The Influence of Reading on Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary
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 downfall.
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.)Footnote1
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 destiny.
He felt that he had to have another look at her- not because 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.)Footnote2
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 reality.
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.
Flaubert, Gustave. MADAME BOVARY. trans. Lowell Bair. New York: Bantam Books, 1972
Tolstoy, Leo. ANNA KARENINA. trans. David Magarshack. New York: Signet Classic, 1961.