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, Chopin writes of Mr. Pontellier, “looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property…” (A, 3).2 This difference can only be deliberate—Chopin is writing not a novel but a feminist essay, the aims of which become clear when inspecting her choices in characterization and plot.
Although the novels have marked differences, the similarities between Madame Bovary and The Awakening are striking. Both protagonists fall in love with admirable young men who flee the pain and stigma of adulterous love. Both Emma and Edna, their resistance and propriety worn thin by their prior love, have affairs with cads. After having been reunited with their original loves, each woman kills herself. Chopin’s reference to Madame Bovary is even more obvious when we consider the fact that her heroine’s name is Edna, akin to Emma, Flaubert’s heroine. Edna’s father, like Emma’s, is a widower and a plantation-owner. And Edna is “fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way” (A, 24), like Emma who either ignores her daughter or lavishes attention on her. Chopin also evokes Flaubert in other ways—the opening sentence of the novel is about a parrot, like the parrot who doubles as the Holy Spirit in Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart.”...