Upon reading Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” and Miguel de Cervantes’s “Don Quixote,” I noticed one similar circumstance that all of the protagonists encountered. All of the protagonists: Emma Bovary, Nora Helmer, and Don Quixote de la Mancha chose to reject the notions of their present society as they embrace to instead prioritize the needs that will satisfactorily suit their own temperament or liberated identity. Each has a strong notion of their needs whether it be a call for adventure, passion, independence, or wealth. They find solitary ways to get what they want even when their demeanors are already deemed as amoral or unusual by the people around them. These said characters are captivating, however, not because of their unerring principles. They are admired because of their willingness to go beyond the parameters of normativity to fulfill their heart’s desire. Bravery and grit then, becomes a commendable aspect found within their core being.
I perceived that each of the protagonists wanted to detach away from their existing situation or roles: Emma Bovary wanted to stay away from the role of being a loyal wife and devoted mother because of her whims to have a more excitable and preposterous life, Nora Helmer wanted to turn her back from the role of being an obedient wife because she wanted to have a sense of liberty and an unregulated life, and Don Quixote wanted to run away from the tedious role of a middle-aged man by choosing an adventurous chivalric life of a knight. Perhaps, some say that they might be illuminated through an enlightened thinking; that because of their unfettered minds, they are aware of something that others do not: To have a notion towards a quest for a better life—such as through the acquirement of a better understanding, achievement, or relationship. Seeming aloof and indifferent from the rest of the other characters in each story, the protagonists are also in fact, more honest while searching for their own calling. What becomes engaging about them, more importantly, is their ability to fight for their dreams, actions, and identity. In short, they are in a constant inclination towards their heart’s desire and self journey.
Emma Bovary, wanted a passionate and extravagant life. As she daydreams about a life that opposes her reality, she enacts upon her own sense of fulfilment—even when she is lacking of wealth and romance, by finding an unconventional mean of getting these. “Her carnal desires, her cravings for money, and the fits of depression engendered by her love gradually merged into a single torment; and instead of trying to put it out of her mind she cherished it, spurring herself on to suffer, never missing an opportunity to do so.” She loans immoderate commodities and money from Monsieur Lheureux to appease her desire for a more splendid lifestyle and started having adulterous affairs with Rodolphe and Leon in order to satiate her passion. Madame Bovary undoubtedly became known as an amoral person yet she argues that she pursued her vision—believing that it will content her.
It can be pointed out, that it is not an unusual behavior to feel tensed or anxious whenever one’s needs for comfort, love, or self-actualization aren’t met properly. Perhaps it is the lack of finding a suitable partner that understands her needs for interaction, passion, or comfort that made her turn her back from Charles. It can also be the fact that she cannot get these whims by herself because of gender constraints in the society. Her well-being as a woman becomes overlooked. When Emma tried to fulfil the roles of being a doting wife and mother, she became neglectful of her own health. She even admitted that her nerves started when she became married. She had to adore and take care of the child, warm Charles’s slippers by the fire, mend his shirts and stack his clothing, and agree to his suggestions without trying to understand his reasons. These are the works that she is inclined to do as a woman. This becomes a question to her present society, in which women cannot get what they wanted as they are obligated to act in accordance to their feminine roles. Emma even preferred to have a son, so that he can acquire liberties unlike her. “A man is free, at least—free to range the passions and the world to surmount obstacles, to taste the rarest pleasures. Whereas a woman is continually thwarted. Inert, compliant, she has to struggle against her physical weakness and legal subjection. Her will, like the veil tied to her hat, quivers with every breeze: there is always a desire that entices, always a convention that restrains.” Emma is shown as a woman in a social position that she constantly aims to break against. She emancipates herself from her role of being a dutiful mother and obliging wife by altering her demeanor towards her own sense of individualism.
Nora Helmer, the protagonist from Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” is in contrast to Emma Bovary, for she is shown to be living a comfortable life. With a husband who is currently appointed to a new position as the Manager of the Stock bank, she will soon acquire more extravagances and security. It is shown from the beginning that Nora always vainly refers to herself with the inclusion of husband. “As of course Torvald won’t; and in that I quite agree with him. Oh! You can imagine how glad we are. He is to enter his new position at the New Year, and then he will have a large salary and percentages.” She does not seem to have a sense of self as she evolves herself around Torvald’s opinions and monetary accomplishments.
It is shown during the play that Nora is deemed by Torvald as a submissive wife who should only conforms to his own ideals. It is evident by the way he talks to her: “Don’t disturb me,” “Has my little spendthrift been making the money fly again?” and “Nora! Thoughtless as ever!” This perspective is also shown by actions when he constantly reprimands her, when she is tasked to perfect a dance with his approval, and the sole fact that she had to keep her financial debt as a secret to escape his rebuke, disapproval, and rage.
However, the dilemma of the story, emerges when Nora confides to Mrs. Linde that she hid an illegal debt from Torvald a few years ago. When Mrs. Linde questioned her decision, Nora, argues that it is for the best: “Good heavens! What can you be thinking of? Tell him, when he has such a loathing for debt? And besides—how painful and humiliating it would be for Torvald, with his manly self-reliance, to know that he owed anything to me! It would utterly upset the relation between us; our beautiful, happy home would never again be what it is.” At the time of great indigence, she resorted to disregard the consent of her husband before borrowing money. Here, the protagonist shows a disparate perspective from her once superficial thoughts. Though, considered by most as childish, Nora has the ability to solve complex problems by herself. “Oh sometimes I was so tired, so tired. And yet it was splendid to work in that way and earn money. I almost felt as if I was a man.” From here, you will realize that Nora yearns for a sense of independency.
