Madame Bovary as a Template for Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

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Madame Bovary as a Template for Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

The story of Edna Pontellier, the heroine of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, echoes that of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Both novels tell about young wives who recognize the hollowness of their marriages and look outside them for fulfillment. While the similarities are deep and numerous, Chopin’s characterization and plot diverge from those of Flaubert. Madame Bovary does contain a hint of advocacy for women, however Chopin’s version of the story reflects the author’s status as one of America’s first feminist authors. Perhaps Chopin’s dissent does not constitute an objection to Flaubert’s portrayal of womanhood, which is very sensitive and thoughtful. There is, in fact, a feminist savor to Madame Bovary. Emma hopes she will have a son, because

A man, at least, is free; he can explore each passion and every kingdom, conquer obstacles, feast upon the most exotic pleasures. But a woman is continually thwarted. Both inert and yielding, against her are ranged the weakness of the flesh and the inequity of the law…. Always there is the desire urging, always there is the convention restraining. (MB, 70) 1

In the story-line, and perhaps in those hints of feminism, Chopin saw the chance to make a point. She borrowed Flaubert’s storyline to write a feminist manifesto; more a tract than a novel, The Awakening is starkly written, with much less subtlety than Madame Bovary. For instance, Flaubert communicates the shallow, materialistic nature of Charles’s attitude towards Emma by contrasting his fascination with her looks, “he gazed at the sunlight playing in the golden down on her cheeks…” (MB, 25), with his obliviousness to her thoughts and personality. On the other hand, Chop...

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... kills herself by swimming out to sea “with a long, sweeping stroke” (A, 152), using her strength to aid her decision and the power (her swimming ability) that she discovered that summer, at the beginning of her awakening. In the end, Chopin’s heroine is not weak and defeated in death, not tortured with seizures, not the subject of gossip and mockery, not the gruesome object beneath a sheet. Edna dies in the memory of herself, her childhood. She controls her own life and her own end. She is triumphant.

Works Cited

1 Quotations from Madame Bovary are cited in the text with the abbreviation listed below.

MB: Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, trans. Geoffrey Wall (London: Penguin Books, 1992).

2 Quotations from The Awakening are cited in the text with the abbreviation listed below.

A: Kate Chopin, The Awakening (Cutchogue, N.Y.: Buccaneer Books, 1993).

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