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The presentation of women in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) is one of the principal informatives of the novels. Clearly, the presentation of women in each case is influenced by the authorial directive which drove the novels and certainly the gender related issues can be seen to be connected to this. In addition, the structural imperative of the narrative voice invites a specific perception of the women which is only essentially revealed when the text is examined closely, particularly in terms of contrast and comparison.
In both the novels to be discussed here, the central protagonist is female and events are arranged around a woman’s life and struggles in a society designed by men for the convenience of men. Also, the books each have an eponymous heroine which invites the initial perception that the entire narrative is to be fundamentally built upon a female centre of consciousness (though Flaubert, in common with many critics, thought the novel guilty of ‘faulty perspective’, partly because of this, perhaps). However, this must be qualified by the interaction with other female characters which each novelist uses both to develop the plot and intensify the reader’s understanding of the titular heroine’s actions in each case.
Both novels also present images of women who in different ways either reflect or challenge perceived notions of how women should behave in contemporary society. Indeed, it might be said that each of these books question the basis upon which fundamental mores of the era were based and deviated from accepted moral standards. Perhaps because the chief agents of this in both novels are women, the books were thought even more outrageous than might otherwise have been the case though ‘stereotypes and prejudices have at least some positive aspects’ even if only in their repudiation.
However, though Brontë’s novel opens by establishing a deeply disturbing matriarchal environment which does little to challenge the idea of the stereotypical ‘wicked-stepmother’, in the person of Jane’s reluctant guardian, her aunt, Mrs Reed, by whom she is degraded in a home where the child is ‘less than a servant’, it nevertheless gives the author, through Jane, the opportunity to intimate that the roots of an inner-strength and self-reliance which are to be so important to her in the future are imbedded in her childhood trials. The inevitable inference, perpetuated by the fact that a considerable amount of Jane’s suffering is inflicted by women, is that cruelty in some sense straitens the character. Moreover, the embryonic woman may be perceived in Jane’s acceptance of this treatment:
This reproach of my dependence had become a vague sing-song in my ear; very painful and crushing, but only half intelligible.
Jane’s subsequent subjugation, both as a pupil at Lowood School and in her position as a governess, the ultimate ‘non-persona’ of nineteenth century female existence and one of which the author had personal experience, may be seen to be endured with extraordinary patience because of these early insults. Indeed, Brontë wrote the character of Jane to be ‘plain, small, and unattractive, in defiance of the accepted canon’ and like herself, in fact, so her women are inevitably influenced by this directive: ‘Why was I always suffering, always browbeaten, always accused, for ever condemned? Why could I never please?’ This desire to ‘please’ is quite definitely connected here with the female stereotype which to some extent Jane’s later behaviour negates. Thus, Brontë’s portrayal of the female child is, to invert Wordsworth, ‘mother of the woman’ for the injustice of her treatment is forcibly emphasised, as it is later at Lowood (the cruelty of which was autobiographical as two of Brontë’s sisters died at a school very similar to it). It is crucial that Jane’s sufferings should be seen to be inflicted by women, for as Jane says, ‘I doubted not-never doubted—that if Mr. Reed had been alive he would have treated me kindly’. Clearly, the author’s directive is to display how very different is the cruelty of women inflicted upon their own sex from that of men who, like Rochester, involve a sexually charged sadistic element in their cruelty towards women.
Flaubert’s novel creates rather a different consciousness, however, and the directive for this is possibly created by the passion of the novel, which was for a time banned in France on the grounds of obscenity. Emma Bovary, unlike Jane Eyre, is driven less by the sense of injustice brought about by her familial circumstances than her desire for a more passionate existence than her husband, the mediocre doctor Bovary, can provide. In a sense, she is the antithesis of Jane, since she longs not for a simple existence with a loving husband, that she has, but for a life of which she has read in romantic fiction, symbolised by her desire for ‘a marriage at midnight by the light of torches’ (though this has been shown to be also a custom rather than an idiosyncratic whim). Emma is, from the first, presented sensually: ‘she shivered as she ate, thereby causing her rather full lips, which, in moments of silence, she was in the habit of biting, to fall slightly apart.’ Anticipating Hardy’s description of Tess eating a strawberry offered by her seducer, Flaubert focuses the attention of the reader immediately upon Emma’s mouth, slightly open, in an unconsciously provocative attitude. In this, she is very different from Jane, who is presented as demure to the point of austerity, perpetually dressed in dark clothes, partly due to her situation but also, the reader might infer, due to a repressed self-image. (Interestingly, Flaubert often dresses Emma in blue, with varying numbers of flounces; this would be recognisable in the Catholic France as the colour traditionally associated with the Virgin Mary.)
