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Madam Bovary & Middlemarch
Emma and Dorothea
Considering the degree of bitter social commentary involved in the two novels in question, it seems obvious that both authors used female protagonists because the issues of the respective societies addressed would be most clearly seen from the female prospective. At the time these works were written, they would have been rejected out of hand if male protagonists had behaved as these two women did.
Even in today's world, anybody acting like Emma, with her perceptions that happiness was something others owed her and were supposed to create for her, would be considered a really selfish self-centered flake. It is not pleasant to contemplate but it is true that even today these behaviors would be more accepted in women then in men and, therefore, in a female protagonist.
In the day of Emma Bovary and Dorothea Casaubon, "gentlewomen" were expected to be ornaments. It was a time when class separation was still very important in France and England both. To be of "good family" was still more important than what a person made of themselves. To be of the class where there was an income one did not have to work for was important. It somehow conferred special quality on the recipient. People were married based as much on these finances as on any personal feelings of the bride especially.
Emma's family was apparently just at the edge of this kind of respectability and so was Charles' family. Neither one of them actually had wealth but they both had "good names." They were in a part of the gentry where one must have at least one servant. It seemed to me right from the point in of the book where the marriage between Emma and Charles took place, that she would have been a lot better off if she had needed to take care of her own home by herself. Excuse an extremely modern bias here, but she didn't even nurse her own infant. She had way too much time to do nothing, and in the doing nothing, had way too much time to convince herself that she should have had so much more. Her reading was apparently of light romance novels and this reading encouraged her to believe that all her discontent was because Charles was not handsome, gay or witty. Emma seemed to have no ability to see any shortcomings in herself and certainly didn't seem to have any way of seeing how much of her personal discontent was because of the role she was expected to play in her world. In her desperate search for happiness, she flits, running up bills that she apparently doesn't understand will have to be paid. I say she doesn't understand because Flaubert at no time shows her thinking anything about their current income and what went out every month -- there is no concept of reality.
Flaubert not only criticizes the role of women in his time and place, he also criticizes, it seems the very structure of his world. Although he seems to be part of that class Emma and Charles belong to, he seems to have little use for it and one could say he sees little use for it without too much reading between the lines. It is interesting to note his attitude towards medicine of his day, considering his father was a physician. He paints all but Charles as pompous, self-important and refusing to take responsibility for their errors. It is also obvious that they weren't real well organized because Homais practices medicine through the whole book even though he has been warned.
Flaubert also criticizes the church. That probably brought down as much of the government's wrath as Emma's adulteries did. Isn't it odd that his picture of the priest and his general attitude toward his job -- and it was just a job -- was treated like nobody ever realized before how many men went into the priesthood to get a little education and have a living that didn't require total time commitments so they could pursue their own intellectual interests. If you complete the picture with living quarters and a bit of status it made an excellent career choice for younger sons. At that time, there was not nearly the aspect of a real calling that we are familiar with today in many, many instances. It was another place for members of the same class that expected automatic livings.
Flaubert comments on the "others:" briefly on those above Emma who simply don't worry about money because they have way more than they need and then subtly, but brutally, on those below. He also offers opinions, it seems, on what it takes to survive. Look at the people who are still standing at the end of the book. Look at their actions. There is the wet nurse and her family, for all their slovenly ways; there are the various merchants that the Bovarys wind up in debt to; the piano teacher who gave Emma the bogus receipts that allow her to carry on her affair with Leon and then bills for the non-existent lessons; there is Homais who is supposedly Charles' friend but is cutting his throat financially by taking patients away from him. There are Homais, supposedly a friend and the priest who is supposedly a comforter, arguing religion and philosophy across Emma's pain-racked, dying body. Flaubert's disgust is plain even as we watch Charles dying, his innocent daughter shuffled from relative to relative, we watch the two adulterous men walk away, we watch, and we watch Homais achieve his heart's desire -- he gets a medal.
George Eliot takes the high road as far as her heroine is concerned. She is a deeply religious, socially concerned young woman who wants to do something great to alleviate suffering. Eliot is commenting on the same social class of England that Flaubert went after in France: the landed gentry who are low enough on the scale to need to count their pennies. She also comments on doctors and the church: Different church, same issues. She paints with a mostly gentler touch but her portraits are just as clear. Dorothea at first strikes our modern mind as a twit. She is so -- dedicated. Only someone who has always had enough can be so dismissive of money. Then, if one stops to consider that she is probably in her late teens/early twenties -- an age for drama and everything in black and white -- and that her social class allows her almost no freedom to express herself at all, she seems less silly and more to be pitied. This girl wants so badly to make a mark upon her world, and not just any mark, but one that will make life better for those who were not born into her situation. For all her seeming lack of common sense, she is, on some level, very aware that the only real difference between her and the freeman tenants on her uncle's farms is accident of birth. Also, she is not interested in "political solutions." She wants concrete, measurable, results: new fences, not more rhetoric.
Eliot's comments include all those around Dorothea. Celia, her younger sister, has the clear, no nonsense vision of a 60-year-old crone. Celia has mother wit. She is a character in this book who as far as I could see did no manipulating of anyone else. She was just herself and everybody could take her or leave her as they chose. She constantly tries to warn Dorothea about the situation she is getting herself into. She constantly tries to get Dorothea to try and think of herself instead of putting everyone else first. She does not share Dorothea's guilt over having been born to a certain level of wealth. Then, there are the Vincys. Rosamond who is determined she will marry someone who hasn't lived in Middlemarch all their lives, who sets her sights on the new doctor in town. That's her goal. She and her "well born" doctor seem equally ignorant about how much the lifestyle they are accustomed to will cost them. Fred, Rosamond's brother who the parents decided should go into the church -- will he, nill he. Fred has been "promised" land by an elderly neighbor. Why, I don't recall reading, but on that promise, Fred has borrowed money and now he can't repay it and every scheme he comes up with falls through. Fred has apparently completed most of his education to be a clergyman in the Anglican church but won't go and pass his exams. He knows he has no calling and apparently feels it is dishonest to be a priest if you have no interest or feel for it. The example set by Mr. Casaubon is very vivid. He is actually a pretty accurate representation of the clergy for his time. I'm not saying there were no genuinely pious, spiritual, religious priests, but there were an awful lot of them who…[continue]
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