Anna vs. Emma, A Joint Review of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Nothing motivates me to write better more than sentences like these.

“As if tears were the necessary lubricant without which the machine of mutual communication could not work successfully, the two sisters, after these tears, started talking, not about what preoccupied them, but about unrelated things, and yet they understood each other (Tolstoy 125).”

“It showed him the eternal error people make in imagining that happiness is the realization of desires (Tolstoy 465).”

“In order to undertake anything in family life, it is necessary that there be either complete discord between the spouses or loving harmony. But when the relations between spouses are uncertain and there is neither the one nor the other, nothing can be undertaken. Many families stay for years in the same old places, hateful to both spouses, only because there is neither full discord nor harmony (Tolstoy 739).”

“As it was almost empty she bent back to drink, her head thrown back, her lips pouting, her neck on the strain. She laughed at getting none of it, while with the tip of her tongue passing between her small teeth she licked drop by drop the bottom of the glass (Flaubert 24).”

“And he at once took down from the shelf Emma’s boots, all coated with mud, the mud of the rendezvous, that crumbled into powder beneath his fingers, and that he watched as it gently rose in a ray of sunlight (Flaubert 174).”

“Emma was like all his mistresses; and the charm of novelty, gradually falling away like a garment, laid bare the eternal monotony of passion, that has always the same forms and the same language (Flaubert 177).”

“We don’t speak on the first floor as on the fourth; and the wealthy woman seems to have, about her, to guard her virtue, all her bank-notes, like a cuirass, in the lining of her corset (Flaubert 215).”

“They knew one another too well for any of those surprises of possession that increase its joys a hundred-fold. She was as sick of him as he was weary of her. Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage (Flaubert 268).”

So here’s the scoop. Anna and Emma commit adultery. And when they discover this act didn’t end their unhappiness, they kill themselves. These novels are often classified under “realism”, which seeks to be just what you’d expect–realistic. (This, of course, comes in response to the unrealistic stories which rued the day up until writers like Tolstoy and Flaubert (can’t not mention Twain) couldn’t stomach any more of it.) And right up until the ending, I can’t find novels which more accurately describe the human scene. But the suicides struck me as unrealistic. Was I being too literal?

Maybe the suicide is a metaphor? Maybe women who commit adultery long to commit suicide, but lack the courage to do it? Is that what these guys were arguing?

Or are the stories warnings to women? Are they a kind of “cheat on me and you’ll probably want to kill yourself” thing? They are written by men after all.

Or maybe there is something more going on?

Always returning to Tolstoy’s wisdom, I’ve decided that these books’ adultery-leads-to-suicide motif is a warning to everyone. Tolstoy, especially, tips his hand in the quote about about happiness not being the realization of desires. That these books sit on so many shelves across the planet proves we recognize the truth they contain, whether we can verbalize it or not.

If Tolstoy and Flaubert were alive today they might have chosen to write about men ignoring their family in favor of email, or mothers working while strangers raise their children so that they can live in a house that would make the Jones’s proud. Or maybe they’d write about women who wear make-up and men who have hair plugs. But then, I wouldn’t believe men and women would kill themselves after finding their cosmetic choices didn’t bring them happiness. But a spouse watching his or her selfish action destroy a family? Yep, I could see how that might make someone want out of this life. And since it is Tolstoy’s Anna who chooses her lover even when her husband is ready to reunite with her, Anna Karenina wins the better lesson presentation battle. The lesson being happiness is. No fill in the blank, no requisite. Happiness just is.


Flaubert, Gustave, Chris Kraus, and Eleanor Marx Aveling. Madame Bovary. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005. Print.

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Toronto: Penguin, 2000. Print.



  1. Ashley

    Reblogged this on ashtx and commented:
    “But a spouse watching his or her selfish action destroy a family? Yep, I could see how that might make someone want out of this life” Just read this…just read it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. tom

    I am hardly in the position to criticize either author. I did get the connection between the two themes tho. Tolstoi had taken time to analyze his (Levin’s) thoughts on religion, being , the organized churches of the day. Anna’s desperate attempt to liberate herself and her final choice of suicide seems to reinforce social mores against an adulterous relationship. As the book was a serial novel , Im sure it had great interest to the reading public of Moscow in the day. Of equal and greater importance were the socio economic issues of labor, land reform , and the drastic political changes that were to come in all too soon 20th century . Imagine if you can Lenin wandering around observing this family drama and who in the novel he would have associated with.( Levin’s dead brother?)

    Liked by 1 person

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