In the twentieth century, the world was beginning to change. New ideas were being expressed, new opportunities were being presented, and the balance of power between males and females was starting to evolve. The role of women began its path of change in the early 1900’s, gaining momentum as the century unfolded. Early on, it was a slow process, and men still held most of the power in society. In the novels Madame Bovary, written by Gustave Flaubert, and Midaq Alley, written by Naguib Mahfouz, a common theme is expressed through Emma and Hamida. Both women undergo the stresses of marriage, feel the pressures their societies place on women, and fall prey to the confusing difference between love and lust. In both of these novels, neither of the characters is able to truly escape from her internal struggles because of society’s acceptance of men’s power over women.Order now
In the novel Madame Bovary, marriage plays a very significant role. Emma grew up on a farm and at the age of thirteen, boarded at a convent. There she was exposed to many books and novels that sparked her passion for romantic ideals. She married a man name Charles and soon found herself very opposed to the ideas and roles of marriage. She asked herself, “Why-why-did I every marry?” (Flaubert 50) It is interesting that Emma believes so strongly in romantic ideas but gives up so quickly on her marriage to Charles. It is not but months after the marriage that she begins daydreaming of what her life could have been like with a different man:
She wondered whether some different set of circumstances might not have resulted in her meeting some different man; and she tried to picture those imaginary circumstances, the life they would have brought her, the unknown other husband. However she imagined him, he wasn’t a bit like Charles. (Flaubert 50)
Throughout the entire novel, Emma feels such disgust and hatred towards Charles that in order to escape from her feelings of resentment, she relies on her affairs with other men to support her romantic desires and give her a greater sense of freedom. After all, “With me,” Emma said, “it was after I was married that the began” (Flaubert 124).
In Midaq Alley, Hamida never actually gets married, but through her engagement with Abbas and her connection with Ibrahim Faraj, she too feels the constraints of what marriage would be like.
One day she recalled how miserable she had been the first time when Ibrahim Faraj said he did not want to marry her. She had asked herself if she really wanted to marry him. The answer, in the negative, had come immediately. Marriage would have confined her to the home, exhausting her with the duties of a wife, housekeeper, and mother; all those tasks she knew she was not created for. She now saw how farsighted he had been. (Mahfouz 255)
Although she was never married, she was already experiencing the confinement and constraints of commitment, as “she was tortured by a sense of imprisonment and humiliation” (Mahfouz 257). Hamida no longer felt like a free woman. The relationship that she thought would end well actually ended terribly wrong. Ibrahim Faraj brought her despair and sadness and Abbas, whom she loved, died trying to protect her. From both novels, the reader can see the affects male dominance can have in a relationship. When the male has more power, the woman’s sense of freedom diminishes, making the relationship stressful and demeaning.
When Emma is pregnant, she wishes for a boy:
He would be strong and dark… this idea of having a male child was like a promise of compensation for all her past frustrations. 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, complaint, she has to struggle against her physical weakness and legal subjection. (Flaubert 101)
What Emma says here sums up exactly how she feels: men are free and women are not. She wishes only to have a boy so as to not subject a girl to the same struggles she experiences – that of feeling “continually thwarted.” The irony of this situation is that she does give birth to a girl who eventually loses all of her freedoms.
In Midaq Alley, the women’s responsibilities are to focus on two things: their physical appearance and finding an appropriate man to marry. Such shallow criteria are not sufficient to find a compatible husband. When Hamida finally accepts Abbas’s invitation for marriage, he agrees to work for the British army in order to earn enough money to provide her the finer things in life. When Abbas leaves, Hamida finds Ibrahim Faraj, who enchants her with his riches and opportunities. The last night she is at her house:
Her mind set to work, imagining her future food and how she would dress and adorn herself, her face beaming at the delightful dreamy thoughts… the shoddy appearance of her underwear embarrassed her and her bronze face turned red… Hamida made up her mind not to give herself to him until she had exchanged these shabby clothes for pretty new ones. This idea appealed to her, and all of a sudden she was filled with joy and passion. (Mahfouz 203)
Male dominance of women sets certain restrictions, leaving women trapped and unable to break out of the clichï¿½s of society. These subservient roles are the main conflict in the stories of both Emma and Hamida.
The power of love and lust is a very important theme in Madame Bovary. Rodolphe eloquently describes love:
Yes, it comes along one day, all of a sudden, just when we’ve given up hope. Then new horizons open before us: it’s like a voice crying, ‘Look! It’s here!’ We feel the need to pour out our hearts to a given person, to surrender, to sacrifice everything. In such a meeting no words are necessary: each senses the other’s thoughts. Each is the answer to the other’s dreams. There it is, the treasure so long sought for-there before us. (Flaubert 162)
Here, love seems like a magical, wonderful thing. But is it really love that Emma experiences in this novel? When Emma and Lï¿½on meet again, “he he must make up his mind to possess her” (Flaubert 264). From this quote, the reader can conclude that love was no longer the pervasive feeling here. Describing Emma as a possession makes her seem more like an object than a person capable of expressing and receiving feelings. The same happens in Midaq Alley with Ibrahim and Hamida:
himself had never known love… whenever a new girl fell into his net, he played the part of the ardent lover-until she succumbed; after that he continued to court her for a short time. From then on he had made sure of his influence by making her dependent upon him emotionally and financially…when his mission was accomplished he dropped his role of lover for that of the flesh merchant. (Flaubert 256).
As depicted in this quote, the reader is shown that men of this time period often confused lust for love.
Women in the 20th century went through difficult times trying to evolve the roles they had been given. Both Emma and Hamida experienced many difficulties. From both books, the reader can see evidence to support the stresses marriage entails, the hardships of the woman’s role, and the twisted minds of some men when it comes to love vs. lust. Neither Emma nor Hamida was able to physically escape from these torments, but their resolve to change their circumstances sowed the seeds of change for a new way to a life in the future.