Nora’s moment of awakening takes place when Torvald found out about her secret. Calling her immoral, he insults her and decrees that she has no right to take care of their children anymore. However, upon Korgstad’s tolerance on the issue, he decides to forgive Nora but it was too late. Nora has had enough and she realizes that she was never happy with him. They never discuss matters seriously, she is in constant fear of displeasing him, and her thoughts are supposed to be aligned with his. “I mean I passed from father’s hands into yours. You settled everything according to your taste; and I got the same tastes as you; or I pretended to—I don’t know which—both ways perhaps. When I look back on it now, I seem to have been living like a beggar, from hand to mouth. I lived by performing tricks for you, Torvald. You and father have done me a great wrong. It is your fault that my life has been wasted.” The days of trying to please her husband by being docile ends as she severs herself away from him. This decision displays an unexpected but brave choice—to remove herself from the feminine ideals of the society in which she lives in. Nora is triggered and is determined not to be a mere plaything of his affections—or a doll. She dismisses Torvald’s argument about her sole duties as a mother and wife: “I have other duties equally sacred… my duties towards myself.” She removes herself away from the society’s order to discover and find her own needs as a human being.
Don Quixote de la Mancha decides to follow the adventurous chivalric dedication of a knight. In contrast to Emma Bovary, he chooses to reduce his comfort, shelter, and food benefits in exchange for honor and glory. He longs to provide a sense of purpose and beauty to the world by serving others. However, he is deemed as a madman for he has the inability to see the typical realities in life. Like Emma and Nora, he is relatable for his perspective or belief differs from the majority. “Sancho entered, and the curate and the barber took their leave of Don Quixote, of whose recovery they despaired when they saw how wedded he was to his crazy ideas, and how saturated with the nonsense of his unlucky chivalry.” Everyone sees him as a foolish person and thus disregards his positive aspects or views though unconventional at times.
Don Quixote, is known to be intelligent and he has the capacity to provide good advice on topics such as literature, reading, freedom, government, women, bravery, and many things related to life. For me, the most enlightening line that I got from Don Quixote is this, “Sancho, just as you want people to believe what you have seen in the sky, I want you to believe what I saw in the Cave of Montesinos. And that is all I have to say.” I am in awe of this advice because it speaks of the precise relativity on how the people account the real and the unreal. It shows exactly the point of Don Quixote’s actions, that there is an inevitable diversity in all of our perspectives.
The protagonist in “Madame Bovary”, Emma, always had the perspective of raising questions that leads to criticism. She aims for continuous development, which was shown when she started to plan the renovation of the interior of her practical house with her new husband Charles Bovary. In Chapter Six, Emma reminisces about her educated life in the convent. This is also where she first got immersed in romance novels and love ballads. However, she got tired of the convent life. Transferring to her father’s farm, she also found the place enjoyable until she became bored. “Back at home, Emma first enjoyed giving orders to the servants, then grew sick of country life and longed to be back in the convent. By the time Charles first appeared at Les Bertaux she thought that she was cured of illusions—that she had nothing more to learn, and no great emotions to look forward to.” However, when she met Charles, she believed that he can give her the love that she has been dreaming for.
From this point of view, one will already observe that Emma consistently yearns for action or passion. Insatiable by nature, it can already be guessed that she will also soon tire off from her marriage with Charles—especially since the man lacks intellect, passion, and wealth. “Before her marriage she had thought that she had love within her grasp; but since the happiness which she had expected love to bring her hadn’t come, she supposed she must have been mistaken. And Emma tried to imagine just what was meant, in life, by the words “bliss,” “passion,” and “rapture”—words that had seemed so beautiful to her in books.” It is in Emma’s character to yearn for a romantic vitality, yet at the same time, this becomes her own downfall for she is constantly bombarded with a sense of dissatisfaction towards her own life. She wishes for her life to follow the grandeur of the romantic fiction that she has read, forgetting its dissimilar quality to reality.
However, she was able to address her needs to live a passionate life as she explores to find the beauty of the world she lives in. I believe that Don Quixote similarly undergoes a vital change when he found wonder amidst the unimaginative mediocre reality of his life.He went to an adventure that no sane man would ever get the opportunity to outlive. Nora Helmer also found her own disengagement from the oppressive when the same kind of critical questioning arises in her perspective. She then realizes that she does not want to be treated just like a mere doll. They are all courageous as they endeavored to live separate lives from the norm.
As a reader, I reflected on the morality found in these classics through observing the cause and effect of the protagonists’ actions. I feel that there is a sense of prejudice on the aspects of morality because of my observation towards the protagonists’ plights. It is evident that they have created mistakes as they struggle to find their heart’s desire. However, looking through the lenses of a broad-minded person, one can attest that they are in constant search for one’s satisfaction by addressing to their rights.
Emma Bovary takes her right to live a passionate life, Nora Helmer takes her right to live an esteemed life, and Don Quixote de la Mancha takes his right to live an adventurous life. Breaking down the norms of society, they adjust to seek what is required for their own well-being. Their behaviors are etched with bravery for the protagonists separate themselves away from the norms: Though it opposes the society, they are honest with their innermost feelings and desires. Bovary is deemed as a shameless woman, Nora is deemed as a child, and Quixote is deemed as a madman when they are in fact, also wise in their own standing—for they choose to have their own ideals that contribute towards their satisfaction or happiness. Society’s ideals are known to be empowered by real life but intrinsically a contrast to our personal identities, as shown by these protagonists as they chanced upon their own perspectives amidst the circumstances that they are living in.
How about you? Do you believe that your societal role provides your sense of self-love and happiness?
Note: Written on 2017