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In Madame Bovary, Charles and Emma are both confined by society. A major difference is that Charles is almost blissfully unaware of how his domineering mother and lack of ambition have contributed to his own limitations and therefore confinement within the structure where he exists. He does not realize that he deserves better and ignores or refuses to believe ill of his wife, a fact which destroys any chance that the couple have of a truly happy life. He also does not recognize his contribution to Emma's destructive behavior and therefore does little to stop it. Rather than accepting what she has done and confronting his wife, he consistently ignores her unsavory activities.
Emma feels trapped in a marriage which she had thought was her window to a future full of promise, an escape from the confines of her life where, as the daughter, rather than the son, she has been "of little use" to her father. Gustave Flaubert uses a male perspective to reveal how affected by their society and expectations both Charles and Emma are. Even Emma displays a male perspective as she expects to be swept off her feet, her romantic notions having been encouraged by the novels she reads. Marriage, for Emma, is supposed to solve all problems. However, when life is dull, Emma is powerless to escape her situation and even feels more despondent on the birth of her daughter. Naturally, she had wanted a son!
Flaubert uses characterization to express the extent of the confinement and Emma's conflicted life. Her half-hearted attempts to be a good wife and her misguided endeavors as she tries to break out of this confining space only increase her dependence on men, one after the other, and especially in the light of her husband's devotion, failures, obtuse behavior and contentment with a life unfulfilled.
In The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James, Isabel Archer must make a choice. She must satisfy society and make a good marriage or she must follow her dream. Her vision of independence, like Emma's in Madame Bovary, is flawed and her choices force her to accept one life or the other. Any attempt to combine the two would be out of the question. She is a more grounded character than Emma but still is confined by her own and others' expectations. She is fooled by her husband who only marries her for money—ironically the very thing that should have given her more independence and which was bequeathed to her on the strength of that independent streak. She soon realizes that her romantic notions are nothing like her reality. Once again (as with Charles and Emma in Madame Bovary), the circumstances exist due to a less than ideal upbringing which persuades Isabel that she needs to find that stability which her childhood lacked. James reveals Isabel's conflict through characterization and the confinement which the evil Gilbert intends to inflict upon her as he expects her to pamper to him and almost religiously revere him. The male perspective is again used to convey James's message.
James also reveals the varying degrees of confinement and what each of them represents by setting the novel in different parts of the world where, for example, America represents the ideal and gives Isabel her one-sided perception whereas Europe, which should expose Isabel to free-thinking and a future full of hope, actually restricts her further. Despite her spirit, she cannot escape the entrenched principles which override everything.
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