Tolstoy's Bookshelf: 'Madame Bovary' by Gustave Flaubert
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Madame Bovary
By Gustave Flaubert

Tolstoy wrote to his wife in 1892 that Madame Bovary "has great merits" and that the French admired it "for good reason." But this novel certainly did not make it onto his list of works that influenced him. It is probably best described as a novel that Tolstoy reacted to (or against!) when he was writing Anna Karenina. When it was first published in 1857, the novel caused an enormous uproar because of content deemed lascivious and reprehensible. Tolstoy happened to be in Paris in the midst of this scandal.

Because Madame Bovary is often regarded as the classic novel of adultery, it has been the fate of Anna Karenina to be constantly compared to it. One Russian poet dubbed Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary's "Russian cousin." Readers and scholars have found a number of juicy parallels between the two novels because Anna's fate is similar to Emma Bovary's. Both novels are often cited as examples of realism and yet both draw the very concept of reality into question. Both meditate on the limits of language. Even more interesting is the common symbolism between the two novels.

For all the similarities, there are profound differences. English Poet Matthew Arnold, one of the first critics to respond in English to Anna Karenina and one of the first to compare it to Madame Bovary, has the following to say: "Emma Bovary follows a course in some respects like that of Anna, but where, in Emma Bovary, is Anna's charm? The treasures of compassion, tenderness, insight, which alone, amid such guilt and misery, can enable charm to subsist and to emerge, are wanting to Flaubert. He is cruel, with the cruelty of petrified feeling, to his poor heroine..." In this way, Tolstoy is often seen as a kinder, gentler chronicler of the harrows of adultery.

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