Nowhere is this more evident than when she is compelled by Rochester to attend an evening party at Thornfield and we see her juxtaposed with the flirtatious Blanche Ingram and the party who, dressed in white ‘flock’ into the drawing room like ‘white plumy birds’ in stark contrast to the soberly dressed Jane, all in grey. The women speak in an ‘habitual’ way, indicating that it is both natural and practised: a register of opposite inflection which suggests the elaborately artificial, indicative of their representation, via Jane’s perspective, at least, and since Jane’s voice is that of the book, that is the view we are invited to share. As she says, ‘Miss Ingram […] was self-conscious— remarkably self-conscious indeed’. Brontë’s employment of the term ‘self-conscious’ is interesting since it encapsulates, in the two meanings of the term, the difference between Blanche and Jane. Blanche is conscious of herself as a vain exposition but Jane is self-conscious in terms of abnegation. Significantly, at this point, the narrative register switches, to present the scene as if Jane is watching it: ‘I sit in the shade—if any shade there be in this brilliantly-lit apartment; the window-curtain half hides me’. (Apparently Charlotte was also self-effacing at parties, where she would hide behind the curtains in order to be both present and not so.) The author thus employs a dual vicariousness of experience, since she is speaking autobiographically behind the veil of Jane who is now watching herself in a recalled reactive, ‘I might gaze without being observed’ as she remarks. The women’s conversation is at best indiscreet and at worst cruel, as they discourse on the nature of governesses, ‘the whole tribe’, almost as one might of a separate and inferior species of being which they undoubtedly believe to be true, in common with most of the aristocracy of the time. Moreover, they speak of an ‘immoral tendency’ which they believe to be present in the governess and the entire lack of privacy which attaches to the position. Charlotte had experienced this herself, no doubt, in her life as a governess, belonging neither upstairs nor downstairs and loathed by servants and masters alike. The Ingram party are representative of women who subjugate others of their sex within the class conscious society in which the novel operates, and by showing them as vain and shallow as well as unkind, Brontë invites the reader to infer that their judgements are likewise via an intimate distancing.
It is interesting to compare this behaviour of Jane’s with that of Emma Bovary at a ball. Far from wishing to hide herself, Emma longs both to see and be seen on a larger stage than that of the ‘country town’ of the title:
Emma’s heart gave a faint flutter as she stood in the line of dancers, her partner’s fingers lightly laid upon her arm, waiting for the first stroke of the fiddler’s bow to give the signal for starting. But very soon her emotion vanished. Moving to the rhythm of the orchestra, she swam forward with a gentle undulation of the neck. A smile showed upon her lips at certain tender passages on the violin, when, now and again, it played alone and the other instruments were hushed. The sound of gold coins chinking on the baize surfaces of card-tables was clearly audible. Then, with a crash of brass, the music would once more strike up loudly. Feet took up the measure, skirts swelled, swishing as they touched one another, hands were given and withdrawn, eyes, downcast a moment before, were raised again in silent colloquy.
