A Comparison of Escape in Madam Bovary and Anna Karenina

A Comparison of Escape in Madam Bovary and Anna Karenina

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Escape in Madam Bovary and Anna Karenina


Reading provides an escape for people from the ordinariness

of everyday life. Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, dissatisfied with

their lives pursued their dreams of ecstasy and love through reading.

At the beginning of both novels Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary made

active decisions about their future although these decisions were not

always rational. As their lives started to disintegrate Emma and Anna

sought to live out their dreams and fantasies through reading. Reading

served as morphine allowing them to escape the pain of everyday life,

but reading like morphine closed them off from the rest of the world

preventing them from making rational decisions. It was Anna and Emma's

loss of reasoning and isolation that propelled them toward their



         Emma at the beginning of the novel was someone who made

active decisions about what she wanted. She saw herself as the master

of her destiny. Her affair with Rudolphe was made after her decision

to live out her fantasies and escape the ordinariness of her life and

her marriage to Charles. Emma's active decisions though were based

increasingly as the novel progresses on her fantasies. The lechery to

which she falls victim is a product of the debilitating adventures her

mind takes. These adventures are feed by the novels that she reads.


         They were filled with love affairs, lovers, mistresses,

persecuted ladies fainting in lonely country houses, postriders killed

at every relay, horses ridden to death on every page, dark forests,

palpitating hearts, vows, sobs, tears and kisses, skiffs in the

moonlight, nightingales in thickets, and gentlemen brave as lions

gentle as lambs, virtuous as none really is, and always ready to

shed floods of tears.(Flaubert 31.)


        Emma's already impaired reasoning and disappointing marriage

to Charles caused Emma to withdraw into reading books, she fashioning

herself a life based not in reality but in fantasy.

         Anna Karenina at the begging of Tolstoy's novel was a bright

and energetic women. When Tolstoy first introduces us to Anna she

appears as the paragon of virtue, a women in charge of her own


         He felt that he had to have another look at her- not because

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she was very beautiful not because of her elegance and unassuming

grace which was evident in her whole figure but because their was

something specially sweet and tender in the expression of her lovely

face as she passed him. (Tolstoy 76.)

        In the next chapter Anna seems to fulfill expectations Tolstoy

has aroused in the reader when she mends Dolly and Oblonskys marriage.

But Anna like Emma has a defect in her reasoning, she has an inability

to remain content with the ordinariness of her life: her marriage to

Karenin, the social festivities, and housekeeping. Anna longs to live

out the same kind of romantic vision of life that Emma also read and

fantasized about.

         Anna read and understood everything, but she found no

pleasure in reading, that is to say in following the reflection in

other people's lives. She was to eager to live herself. When she read

how a heroine of a novel nursed a sick man, she wanted to move about

the sick room with noiseless steps herself. When she read how Lady

Mary rode to hounds and teased her sister-in-law, astonishing everyone

by her daring, she would have liked to do the same. (Tolstoy 114.)

        Anna Karenina was a romantic who tried to make her fantasies a

reality. It was for this reason she had an affair with Vronsky. Like

Emma her decisions were driven by impulsiveness and when the

consequences caught up with her latter in the novel she secluded

herself from her friends, Vronsky, and even her children. Anna and

Emma both had character flaws that made them view the world as fantasy

so that when their fantasy crumbled they resorted to creating a new

fantasy by living their lives through the books they read.

         Books allowed Emma Bovary to withdraw from her deteriorating

life. They allowed her to pursue her dreams of love, affairs, and

knights; from the wreckage of her marriage with Charles. Emma's,

experience at La Vaubyessard became a source of absurd fantasy for

Emma, and ingrained in her mind that the world that the novel's she

read depicted was with in her reach.

         She devoured without skipping a word, every article about

first nights in the theater, horse races and soirees; she was

interested in the debut of every new sing, the opening of every new

shop. She new the dress of the latest fashions and the addresses of

every new tailor, the days when one went to the Bois or the Opera.

(Flaubert 55.)

        This passage shows the absolute absurdity of Emma's obsession

with reading. Emma while living in her remote French village in her

mind was living out the life of a Parisian. As Emma decisions

continued to sink her further into debt and deceit she began to live

more and more through the novels she read. Her affair with Leon was

undertaken partially to fulfill the fantasies of the novels she read.

The room she rented for her rendezvous with Leon she decorated in the

opulence that her novels bespoke, and she spent vast sums of money to

continue the fantasy the novels she read described. Emma's continued

detachment with reality made her unable to make rational decisions or

even allow her to deal with her problems. The fantasy in which she

lived made her unable to take action for herself.

         She blamed Leon for her disappointed hopes, as though he had

betrayed her; and she even wished for a catastrophe that would bring

about their separation, since she did not have the courage to take any

action herself. (Flaubert 251.)

        Finally, Emma lost all control over her life as she became

instead of the active character in the novel merely the observer of

the consequences of her actions. And like the heroines of the novels

she read she saw her only salvation would be through a dramatic

suicide. Emma's obsession with reading lead her to make decisions that

escalated her unhappiness and further paralyzed her from dealing with


         Anna Karenina like Emma Bovary turned to novels to provide an

escape from her unhappy life. Anna wracked with guilt over abandoning

Seryozha and shunned by society turned to morphine and reading to

provide a fantasy life when her own life was crumbling around her.

When Anna and Vronsky's relationship further disintegrated in the

novel Anna turned more inward. She ventured with Vronsky to Italy to

try to repair their relationship and then to a country estate. The

country estate was lavish but for Anna it was a lonely place.

         Anna devoted as much time to her appearance, even when they

had no visitors, and she read a great deal, both novels and serious

books that happened to be in fashion. She ordered all the books that

received good notices in the foreign papers and periodicals they

subscribed to and read them with the attention that is only possible

in seclusion. (Tolstoy 640.)

        Anna's relationship with Vronsky continued to crumble. But

both Anna and Vronsky were unable to take action to do anything either

to save their relationship or deal with her divorce with Karenin. Anna

like Emma became so trapped in her fantasy world she was unable to

deal with reality. Anna in the last parts of the novels watches as her

life disintegrates but she continues to take no action as she delves

into the morphine and novels that provide a palliative for reality. It

is critical to realize that both Anna and Emma are aware that they are

living in fantasy, and is precisely because they are aware of reality

that they despair and kill themselves when they see that they have in

their minds no escape from their troubles. Both Anna and Emma also

attempt to use reason to escape from their problems, "Yes I am very

troubled and reason was given to us to escape from our troubles," says

Anna Karenina. But both Anna and Emma's reason is so distorted by the

fantasy in which they live that they see little escape from life but

through death.

         Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary live out their dreams and

fantasies through reading novels which serve as palliatives for their

painful lives. Reading novels is not the primary theme in their lives

nor is it the primary reason they kill themselves. But their use of

reading as an escape from reality is critical to Anna and Emma's

characters. It is Anna and Emma's reading of novels which allows them

to abandon their husbands and pursue their fantasies both in life and

in their minds. It is reading which prevents them from using reason to

correct their troubles. It is reading which distorts their reality and

forces them to become dissatisfied and bored with the ordinary

pleasures of life. Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary are books

ironically about the dangers of reading.

Works Cited:

Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Trans. Mildred Marmur. New York: Penguin Group, 1964.

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Ed. George Gibian, second edition. W.W. Norton & Company. New York, 1995.
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