Oppression of characters is usually fuelled by external causes. In the case of Madame Bovary and Middlemarch, external causes like gender norms result in the oppression of women. In Madame Bovary, society's expectations of a wifely figure restricts Emma's desire to climb the social ladder. In Middlemarch, the dogmas about female intellectual abilities propagated by characters like Lydgate and Casaubon hinder Dorothea's ability to become an intellectual within society. Critic Howard Kushner writes that “ideology... emphasized women as mothers and guardians of the family” (Kushner 1). This quote draws the parameters of what a woman was expected to be in the Victorian era, clearly emphasizing the limitations put in place for womenkind. Exploring the characters in Madame Bovary and Middlemarch offers insight into female oppression in Victorian society.
Society's Oppression of Madame Bovary
Madame Bovary offers a scathing indictment of the oppression of females in the nineteenth century. Emma Bovary's life is used as an example to illustrate how women's lives were circumscribed and dictated to by the men surrounding them. Emma is presented as an average woman with fantasies of love and luxury in her heart. These fantasies are never fulfilled due to her early marriage (dictated by her father) and her middle-class lifestyle (dictated by her husband). Her dreams are trapped between the wills of the two men in her life and though she tries, in her own way, to break free from them, she does not find fulfilment in her life, leading to her eventual unhappiness and demise.
It is important to note the title of the novel, Madame Bovary. The title is dissociative, shadowing the character in a lack of identity. From the title, the reader can glean one thing: that the lady is married to a man named Bovary. We are not privy to her first name, highlighting the insignificance of it as compared to her married name. The embedded message is that her marriage to Bovary represents her identity. She is expected by society to behave in a certain manner that befits her station of wife and mother, hence losing the individual identity she possessed. Despite the fact that the novel is about her, her identity via marriage is of primary importance and her true identity (including her first name) is forcibly removed from the title. The lack of individual identity reflects the patriarchal ideal of a woman solely as a wife and mother in the nineteenth century. As such, the title itself is the first instance of oppression in Madame Bovary.
It is also noteworthy that despite having a novel entitled Madame Bovary, the plot begins with an in-depth look at Charles Bovary's backstory. Even in her own novel, Emma takes second place to the man in her life. This narrative frame (Emma's life story being prefaced by a man's) serves to foreshadow the significance of male control in Emma's future relationships with men. The narrative frame is also Flaubert's way of...