This intense sensuousness follows Emma’s mockery of her husband’s desire to dance and it is clear that she wishes to enjoy this experience in solitude though not of course in isolation. She desires her husband’s absence and thus Flaubert separates the passionate Emma from the practical one. There is a danger and excitement here for which Emma longs and which is represented not only in the ‘silent colloqu[ies]’ but also in the ‘chinking’ of the ‘gold coins’ at the card tables. Flaubert foreshadows Emma’s own risk-taking here as she is thrilled by the intensity of the atmosphere in a way that Jane most decidedly is not. Further, Emma’s feelings are present in the way in which the author describes Emma’s points d’apuis involving the reader in her sensuality as ‘she swam forward with a gentle undulation of the neck’. How different is this subliminal image of the swan from that rendered by Jane? Moreover, Flaubert’s intense desire for verisimilitude will not allow for the shadowy and duplicitous register of the faux autobiographical first person narrative which Brontë adopts, and which was imitated by such notable authors as Dickens in David Copperfield (1850) and therefore attempts to present Emma as both fragile and strong, flippant and serious, a fully rounded woman, in fact, having her feet firmly on the ground in some areas but hopelessly romantic in others:
Sometimes she sketched, and Charles found much delight in standing at her side, watching her bend above her drawing-board, half closing her eyes the better to judge the effect of her work, or rolling little pellets of bread between finger and thumb. The quicker her hands moved when she played the piano, the greater his surprise. She struck the notes with a sure touch, and could run down the keyboard from treble to bass without a moment’s pause. […] But there was another side to Emma. She knew how to run her house. […] Because of all this the consideration shown to Bovary increased. 
It is important that Bovary ‘came to value himself the more highly for possessing such a wife’ as he thus inverts the received notion that a woman’s status derived from her husband, not the reverse. ’The difference within writing is then coextensive with the difference between the sexes’ and for the essence of mediocrity, Charles Bovary, the gifted, artistic yet apparently level-headed Emma, is the equivalent of a modern day trophy wife. Therefore, when he is betrayed by her infidelities the pain is all the greater. Marriage was the principle duty of both men and women in the centuries up to and including the nineteenth and after, and the marital state, as well as deviations from it, drives the narrative throughout both novels. Emma is highly regarded not just because she is beautiful and artistic but because she can adequately fulfil what society expects of a wife. Further, it is reasonable to assume that the latter approbation would be principally granted by the provincial matrons who will later disapprove so strongly of her behaviour. Thus, Flaubert exposes both the inherent hypocrisy of the society and the restrictive expectations of the role of a wife. Both parties to such a union are ultimately unhappy and Flaubert at least offers a reason for Emma’s behaviour by means of emphasising her husband’s mediocrity:
Had Charles but shown the will to listen, had he but suspected the movement of her thoughts, or seen but once into her mind, her heart would, she felt, suddenly have released all its wealth of feeling, as apples fall in profusion from a shaken tree. But as their lives took on a greater intimacy, so did detachment grow within her mind and loose the bonds which bound them.
Analysis of a translated text is always problematic but the semantic field is so apparent here that it is possible to comment on the text with some degree of accuracy. Clearly, what drives this damning description of Charles is the fact that he manifestly has a choice; it is as if he makes no effort towards understanding his wife and thus the ‘intimacy’ which might have been is displaced by ‘detachment’. Moreover, the idea that they are ‘bound’ by their respective postures impacts upon the metaphorical rendering of the passion contained within Emma. Similarly, the repressed passion of Jane cannot be released until Rochester has in a sense been emasculated so that he needs Jane and understands her need to have an existence of her own without entrapment.
This picture of woman as imprisoned within both body and soul by the propriety of a fundamentally hypocritical society is literally true of Rochester’s ‘mad’ wife, Bertha Mason. Perhaps because of the tendency to focus upon Jane and Rochester’s romance, the plight of Bertha is rarely examined and she is confined to a Gothic stereotype which reflects Charlotte’s reading, as does the Byronic Rochester, but leaves little room for a sympathetic reading of the woman’s existence. She is simply presented as an impediment derived from an entrapment in Rochester’s youth:
Mr. Rochester flung me behind him: the lunatic sprang and grappled his throat viciously, and laid her teeth to his cheek: they struggled. She was a big woman, in statue almost equalling her husband, and corpulent besides: she showed virile force in the contest—more than once she almost throttled him, athletic as he was. […]”That is my wife,” said he. “Such is the sole conjugal embrace I am ever to know—such are the endearments which are to solace my leisure hours! And this is what wished to have” (laying his hand on my shoulder): “this young girl, who stands so grave and quiet at the mouth of hell, looking collectedly at the gambols of a demon. I wanted her just as a change after that fierce ragout. Wood and Briggs, look at the difference! Compare these clear eyes with the red balls yonder—this face with that mask—this form with that bulk; then judge me, priest of the gospel and man of the law, and remember, with what judgment ye judge ye shall be judged!”
