When looking at these two works in the sense of comparison, one first must say that they are both delicately, brilliantly crafted, and they both have received at least their fair share of plaudits for the excellence they achieved in literature. They both, too, have been controversial.
Meantime, the central point of this review herein, is that Madame Bovary titillates with fascinating character developments involving sexual adventures, fantasy, with numerous trysts and - importantly - with an erotically woven narrative on fetishes. On the other hand, The Woman in White seems to titillate the reader with the prolific use of snooping, spying, to be frank, plain and unadulterated eavesdropping. Characters are often overhearing things that were not intended for them to overhear, and hence, the reader is thrust into the position of picking and choosing what to believe based on who heard whom say what about this or that.
This is not an unusual literary convention: indeed, Shakespeare's plays are chocked full of characters overhearing what others say; there is the frequent switching of identities, the complicating of relationships, the conflict caused by things said that certain ears were not supposed to hear, throughout Shakespearian drama.)
There are many examples of carnally-rich narrative in Madam Bovary - and indeed, plenty of sex and sensual allusions in The Woman in White - but the titillation factor for the person who loves hearing things that enrich his rich imagination but were not intended for him to hear.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
The narrative perspective in Madame Bovary is clearly erotic, obviously very provocative, a mere eyelash away from being sexually sordid - and of course it could be argued that it was designed by Flaubert to be made more popular by being much-discussed by readers and critics, which it has been, and will continue to be. Indeed, when a writer paints a picture of a character who receives an erotic thrill - leading to a full-blown fetish - by simply handling books, and watching tissue paper kind of glide over plates, this is literature that goes into the genre, if you will, of soft-core pornography. And meantime, let's not be fooled into ignoring the titillating aspects of this work just because it is so extraordinarily well-crafted and stylish. It's sexy. It's very sexy.
Is there any harm in that? No. But a gorgeous woman disguised in a burlap sack is still a gorgeous woman. We just have to work hard in our imaginations to get a full appreciation of her.
And, that said, this narrative is far more than simply sexy and full of fetish-laced images. Indeed, because it is so beautifully written, and delicately described, Emma's sensual fantasies and visions play a lovely symphony in the heads of readers, who are invited to paint pictures on a sexy canvas, and kick back and enjoy the ride. Tony Tanner paints a near-equally erotic picture in describing Flaubert's work.
This sensuous rising and falling of the soft white paper seems like a morphological prefiguration of the more overtly erotic risings and fallings of clothes, sheets, bodies implied or described in Emma's later sexual life" (406), Tanner writes.
And beyond the actual sensually-rich experience that Emma is having, this event with the soft white paper also illustrates her mind's ability to go back to her childhood, where she was uplifted emotionally by watching the paper; "...she is trying to recapture an experience in the flesh that originated as a sensation caused by paper," Tanner explains (406). And hence, she is attempting to find in "love" what she had enjoyed - and still enjoys - about the texture of the books.
By way of explaining that Emma's fetishes are not just the average run-of-the-mill foot fetishes one might read about in Cosmopolitan, or in Playboy, for example, Tanner launches into an esoteric narrative of his own, which is complicated, esoteric but on careful reading, not circular but rather, instructive:
The fetish need not be in any way related to a woman or indeed women in general, so that the libidinal feeling does not, as it were, slide or veer away from, or stop short of, confronting the full sexuality of the woman to arrest itself in the security of an accessory object or an unisexual part, but can attach itself directly to objects."
These Emma fetishes do not necessarily result of hard-core carnal cravings, Tanner states, if one reads between his oft-times scholarly lines. Tanner is fond of using the views of experts and scholars - notably Freud - and he allows Freud to explain the psychological definition of fetishism: "No other variation of the sexual instinct that borders on the pathological can lay so much claim to our interest as this one."
Woman in White - by Wilkie Collins
Whereas the superbly written fetishes in Madame Bovary, and her carnal capers (her habit of moving from one affair to another) sets a series of sensual and fantasy-laced tones, The Woman in White - which, according to the Introduction, "was probably the most popular novel written in England during the nineteenth century" - is steeped in a struggle to define gender, the socially improper science of eavesdropping, and an acute wrangling for who will be the authority when it comes to the institutional status quo.
The Introduction also mentions that the author, Collins, "...had been a habitue of casual sex since his teenage years," which of course was an ideal series of rehearsals for which Collins to later capture the essence of these trysts in books, and sell them like hotcakes.
The "central crime" in The Woman in White is probably not, to the average reader, what Collins himself expresses in the opening line: "This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve." Rather, it is the "recurrent acts of illicit overhearing... [e.g., eavesdropping] suggest that this novel in particular, and perhaps novels in general, are composed of deviant activities and the attempts to suppress them" (Gaylin, 2001).
Indeed, in this novel, sexy though it is, readers are to become deviants too; a reader feels like he is also listening in on conversations that he should not be allowed to listen in on. "...Eavesdropping represents the intersection of such concerns and the transgression of conventional attitudes toward them in the novel," Gaylin explains, and her argument has a lot of weight when the entire context of the ebb and flow of interaction in the novel is put under a microscope.
This particular narrative device aids in the telling of the story," Gaylin continues, "and subtly comments on the story being told and its ideological implications." She goes on: "[Eavesdropping is] the usurpation of other people's private information for one's own ends, suggest the unsanctioned transfer and use of narrative information from speaking subject to listener, and from writer to reader within a text."
All writing in Woman in White "...falls in the public domain; private notes, letters, and diaries are subject to constant interception and circulation among a larger audience than the one for which they were intended," Gaylin asserts.
And so, while Madame Bovary is written, it would appear, in large part to entertain through sensual excitement; while Madame Bovary is constructed in order to titillate, based on fetish, fantasy, and downright sexy stylistic images, The Woman in White titillates in a more scheming, conniving way.
But "as individual characters eavesdrop upon each other and determine what pieced of information are relevant to them,"
Ironically, the art of eavesdropping, when conducted to perfection, is a well-kept secret; and in this story just as formidable as one of the novel's best-kept secrets, is that in fact that the central narrator,…