring but the truth is that she has only herself to blame for being so very empty. In love with love itself, with the only thing she finds exciting, she is led to a total abandonment and humiliation. Taking small steps in the beginning, she then reaches a downhill that is very dramatic.
Anna Karenina is not like that. Her passion is the passion of a woman who needs a new love. Having played the role of the good wife for years, it is finally time for her to shake off this role. When the beautiful dream starts to turn into a nightmare, she reacts as we would have liked Bovary to have reacted: as a good, normal mother, as a woman who puts the love for her child first and then her own needs. Of the two, Bovary still seems to me more tragic. Not for the pain she inflicts on her family (this will be inevitable in both cases) but for the whole futility of her existence; it is a futility that more and more we see today in more and more people of both sexes.
In our time of the many divorces, it is interesting to see how Tolstoy and Flaubert observe adultery. Although today adultery is considered something that shouldn’t create guilt in a person, it’s after all so common, almost…legitimate; at least it is considered so by the men who abandon their families for another woman. However, our society still regards a woman who abandons her family with suspicion. It is all right for a man around 40 or 50 to go through a mid-life crisis and fall in love with his secretary or some other woman, usually younger than himself. But for a woman to leave her child for a lover, this is unnatural and tragic. And it rarely happens.
Tolstoy and Flaubert must have taken their inspiration from certain women of their time who had certainly shocked the modest 19th century circles.
Here I’d like to finish with something from each book:
From “Anna Karenina” (where her future lover, Vronsky, sees Anna for the first time):
In that brief look Vronsky had time to notice the suppressed eagerness which played over her face, and flitted between the brilliant eyes and the faint smile that curved her red lips. It was as though her nature were so brimming over with something that against her will it showed itself now in the flash of her eyes, and now in her smile. Deliberately she shrouded the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will in the faintly perceptible smile.
From “Madame Bovary” (Flaubert describes here the husband of his heroin who, after her death, is trying to keep her memory present in his life):
To please her, as if she were still living, he adopted her predilections, her ideas; he bought patent leather boots and took to wearing white cravats. He put cosmetics on his moustache, and, like her, signed notes of hand. She corrupted him from beyond the grave.
Anna Karenina translated into english by Constance Black Garnett (1862-1946) in 1917. Source: www.online-literature.com
Madame Bovary translated into english by Eleanor Marx-Aveling. Source: www.online-literature.com