I felt a kind of empathy for Anna—and I loved her, too. Her haughtiness, her grandeur and her passion were somehow beautiful to me. My classmates, on the other hand, were very critical of her. They despised her for having an affair, for essentially abandoning her son — and indeed, these are terrible things even in the most forgiving circumstances. But I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Anna. I wondered—and I wonder still—what I would do in her circumstances (if I lived in 1870s Russia, that is). I wondered if my classmates scorned her because they, like me, saw something of themselves in her. (And don’t the most artfully crafted characters make us do that?)
Occasionally Flaubert’s Madame Bovary came up during our class discussions. There are obvious parallels between the two (and if you don’t want to know, stop now, because here come the spoilers) — the unhappy marriages, the affairs, the heroines’ abandonment of their children, their suicides at the close of the book. At the time, though, I hadn’t read Madame Bovary. I was a little bit wary of it, knowing that I would approach it through a comparative lens. How would it measure up to my beloved Anna?
Let me say this: in my (biased) opinion, it didn’t.
That’s not to say I didn’t like it. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Emma Bovary was a compelling character—compelling in that I had no sympathy for her. I didn’t love her like I loved Anna. I thought her complaints about her husband were completely unfounded. He, a successful and intelligent doctor, loved her so much and was incredibly devoted and kind to her. Emma was simply determined to find him inadequate, ordinary and boring. She wanted the high life—living comfortably wasn’t enough. She wanted balls and fancy dinners and an endless wardrobe.
True to my nature, though, I have to cut Emma a little slack. As a woman in mid-1800s France, she was powerless—and she knew it. She knew she had no options, no freedom, and very little control over her life. I think that, in a way, her obsession with her extra-marital affairs was a form of control. I’m not sure she was capable of loving any of those men—but she was capable of using them to feel as though she some power and influence.
Emma was a tragic character, true, but an unlikeable one. Even her death was prolonged, dramatic and grotesque.
I’d love to see what kind of lives Emma and Anna would create for themselves in the 21st century. I have a feeling they would thrive.
This is Classic #1 on my Classics Conquest list. To learn more about the Classics Club, check them out here.