Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood are three novels that portray the life of woman in many different ways. They all depict the turmoils and strife’s that women, in many cultures and time periods, suffer from. In some cases it’s the woman’s fault, in others it’s simply bad luck. In any case, all three novels succeed in their goal of showing what a life of selling oneself short is like through the eyes of a woman.
In Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, a woman, Moll is simply trying to get by and is given a wonderful start because she was born in a prison. Moll Flanders leads a life full of crime and prostitution because she feels it is the only way she can survive. She becomes do dependent on theft that she steals even when she does not need any more luxuries. In Moll Flanders, the reader at times feels bad for the main character because she really has no luck when it comes to husbands or life in general. Yet at other times we resent the fact that she leaves her children and continues stealing for no reason.
Moll Flanders is somewhat ambiguous because the reader does not know whether to feel sorry for Moll’s disadvantages, or feel hatred for her irresponsibility. Moll is somewhat portrayed as ignorant, in that she does not know that what she does is wrong. E. M. Forster wrote that \”A nature such as hers cannot for long distinguish between doing wrong and getting caught.\”
Although there are time when the reader feels bad for Moll and feels that she simply does not know better, there are times when Moll admit that she is doing wrong. However, Moll feels no sympathy for the people she steals from. Even after she stops stealing for some time, she being again without remorse. \”Thus you see having committed a Crime once, is a sad Handle to the committing of it again; whereas all the Regret, and Reflections wear off when the Temptation renews itself\” (184). Moll understands that the crimes she commits are unjust, but she blames temptaion for her delinquency.
The most direct reason that the reader feels sympathy for Moll is because she eventually feels guilt. \”I had the weight of Guilt upon me enough to sink any Creature who had the least power of Reflection left, and had any Sense upon them of the Happiness of this Life, or the Misery of another\” (218). At this point in the novel Moll was not yet repentent, but she did realize her fault. She mostly felt guilt not for the crimes she committed, but for the mere fact that she was caught. After frequent visits from the preist at the prison, Moll is enlightened. \”It was now that I felt any real signs of Repentance; I now began to look back upon my past Life with abhorrence\” (225).
In this novel, the woman is extremely independent, yet she feels the need for a husband in her life at almost all times. Moll continually does things that shock the reader, but we tend to sympathize because of the overall scenario and we ourselves might make some of the same choices she made. \”Whatever she does gives us a slight shock – not the jolt of disillusionment, but without bitterness or superiority. She is neither hypocrite nor fool\” (Forster). Although she tries to put up a front that she can survive through unmoral acts without feeling guilt, she comes to a realization that she is repentant and that there isn’t a way to deny that.
Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is the portrayal of a young woman who strives for romance. Throughout this life-long struggle for happiness she ruins the lives of both her daughter and her husband. She participates in numerous affairs and creates an enormaous debt that her husband and child are left with after she commits suicide. In this novel the reader feels no sympathy towards the main character, Emma Bovary. The reader sees Emma as a naive woman with unrealistic veiws on life and love. Emma sells not only herself, but also her husband and daughter, because she creates a situation so unbearable for herself, that her family is left to deal with it.
Emma’s problems begin when she is at the convent and she learns about romantic ideals from novels that she reads. She comes to believe that these storybook romances occur everyday in everyone’s lives. Albert Thibaudet wrote that \”Mme. Bovary is not a sensuous person; she is above all a ‘romantic’, a mental type, as the psychologists would call it; her fault stems from an unbridled imagination rather than from a lack of control over the senses.\”
Her wants for love, luxuries, and overall attention from everyone causes her to do irrational things. A minor example is when Emma was still in the convent. She would concoct little sins so that she would be able to stay in confession and have the attention ofd the priest for longer amounts of time. \”When she went to confession, she invented little sins order that she might stay there longer. . . The comparisons of betrothed, husband, celestial lover, and eternal marriage, that recur in sermons, stirred within her soul depths of unexpected sweetness\” (25). Emma felt guilty pleasure from acts similar to this one and didn’t see how her behavior could be considered unjust because, after all Charles was blind to the damage she was causing.
She sold herself and eventually her possessions because she continually borrowed money to buy unneeded things that she could not afford. She created such an excessive debt that her and Charles’ home and all their possessions were taken from them. Even after all that, Emma knew that Charles would forgive her: \”Step aside! This rug on which you are walking is no longer ours. In your own house you don’t own a chair, a pin, a straw, and it is I, poor man, who have ruined you\” (222). Even after this shocking realization Charles forgives Emma, and Emma replies by saying \”Yes, he will forgive me, the man I could never forgive for having known me, even if he had a million to spare! . . . Never! never!\” (222).
Emma is simply an evil person who over dramatizes anything that involves love and romance. Moll, on the other hand, had much more difficulties in her life yet it seemed that she didn’t complain as much about them. Where as Emma is simply unhappy because of the husband and social status she ended up with, and doesn’t realize that she still has her entire life and that she can create happiness for herself. Instead she decides to find some kind of escape. With both of her lovers she tried to leave Charles and her daughter permanently, but neither succeeded. \”Take me away\” says Emma \”carry me off! . . . I beg you!\” (139). In the end the only escape she can find is her death, which is why she commits suicide.
Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood is another view on life through the eyes of a woman. In this scenario, the woman is convinced that the only way she can achieve self worth is through the production of children. In this novel the reader feels quite sympathetic toward the main character. Her situation seems extremely odd and unconventional compared to today’s customs, because at many times she was somewhat condemned for not having children.
In this book, the main character Nnu Ego literally sold herself to keep faithful to the long lasting traditions. Her husband Nnaife paid a bride price for her: \”Did I not pay your bride price? Am I not your owner?\” (48). This should seem disturbing to the reader, a price was paid so that a man could have a wife and produce male heirs.
Nnu Ego was always taught that a woman’s only purpose in life was to produce children. \”She had been brought up to believe that children made a woman\” (219). So, when he first child randomly died, she thought that she lost all her self worth. \”They all agreed that a woman without a child for her husband was a failed woman\” (62). This affected Nnu Ego very much emotionally, she even attempted suicide.
Nnu Ego came to the realization that the only way she could give her life any meaning would be to have a child. She lowered her standards when it came to her husband and figured that as long as she produced a child, happiness would come to her life. \”O my dead mother, please make this dream come true, then I will respect this man, I will be his faithful wife and put up with his crude ways and ugly appearance. Oh, please help me, all you my ancestors. If I should become pregnant\” (44-45). The reader feels superior sympathy for Nnu Ego because after all she went through and suffered from to produce children and raise them to be happy, she was abandoned by them in the end. Still, Nnu Ego did everything in her power to give everything to her children, and \”The joy of being a mother was the joy of giving all to you children\” (224).
These three previously mentioned novels all consisted of three extremely different woman selling themselves in one way or another to achieve some sort of self worth or ultimate happiness. Although the situations and acts of the characters were considerably different, one must feel some sort of sympathy to these woman. Not only did they lower their standards, but they also went to extreme lengths to achieve a happiness that in most cases never came.
Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders. W.W. Norton & Company, New York: 1973.
Emecheta, Buchi. The Joys of Motherhood. Hinemann, Oxford: 1979.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. W. W. Norton & Company, New York: 1965
Forster, E.M. \”A novel of Character\” from Aspects of the Novel. Harcourt, Brace, New York: 1927.
Thibaudet, Albert. \”Madame Bovary\” from chapter 5 of Gustave Flaubert. Gallimard, Paris: 1935.