In service to this "religion," she is expected to offer her entire self. Ultimately, although unintentionally, she quite literally gives her life in this servitude.
In The Awakening, religion also plays an important role in the female self-concept. Adele for example specifically refers to the Bible when attempting to convince Edna of the merits of self-sacrifice for husband and children. However, it is also true that Adele has no concept of the inner self and therefore experiences no sense of sacrifice when denying her own desires in favor of those her family may have.
In this way, the religious force, and particularly Christianity, serves as an oppressive power, in contrast to the force of freedom it claims to be. Religion can also be seen from a wider point-of-view when considered in terms of the authors' intention in both respective cases. Jason Hartford (435) for example consider religion in terms of Flaubert's views on Christianity. While he notes that critics have tended to use Madam Bovary as indicative of Flaubert's derision of organized Christianity at the time, Hartford also indicates that the novel was far more than simply a denial of the Christian God in favor of the author as deity. Instead, the author holds that Flaubert addresses the realities of life for women, as imposed by the social constructs of family and religion or church as representative of faith. For women of the time, faith represented the ultimate oppressive construct. The authority behind religion was not something that could be overthrown, which could be seen as one of the reasons why death was seen as the ultimate escape from the oppression that Edna and Emma respectively suffered.
Holder-Salmon and Chopin (138) offer a further possibility for religion in terms of Edna's development in The Awakening. The authors note that both organized religion and the social construct of family was based on the patriarchal paradigm. Hence, for a woman to escape these constructs was to develop not only personally, but also spiritually. For Edna, this was symbolized as descent from her material well-being to live in a cottage rather than her husband's lavish home. Here, she had the sense of spiritual development even as she obtained some freedom from the oppression of her class.
This dual oppression of class and religion is also symbolized by the construct of slavery; en element that was by exclusion part of high-class living. According to Holder-Salmon and Chopin (138), the domestic work provided by nursemaids, cooks, launderers and other servants were the basis of life in the Creole landscape, of which Edna could never quite be part. The servant women then symbolize not only the oppression of the internal self, but also of the external self in terms of racial oppression. In subtle terms, Chopin then uses racism as symbolic of the invisible female self. This self is as important to Edna as racial servitude was to the Creole lifestyle; the need to oppress it led inevitably to the destruction of the physical self in the interest of a moment of freedom prior to physical death.
Clothing is also particularly symbolic of the oppression of the female self during the time of the respective novels. Emma's wedding gown has been mentioned above as the final irony of her oppression. Even in death, she suffered the oppression of clothing and the symbolism attached to it. The wedding gown was symbolic of premarital virginity and marital devotion to family and children. Emma was unable to escape this, despite the attempts throughout her life, and at the end of it.
The Awakening includes very detailed descriptions of the restrictive clothing of the time. According to Holder-Salmon and Chopin (139), the clothing were closely connected to the idea of the cage as restricting the female spirit, even as the clothing restricts the female body. Indeed, according to the authors, the clothing was not only uncomfortable, making natural movement difficult, but could also result in severe health problems such as childbirth complications and lung disease. This relates to the symbolism of the wedding gown in Madame Bovary. The physical form of the dress related to the destruction of spiritual oppression throughout the novel.
Another multi-dimensional symbol of oppression in Flaubert's novel is the garden (Dauner 3). As Madame Bovary, tending the garden was one of the duties expected of Emma, but for which she also had no passion. Like the slave women in The Awakening, the garden serves as symbolic in the oppression of living entities. The garden served to manipulate nature for the service of upper-class life. Like Edna's use of servants to help her with her household chores, Emma tended the garden only because it was expected of her by society.
According to Dauner (4), the image of the garden in Flaubert's novel is constructed in terms of the Indo-European meaning -- an enclosure to cultivate useful plants. It is both fertile and productive, as a marriage is meant to be, but entirely without the freedom to grow as it pleases. It is not allowed the freedom to express the limits of its being; and is entirely subject to the requirements of those who tend it. In the same way, Madame Bovary is cultivated, since childhood, to conform to the requirements of her society. All this careful cultivation however results in her departure from the norm and her ultimate death. It is only in death that society is able to accept her back into its conformity once more.
The naturalistic image of the garden in this novel can then also be contrasted with the image of the ocean in The Awakening. The ocean is unrestricted, free, and unconforming. In terms of symbolism, Edna could hardly choose a more appropriate death for herself. She enters the ultimate freedom in the form of the ocean, and constructs for herself, at least for a while, a life that is completely unrestricted from either physical or spiritual oppression. In this way, a physical removal from the restrictions of society and life provides for Edna the ultimate freedom of her soul. Although Emma never achieves this level of freedom, she does escape the torments of her life in death.
The imagery of the garden is further highlighted in terms of its religious connotation. Dauner (4) for example notes that there are two religious connotations with the garden; the Garden of Eden and the Garden of Gethsemane. The former symbolizes both innocence and the human fall from this innocence, while the latter symbolizes betrayal. Emma experiences her marriage as a fall from innocence. The romance of marriage is betrayed by Emma's unfaithfulness and her final act of suicide. The fresh beginning of marriage denotes not more than the decay of ultimate betrayal.
Emma herself has also experienced her entire life as a betrayal, as symbolized by Gethsemane. Society betrays her by expecting her to fulfill a role that she is not created for. She betrays herself by attempting to fulfill this role. She also betrays her marriage first by unfaithfulness and then by her own death.
Betrayal is also a theme that can be seen in The Awakening. Edna's desire for a man other than her husband is an act of betrayal of the marriage, and also of the expectations of society. For both Edna and Emma, this betrayal is mutual: society betrays them, while they reciprocate by a betrayal of their own. Edna completes this betrayal more successfully than Emma, by giving herself to the ocean, while Emma completes her betrayal by removing herself finally and completely from society as a whole.
When applying these novels in terms of their relevance for the world today, it is possible to even today find some meaning in their central message. While women and minorities are no longer oppressed in quite the same way as depicted by the novels, oppression remains a reality of life. This is especially so in terms of expected social roles and religion.
In terms of social roles, women are still very much expected to fulfill certain roles and paradigms in society. Although no longer specifically educated for these roles, the subtle oppression remains depicted by the media and gender expectations. Women today are for example expected to enjoy both family and professional life. Most advertisements and films depict women as the primary caretakers of children, even while fulfilling professional roles. In society, women of a certain age who have not married are looked upon as a little dysfunctional at best. Most women past the age of 30 or 35 are indeed expected to be at least married, if not with children. The role of men are much less restrictive, with fatherhood and marriage being non-obligatory options and professionalism the main definer of male accomplishment.
This places even greater strain on the female self than the oppressions depicted in the novels. Posing as freedom, the redefined role of the woman in society today is simply more demanding, with a lack of success in any area viewed as a lack of success…