Mrs. Rochester is accorded no dignity either by her husband or Jane, indeed the terms of address attached to her are those of ‘lunatic’, ‘demon’ and the entirely divorced from human delineation of the ‘fierce ragout’. Brontë betrays her own lack of compassion here, as she distances the reader from any possibility of empathy by making Bertha appears as a monster, ‘big’ and ‘corpulent’, inhuman, in fact. She intriguingly applies the adjective ‘virile’ to the woman, too, and thereby invites an animalistic sexuality which has, in fact, the reader is led to believe caused Rochester to marry her in the first place, unaware of her family’s genetic tendency towards insanity. Moreover, by using a direct comparative with Jane, Brontë subliminally and possibly unconsciously, suggests a debasement of the female sex in Rochester’s terminology. Both women are referred to as objects, ‘this’ and ‘that’, and their comparative merits highlighted in a detached and oddly disconcerting way. In addition, his language is unpleasantly possessive, ‘that is what I wished to have’. Finally, he appeals the justice of his case to God, suggesting that his attitude is correct, even under Divine examination, disparagingly referring to both the ‘priest of the gospel and man of the law’. So effective is the author’s manipulation of this that the reader, as is undoubtedly the intent, forgets the inherent immorality and cruelty which all those present display. In this sense, the novel is guilty of corrupting the reader’s moral sensibility since it invites a faulty and amoral judgement based upon the romantic imperative the novelist pursues. The fact that Bertha is a woman, not an alien being, does not appear to enter the collective consciousness, here. Sexuality is inextricably bound up with the image of ‘the lunatic’, here, as Rochester speaks of the ‘conjugal embrace’ to which he is tied. It is clear to see, then, that for this author, the sexual drive has within it a link to a kind of wildness which sits uneasily with the image of the ‘grave and quiet’ Miss Eyre, especially since Bertha tears Jane’s wedding veil on the eve of the proposed bigamous marriage, a Freudian symbol, perhaps, of the virginal bride’s impending sexual ‘violation’. Even Bertha’s imprisonment may be likened to the earlier entrapment of Jane in ‘the red room’, itself a Gothic interlude and teeming with female sexual symbolism.
It is no accident that when she leaves Thornfield, Jane recovers, after an indeterminate and somewhat wayward and directionless journey in the abode of the seemingly asexual St. John Rivers and his sisters, Diana and Mary. It is later revealed that these women are related to Jane and they are like her, even to the extent of both being governesses. They are, of course, delivered to the reader as positive images, as was Miss Temple her role-model at Lowood, and the antithesis of the artificiality of Blanche and the animalistic Bertha. The fact that Jane is literally removed from her previous existence with all its inherent passion to the quietude of a parsonage says much about the didactic split in the presentation of women within Jane Eyre. Certainly, the author is keen to connect love with a kind of sanctity and passion is somewhat marginalised into areas which have significantly dark connectives. The well-read and steadily sympathetic sisters have little in common with the women Jane has encountered at Thornfield and indeed, even St. John himself seems insipid when compared to Rochester, thus the author’s ambivalence towards female sexuality is fundamentally present in the juxtaposition of the images of the female which are the inverse connectives between the world of Thornfield and that of the Rivers family. It may be remarked, in fact, that Jane disapproves even of the affectations of Adele, the child of a woman with whom Rochester has had a sexual relationship though he is not Adele’s father. Thus, even the innocence of the child appears to be tainted, in the author’s mind (since Jane is her centre of consciousness), by her mother’s sexually promiscuous past.
This idea of female sexuality identifies much of the imperative behind Flaubert’s novel, with his central character suffering a restricted life which we infer to be as unfulfilling sexually as it is temperamentally. Emma and Charles Bovary form an ill-matched couple but their respective discontentment stems from an intrinsic disparity that relates to more than their different aims and desires. In fact, the novel has been called ‘the tragedy of dreams’ and this is indeed an apt description. Flaubert created in Emma the tragedy of a woman both awakened and doomed by passion:
Pleasure and pain metamorphose into each other. Innocence is unmasked and altered by corruption. In Madame Bovary, following the disappointment of her marriage, these changes occur in Emma because of Rodolphe. Flaubert’s corrosive irony in the narrative treatment of his characters does not lessen the pain of love or the lyrical power of Emma’s erotic awakening.
