Both Gustave Flaubert, in Madame Bovary, and Wilkie Collins in The Woman in White depict conditions of confinement involving female characters. While Collins’ novel involves physical confinement, though, both authors were more interested in the notion of mental confinement. Both novels depict women under emotional stress, with Emma Rouault’s more self-induced. Emma’s concept of normal has been heavily influenced by her avid consumption of romance literature, which invariably depict human sexuality and relationships in a more adventurous and emotionally satisfying manner than is often the case in reality. These skewed perceptions lead her to be confined in an unhappy marriage to a physician, Charles Bovary, who is kind and generally well-intentioned, but whose interests lie outside the realm of male-female nonsexual interaction. In short, he ignores his wife, which compounds the sense of ennui Emma experiences by virtue of the emotionally-confining role of women in rural French society during the period depicted. This latter emotional confinement has its roots in Emma’s father’s lack of interest in his daughter, as a son would have proven far more useful as a farmhand:
“Monsieur Rouault would not have been at all unhappy to have someone take his daughter off his hands, for she was of little use to him on the farm.”
Marriage to Charles does not offer Emma the escape from the drudgery of farm life she has envisioned; in fact, it is as emotionally stifling as her pre-marriage life had been. Having experienced the sexually-charged atmosphere of the ballroom, in which she danced closely with other men, the end of the evening represents only a return to the dull existence that awaits. Flaubert captures this atmosphere in the following passage:
“Day began to break. She looked at the windows of the chateau for a long time, trying to guess which bedrooms were occupied by the people she had seen that night. She longed to know all about their lives, to enter into them and become part of them.
“But she was shivering with cold. She undressed, slipped into bed, and pressed up against Charles, who was sleeping soundly.”
Emma continues to seek escape from the realities of her emotionally-stifling existence, fantasizing about being with other men. When Charles returns from a trip with a cigar case he has found, Emma contemptuously throws it in a closet, only to secretly retrieve it when alone and think about the kind of man who owned it: “The viscount’s. A present from his mistress, perhaps.” Flaubert’s protagonist lives in a perpetual state of emotional confinement. Wilkie Collins, in contrast, has his women experience both emotional and physical confinement – a product of the distinction between genres the two novels represent. Unlike Madame Bovary, Collins’ The Woman in White is more of a suspense thriller, with the identity of the titular character and the plot by Laura’s husband to murder her providing the story’s sources of tension. While Collins’ plot involves a period of physical confinement for his protagonists, however, the principle forms of confinement, as with Flaubert, are mental. As his opening sentence suggests, “This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure . . .”
The main character in The Woman in White is Walter Hartright, who is also one of the story’s narrators. Encountering the mysterious figure of the titular “woman in white” on the road one evening, Walter is immediately taken by this strange woman’s status and demeanor, noting that “[t]he loneliness and helplessness of the woman touched me.” That sentiment will prove prescient, as the female characters in Collins’ novel are invariably confined by the cultural strictures that preclude the full expression of their personalities. Marian, Laura, and Anne will all exist in a form of perpetual emotional confinement.
The letter is addressed by my mother to her second husband, Mr. Fairlie, and the date refers to a period of between eleven and twelve years since. At that time Mr. and Mrs. Fairlie, and my half-sister Laura, had been living for years in this house; and I was away from them completing my education at a school in Paris." Limmeridge House, a palatial estate, is, in its own way, a prison to the women who occupy it, their roles in society rigidly constrained by traditional perceptions of the distinctions between genders. Those roles, somewhat, apparently, reflective of human nature, place a far greater value on physical attractiveness than on mental acuity, as suggested in the following passage in which Walter describes Marian and Laura, the latter possessed of considerable physical beauty and, consequently, the object of his affection:
“A perilous solitude, for it was followed by afternoons and evenings spent, day after day and week after week alone in the society of two women, one of whom possessed all the accomplishments of grace, wit, and high-breeding, the other all the charms of beauty, gentleness, and simple truth, that can purify and subdue the heart of man.”
The subservient role of women in society constitutes a prison of sorts, and represents a form of confinement that sets the stage for the physical confinement the women will endure later in the story when Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco, two prominent men whose titles belie their morally reprehensible character, plot the women’s demise for their own pecuniary motives.
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