Bovary vs Karenina

20 Oct

Madame Bovary  and Anna Karenina

Go ahead.  Google the titles together.
I’m not the only one thinking about how the two novels compare.  There are papers, essays, articles, and message boards that consider the similarities and differences of these two classics.

What’s the tie?  Adultery.  Two women sadly, oh, so wrongly, thought that an extramarital affair would bring them happiness.

We could talk about the main characters: Emma and Anna.

We could talk about the husbands: Charles and Alexey.

We could talk about the lovers: Leon, Rodolphe, and Alexey.

We could talk about the children: Berthe, Seryozha, and Anna.

We could talk about social class: lower-middle class and upper class.

We could talk about the authors: Flaubert and Tolstoy.

The list could, and does, go on and on.

I’m sure literary experts have dissected the two books from cover to cover.

What I want to know is “Why am I enjoying reading Anna Karenina?”
I hated Madame Bovary.  I gritted my teeth and plowed through the book.  Sure, at times Flaubert’s carefully crafted prose was a pleasure to read and ponder.  He painted delightful word pictures, but there were many days when I was thankful for the self-imposed reading time my children’s swim lessons gave me: time when I had no choice but to sit on a bleacher and listen to splashing while forcing myself through Emma Bovary’s shallow, self-centered, destructive tale.

I like reading Anna Karenina.  Why?  Anna’s looking for happiness where there can be none.  Just like Emma Bovary!  I have to say that I’m feeling a little guilty for my enjoyment of this title after feeling such dislike for Madame Bovary.  I find myself caring for Anna when while reading about Emma, I just wanted the book to end.

Help me, literary friends.  I have classic book guilt.  Here are two books about adultery and I like one!

Anyone else enjoying Anna K after hating Emma B?


Posted by on October 20, 2012 in Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary


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9 responses to “Bovary vs Karenina

  1. Melissa

    October 20, 2012 at 7:23 am

    I felt the same way about these two books.

    • Christine

      October 22, 2012 at 6:23 pm

      It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

  2. Adriana @ Classical Quest

    October 20, 2012 at 7:44 am

    Yes. I’m with you here. You’ve brought up a VERY good point, Christine, and you’re making me think this morning!

    My first response: Tolstoy’s characters feel like the big Russian family I never knew I had. I loved Anna before she made a bad decision (because she gave sound advice to Dolly, and because the innocent children adored her) and I still love her although I can see she’s wrecking herself.

    Flaubert, on the other hand, was my little word picture buddy. I would like to have taken him on a walk with me sometime —

    Me: “What a pretty field! Wish I had words to describe it!”
    Gustave: “It is a great mantle, unfolded, its green velvet collar edged with silver braid . . . ”
    Me: {long sigh}

    But as for Flaubert’s characterization . . . I just never felt like I had a relationship with Emma Bovary prior to not liking her. Instead of feeling sorrow for her, I felt increasingly annoyed.

    • Christine

      October 22, 2012 at 6:26 pm

      I agree about the “big Russian family”. I like having the related characters and I like how they keep popping up throughout the tale. And you are right, Tolstoy makes us friends with Anna before the affair with Vronsky. We’re invested in her before her poor choices.

  3. sandybram

    October 20, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    Also, Anna Karenina has more characters and sub-plots than Madame Bovary. I think that if it were just about Anna’s affair, I wouldn’t like it nearly as much. I’m especially enjoying the parts about Kitty and Levin.

    • Christine

      October 22, 2012 at 6:27 pm

      So true. It’s nice having multiple plots to give us breaks from the sorrowful parts.

  4. Ruth Lopez

    October 20, 2012 at 5:06 pm

    So far this is my favorite from the WEM list, specifically because I like Levin’s character. He’s a good man. I also appreciate Tolstoy’s way of storytelling. He is subtle in his humor and it makes me crack up. He covers every emotion that someone is feeling; he never misses anything. I love the way he even gives emotion and thought to the animals, as well.

    As for Anna, I feel neutral, but she certainly is more grounded in reality than Emma was.

    • Christine

      October 22, 2012 at 6:28 pm

      Wow! favorite so far! I’ll be curious to see how you feel when we finish the book.

  5. Marianne

    May 23, 2014 at 11:03 am

    I’m halfway through Madame Bovary; I’ve rarely read a well-written classic that made me want to stop reading it just from sheer indifference to the characters. Anna Karenina was a heartbreaking joy to read, and (although it was his craft and his prerogative) I hated the author for giving her such a violent ending, but I felt emotionally invested in the characters involved. I am not emotionally invested to any of the characters in Madame Bovary, but that is because they are all the same character; shades of Flaubert. Sure, every character originates in its author, but these characters are so blatantly the author’s playthings, it’s like watching a boy play with paper dolls that he doesn’t like and luxuriously snipping off their limbs then scissoring off their heads. In his world, intelligent people are too unsatisfied to be happy, and stupid people are too beaten down to be unsatisfied. I recognize the book is a social and psychological commentary more than an investment in the characters. In this way it reminds me of The Great Gatsby (another great classic with a disappointing ending) more than Anna Karenina; the elusive happiness is not unattainable love, but unattainable wealth and class on the whims of love.

    Back to your point, I think the reason why we have empathy for Anna and don’t have empathy for Emma is the difference in their motives. Anna was fine before she met Vronsky, and her love for him sprung out of a passion for him alone, and the way he made her feel. Emma was in despair before she met her lovers, and used her lovers as a means of escape from her stifling marriage. Her motives aren’t as sympathetic. But that is part of Flaubert’s craft; all of the lovers pursue their passions out of ennui. Even her first lover Rudolpho (or whatever his name is) decides to pursue Emma as a lover because she is so much “fresher” than his other mistress, an older actress with “an obsession for shrimp.” And Emma consents to be with him because his hair smells good and she gets a new riding outfit. And even Leon, who is called “child” by Emma because his love is more like her naive passion before being burned by Rudolpho, he is always “bored, so bored!” with his life, and Emma is a welcome interruption to his monotonous scenery and schedule. Flaubert is so blatant with the motives of his subjects; it’s very tongue-in-cheek. But it is full of reality. Ugh. Why am I reading a book for that? But he’s so good at it… I read elsewhere that Emma dies at the end (can a classic really have a spoiler alert? Can knowing this make the book any less desirable?), so, it looks like Flaubert got bored of his mistress too.

    I guess I’ll suffer through the rest of Madame Ovary; she is my tiresome mistress now, so I might as well finish the book and get it over with. Or maybe I’ll cut out early, cuddle my baby boy, clean the floor, and read Pride and Prejudice to cheer up.


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