Gustave Flaubert wrote in Madame Bovary that “someone’s death always causes a kind of stupefaction; so difficult it is to grasp this advent of nothingness and to resign ourselves to the fact that it has actually taken place” (258). Greater still is the stupefaction when the death is suicide, when the advent of nothing has been self-initiated. For the reader of both Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the literary suicides of the novels’ heroines produce an effect similar to stupor, a pause that is required to accept the reality of death, even within the constructed world of fiction. Yet, Margaret Higonnet states that suicide “is also an ambiguous kind of text, whose survivors are obliged to interpret its meaning” (230). Within this obligation to interpret there is the implication that to examine the deaths of Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina is also to define their lives, to assign meaning both within the contexts of their respective societies and of nineteenth century literature.
Emma and Anna both attempt to satisfy their own desires in opposition to what society expects of them, communicating that desire in their active resistance to their assigned roles. That they are unsuccessful in achieving the pursued happiness is a condemnation of the society in which they have failed. Their failure to communicate their own will while living culminates in a final effort in which suicide is an attempted expression of autonomy, indicating the lack of options they experience as females trapped within their respective social paths. In portraying Anna with a greater deal of sympathy and compassion, Tolstoy more fully explores the implications of social repres...
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Nabokov, Vladimir. “Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary.” Lectures on Literature. Ed. Fredson Bowers. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1980. 125-178.
Schor, Naomi. “Restricted Thematics: Madame Bovary.” Madame Bovary. Ed. Margaret Cohen. Trans. Harriet Stone. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2005. 499-512.
Tanner, Tony. “Monsieur Binet and His Lathe.” Adultery in the Novel. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1979. 254-265.
Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. 1878. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Penguin, 2000.
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