Danger With Serving the Self in Anna Karenina and Madam Bovary
It is a classic human trait to make life more difficult than it needs to be. We live in a me-centered society and those with their focus turned inward usually generate enough drama in the world for the rest of the population. While reality shows like American Idol and America's Got Talent increase the need for money and fame, the need for more has always been around. The old adage that the grass in greener on the other side of the fence is true because it is human to think something is missing and that something will make life better. Two authors that explore this concept are Leo Tolstoy and Gustave Flaubert. In the novel, Anna Karenina, we have a wealthy woman who senses something is wrong with her life and is bent on finding out what that something is. With Madame Bovary, we see Emma, who is not wealthy but on the same path as Anna because she is not happy and longs for more. Both women think they know what they need to bring them happiness. They are like millions of other people at any give time on the planet; they seek their desires and only manage to make their lives worse. They teach us that there is certainly more to life than money because if money and social status was all one needed to be happy, Anna would be the happiest women in her day. Her unhappiness forces us to look deeper at the situation because even love and adoration is not enough, as we learn with Emma. These women are no doubt living drama-filled, self-centered lives -- lives which could be so less complicated if they stopped being so emotional -- but they illustrate the complexity of the human psyche and its apparent inability to make clear and coherent decisions all the time. Anna and Emma are simply human and their characters reveal that happiness is not as complicated as they make it out to be. The happiness they chase is fleeting while the happiness they need is within them, if they only open their eyes to it. Anna and Emma's lives are tragic because they allow society and their own selfishness to guide them down the wrong paths.
Anna and Emma never stop or slow down enough to practice Shakespeare's adage of being true to oneself. While in the beginning, giving in to selfish impulses may feel like being true to oneself, too many haphazard impulses create an individual divided and full of contradictions. Selfish is fun until it drives everyone away. Anna and Emma lived their lives successfully on the surface but underneath, they were wasting away because they had nothing in which they could believe in. Mary Ann Melfi writes that from the beginning of Ann Karenina, Anna and has a "tendency to let the outer world mold" (Melfi) her "in a way which prohibits the inner life from flowing into consciousness" (Melfi) and becoming a "motivator" (Melfi). Anna does not want things to be complicated. Emma, on the other hand, does not mind complication as long as she gets what she wants, or what she thinks she wants. Each woman does not know who she is and this is the beginning of her problems because she cannot even begin to look within to find herself. Neither can find a moral center on which to lean. At one point, Anna finds herself "terror-stricken" (432 and asks herself, "Where am I? What am I doing?" (432). She feels it is "impossible to struggle" (432) in this state. In this scene, we see how befuddled she is and this indicate that she has nothing upon which she can fall. Nowhere can she look and find the answers to these questions and nowhere can she go to relieve the anxiety she experiences. We should note this is more than confusion on Anna's part. Throughout the novel, she has moved away from who she is and this only serves to hurt her because she cannot find peace. Her fatal mistake is not attempting to find any kind of inner peace to find solace. Instead, she divorces herself from any such notion and continues down the same path she has been on for years. She is detached from the world around her and "eventually she creates a delusional inner reality disconnected from her external facade, and the schism begins to generate a fault line which signals her eventual breakdown" (Melfi). She rationalizes her behavior by saying nothing. She is lying to Karenin, which leads to her lying to herself. She is not true to herself and she feels "shame" (Tolstoy 20) because of it. Her shame ultimately leads to a self-loathing she never fully recognizes for a long time. Emma, too, is not sure of who she is and who she should become. She allows herself to become titillated by fantasies. Her shallowness coupled with unhappiness leads her to think that an affair will somehow improve her life. She is like Anna in that she thinks the immediate pleasures in her life will eradicate the emptiness she feels. Emma does not have the same choices as Anna does because of her socio-economic situation, but seeing the two women side by side reveal that money does not buy happiness. Emma sees her affair as a way to move up in society. She associates it with sophistication and she exclaims, "I have a lover!" (163). We can see what Emma does not and that is the fact that she has only complicated her life with false expectations and ridiculous fantasies. Truth begins on the inside and these women make the grave error of looking to the outside to find out who they are.
Anna and Emma are tragically impulsive. Interestingly, while impulsiveness might seem exciting and thrilling at the onset, it generally leads to future discontent. Anna suffered from more unhappiness despite the fact that she was supposed to be happier. She deliberately removes herself from her past, thinking this will ease her mind and improve her life somehow. We read that she was instead "horrified at herself, her utter insurmountable callousness to all her own past, to things, to habits, to the people she had loved, who loved her" (282). This is what Anna faces every day -- whether or not she admits it to anyone or even herself, this thing sits planted in her mind, deep in the recesses of her unconscious. Anna's impulses guide her to revel in her past, a choice that leaves her detached from the world. Anna never looks back, but she "resides in terror" (Melfi). Greater impulses lead Anna to more obsessive behavior and "with the aid of morphine, becomes driven, her monolithic, external concern dominating her mind" (Melfi). Emma's tragedy stems from the fact that she wants more than what society will allow her to have but even larger than that is the fact that she thinks this can actually bring her happiness. Her tragedy is two-fold because she believes her own lies. She follows impulses thinking they are intuition, making her situation even more unbearable. While Emma's society was a bit Puritanical in its attitude toward Emma, as seen when Madame Tuvache says Emma is "compromising herself" (104), Emma is still creating many of her own problems. Like many with her problem, she is determined to keep doing the same thing she has always done, with no hope of ever changing what distresses her most about her life. She will never stop following her impulses because they are the only things that bring her a temporary reprieve from her life. These women place too much hope and faith in a "system" that would make good Oprah fodder. Emotionally-driven choices rarely ever lead to long-lasting contented situations.
Both characters lived in their own constructed reality. While they still have their tangible worlds around them, these women have allowed their minds to create an altered reality in their minds. Anna looses her grip on reality more and more. She becomes so disconnected with herself and the world around her that she hardly recognizes herself in a mirror. Melfi writes Anna has been "going out of her mind the whole novel rather than into it" (Melfi). She never wants to be alone with her thoughts because of what she might discover and the thought of that is simply too much for her to bear. She admits, "I don't know myself. I only know my appetites" (Tolstoy 324). One of Emma's problems is her delusion with love and romance for most of her life. She wants to know what the words "bliss, passion, ecstasy, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books," (34) could mean to her in real life. She is almost immediately discontented with her marriage because the happiness she fantasized about did not arrive after nuptials. This emotion she felt toward Charles was simply not enough because it was not…