Emma is, then, an inverse of Jane, since her life is thwarted by marriage whereas Jane’s is fulfilled by it. In part, this is due to the nature of the narrative because Emma is not in love with Charles as Jane undoubtedly is with Rochester. There is an interesting irony, though, in that Brontë’s novel is born of her reading whereas Flaubert depicts his heroine as in part destroyed by the romantic dreams which have emanated from hers:
In the days before her marriage she had fancied that she was in love. But the happiness love should have brought her did not come. She must, she thought, have been mistaken, and set herself to discover what it was that people in real life meant by such words as ‘bliss’, ‘passion’ and ‘intoxication’–words, all of them, which she had thought so fine when she read them in books.
Flaubert was of the ‘realist’ school and by producing a heroine corrupted by the romances with which she had been indoctrinated, he emphasises the difference between a woman’s life in reality and as lived vicariously in the projected images of female enchantment to which Emma here refers. Moreover, Flaubert foreshadows Emma’s ultimate tragedy by the ominous words, ‘[she] set herself to discover what it was that people in real life meant by such words as ‘bliss’, ‘passion’ and ‘intoxication’’. Emma’s innate passion for romantic love is revealed as a childhood sensibility and therefore basic to her. She has been educated in a convent (which Charlotte with her anti-Catholic prejudices would have found appalling in itself) but even there she sees the ‘metaphors of affianced lover, husband, divine wooer and eternal marriage, which were for ever recurring in the sermons that she heard, [and that] moved her heart with an unexpected sweetness’. By juxtaposing love, marriage and religion, Flaubert again invites a religious connective with Emma herself. As was noted earlier, he often dresses her in the blue of the ‘Blessed Virgin’ and here he is quite provocatively bringing together, in Emma, the twin images of woman in the nineteenth century collective consciousness as either ‘Madonna’ or ‘whore’.
In addition to her fictionalised pictures of love drawn from books and religion, Emma is influenced by the stories of an ‘old maid’ who visits the convent and because she belongs ‘to an old family of gentlefolk ruined by the Revolution’ she ‘enjoyed the special favour of the archbishop’ and was almost part of the convent, privileged to eat with the nuns. This reveals much about the class-consciousness of nineteenth century France as well as the perception of women, since the archbishop controls not only the nuns but also who may be thought worthy to consort with them. Ironically, this old lady sings to the girls ‘love songs of the previous century’ and:
[…] told stories, brought news of the outside world, executed small commissions in the town, and secretly lent to the older girls one or other of the novels that she carried in the pockets of her apron, and that she herself devoured in the intervals of labour. They were concerned only with affairs of the heart, with lovers and their lasses, with persecuted damsels for ever swooning in solitary pavilions, with outriders meeting a violent death on every journey, and horses foundering on every page, with dark forests and agonies of sentiment, with vows, sobs, tears and kisses, with moonlit gondolas, with groves and nightingales, with cavaliers who were always brave as lions, gentle as lambs, and virtuous as real men never are, always elegantly dressed and given to weeping with the copious fluency of stone fountains.
Again, Flaubert the realist presents a tongue in cheek picture of the ‘positive’ images for girls selected by the church, since the old maid of whom the archbishop thinks so highly is potentially dangerous. She also enters into secret negotiations with the girls and bridges the protective gap between the convent and the outside world and fills their heads, as she does her own, with images straight out of Gothic Romance. Flaubert also emphasises that the heroes in these stories are ‘virtuous as real men never are’, which foreshadows Emma’s later tragic romances with men as they actually are.
Thus, Flaubert brilliantly involves the reader in a broad sweep of society’s image of women and the external influences which encroach upon them despite the best efforts of enclosure perpetrated by the patriarchal society in which the novel operates. In many ways, Emma’s future self is determined by her childhood as much as is that of Jane. When Emma is eventually ‘in love’ she is betrayed and because of this she is doomed since she has so inveterately been schooled in the expectations of the romantic novel. Through Emma, then, Flaubert is able to develop the theme of a reactive against a genre of which he powerfully disapproved.
A further, deeply Freudian, image of women is produced via Charles’ relationship with his mother. This controlling woman has arranged her son’s first marriage, by which she never feels threatened, but is much less secure as ‘her son’s favourite’ now that he has Emma in his life:
Charles’s love for Emma seemed to her like an act of treachery to her affection, a trespassing on ground which was hers by right.
This bizarre connective of displacement, with all its psychoanalytical implications, has resonance later when Emma, uninterested in her daughter, Berthe, for a long time suddenly becomes maternal following rejection by her lover. In this way, Flaubert once again examines the nature of the connective between the images of womanhood commonly represented in contemporary society. In addition, he examines the corrupting influence of the over-bearing mother, who ‘remind[s] him of her pains and sacrifices on his behalf’ and Charles is caught in the all too familiar trap, even today, of wanting both to honour his mother and please his wife:
Charles did not know how to answer these outbursts. He respected his mother but was deeply in love with his wife. He held the former’s judgement to be impeccable, yet found the latter beyond reproach.
The extraordinary contemporaneousness of this dilemma emphasises the fact that perhaps Flaubert’s novel holds up better than the more popular Jane Eyre with its outdated mores and Gothic imagery. Perhaps this preference is, in fact, an enduring symbol of a generic resistance to the ‘real’ in the novel and the fact that women remain largely the readers of such fiction as Charlotte’s rather than Flaubert’s is indicative of an inherent, if politically incorrect, desire in the female to seek romance.
The women in both of these novels stand against what society expects of them but the very different nature of their stance is represented powerfully by their contrasting endings: Jane Eyre becomes the happy wife whilst Emma Bovary commits suicide. Tracing these endings gives an indicator of society’s perceived apprehensions of a woman’s role and the individual author’s widely different directives.
However, there is no simplicity to this as Jane’s resolution is gained only by means of the ‘diminishment’ of Rochester; she has to become his nurse, as she was once his comfort and refuge, before she can become his wife:
The caged eagle, whose gold-ringed eyes cruelty has extinguished, might look as looked that sightless Samson. And, reader, do you think I feared him in his blind ferocity?—if you do, you little know me. A soft hope blent with my sorrow that soon I should dare to drop a kiss on that brow of rock, and on those lips so sternly sealed beneath it: but not yet. I would not accost him yet.
Rochester is portrayed here as the Byronic hero sufficiently reduced in status as to make it possible that Jane can be his ‘equal’, it is almost as if Brontë somehow feels that the dynamic presence of Rochester would itself be reduced if he were not in some way diminished in order to marry her. Thus, the novelist’s own perceptions come under scrutiny since there is a clear ambivalence in a woman who seems throughout her semi-autobiographical and intensely personal novel to promote an image of a woman who can stand alone but who subliminally, perhaps, becomes a reductive image in her marriage. Addressing the reader directly, as she does when she famously declares that she married Rochester, Jane suggests that the reader does not, perhaps, ‘know’ her after all.
Emma’s suicide is handled much more directly in keeping with the woman Flaubert has sought to reveal, even in death seeming both passionate and beautiful:
Emma was lying with her head on her right shoulder. The corner of her open mouth formed, as it were, a black hole in the lower part of her face. Her two thumbs were flexed inwards towards the palms of the hands. There was a powdering of what looked like white dust on her lashes, and her eyes were beginning to disappear in a viscous pallor which gave the impression that spiders had been spinning a delicate web over their surface. The sheet sagged between her breast and her knees, rising, further down, to a peak above her toes. It seemed to Charles as though some great weight, some mass of infinity, were lying upon her.
The overwhelming impression here, especially in Charles’ perspective, is that Emma is a woman crushed by her passions and surrendering to guilt, ‘a mass of infinity’, which is perhaps appropriate given the mores of the time. However, Emma is as the reader first saw her, with her mouth parted, albeit here transmuted to the ‘black hole’ which forms the ‘lower part of her face’. Is this then the inversion of her passionate nature or merely the novelist’s naturalistic rendering of a corpse? The delicacy of the description suggests a sympathetic
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