The Place Of Intelligent Women In Society: Emma Bovary And Daisy Buchanan

Gustave Flaubert, a genius of realistic literature wrote the novel Madame Bovary as an exposition of the nature of affairs and their consequences during the eighteen-hundreds. The novel follows a young woman, Emma Bovary, and her decision to marry, her irritation with her role as a housewife and her subsequent affair and suicide. Yet, Flaubert’s novel exposes more than the ‘tired’ topic of torrid affairs. It speaks volumes about gender roles, freedom, female suffrage and the desire to have a place in society. Emma Bovary marries an older man, Charles Bovary, of her own accord. She wants to find love and the feel the emotions that come with it. Instead, she faces the trivial tasks of housewifery and her future of being a housewife. Emma begins to view her life as unimportant due to her adversity with the duties of a housewife and mother. This feeling is strengthened as she becomes well read and fills her time with the purpose of becoming intelligent. She finds that there is no place in ‘proper’ society, for her desires of love and freedom; this is when the novel begins to correspond to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald explores the purpose of a wealthy intelligent woman in the nineteen-twenties, amongst other things, in society. The Great Gatsby depicts a woman named Daisy Buchanan and her struggle to find purpose and excitement in her life. Daisy’s husband, Tom, repeatedly humiliates her with his mistress. This humiliation causes Daisy to look elsewhere and explore her freedom and independence with an affair. She too finds that there is no place in society for the intelligent woman or independence. Before the modern century, society held little place for mentally liberated women; leaving this minority to desire a place in society, where women can live freely from constraints of their gender. This desire to ‘fit in’ is seen in The Great Gatsby and Madame Bovary. Both women share a strong desire for their independence. They find their freedom and revenge on societies constraints through affairs with men. Lastly, they share a subconscious longing to be male to experience life without the stifling constraints of society.

Firstly, both women want their independence from stifling lifestyles, but understand this desire is not proper or socially acceptable. This can be seen in Madame Bovary, when Emma begins to foster a hatred for the predictability of her married life. She soon decides that she wants to end her marriage, but cannot due to her lack of prospects as a divorcee. While Emma is packing to leave Charles’ town due to her depression, the narrator states “One day when, in view of her departure, she was tidying a drawer, something pricked her finger. It was the wire of her wedding bouquet. The orange blossoms were yellow with dust and the silver bordered satin ribbons frayed at the edges. She threw it into the fire. It flared up more quickly than dry straw. She watched it burn” (Flaubert, 61). This quote reveals her hatred for her aging marriage. At this point in the novel, Emma is suffering from depression and her husband decides it is best to move to a larger town. As she is packing she discovers her wedding bouquet, symbolizing married life. She then throws it into the fire and continues packing. Emma watching the bouquet burn is meant to reveal to the reader that she has moved on from the ‘honeymoon’ phase of her life and hates what she is left with. She abhors being married and living in a small town, repeating the same schedule day by day, this is why she burns the wedding bouquet, she regards it as a mistake. Emma’s hatred of her marriage comes from her understanding that love is meant to be passionate and exciting. She believes this because she continuously reads novels about love. Her reading and intelligence influence her unfulfillment of married life. She further reveals that she believes there is something wrong with her because she finds no joy in housewifery. Emma craves independence, the freedom to leave Charles and find a man she loves and can marry again. But, she understands that this desire is socially unacceptable. Therefore, she follows her husband’s wishes and continues packing. A similarity can be seen with Daisy’s boredom with her lifestyle. During lunch, Daisy asks her guests “What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon;” cried Daisy “and the day after that, and the next thirty years?” (Fitzgerald, 74). This quote reveals that Daisy is tired of her life and her routine of hosting, attending parties and tending to her husband; which she does constantly in the book. Daisy’s intelligence comes from her knowledge of the feeling of freedom, as she was wealthy her entire life and free to do as she pleased before marriage. She desires to be this free again, without the constraints of her husband or societies requests to act more fulfilled with her life. Both women are told by society that they have achieved everything a woman could hope for in her life, which is why Daisy does not know what to do with herself as she has already ‘peaked’ as a female. However, these two women are too intelligent to be content with being the simple wives of men. Society fails them by refusing to create a place for intelligent women who desire more than the simplicity of being a wife. Therefore, they stay with their husbands, remaining wives because they understand that it is improper to desire more and they have no place in society if they do.

Furthermore, Daisy and Emma find their small freedom through relationships with men. Throughout Madame Bovary, Emma sustains multiple affairs with men that excite her. She refuses to feel guilt for these affairs because she feels that society is at fault for condemning her from leaving her husband. This can be seen when the narrator states “Besides, Emma felt a satisfaction of revenge. Had she not suffered enough?” (Flaubert, 142). Flaubert reveals that Emma finds revenge and liberation through her first affair. She then has another one to continue to feel this way. In The Great Gatsby, Daisy feels the same way when she begins an affair with Jay Gatsby, a man from her past. She says to her husband, Tom, “Make us a cold drink,” cried Daisy, as he left the room again she got up and went over to Gatsby and pulled his face down, kissing him on the mouth” (Fitzgerald, 108). This took place during a lunch at Daisy’s home, to which Gatsby had been invited by her. Daisy deliberately invited Gatsby to lunch with her husband and herself, to prove to society that she is a free woman because she can flaunt her affair to her husband; just as he does with his affair. For Daisy, the affair is not simply to prove her freedom, but to acquire a sort of justice for societies acceptance of her husband’s affair, throughout the book he took his mistress many places without condemnation. Both women are angry because they have limited freedom and are faced with constraints placed on them by society. These constraints force them to stay in their marriages and be simple minded women, until they eventually die. Consequently, the affairs provide both freedom and revenge for their lack of place in society as intelligent unfulfilled women.

Lastly, a more ambiguous point in both books, Daisy and Emma share a subconscious desire to be male, so they may experience complete freedom to have desire. Near the middle of the novel, Emma gives birth to a child. During this birth, the narrator states “It is a girl!” ‘said Charles. She turned her head and fainted’ (Flaubert, 81). Emma faints after hearing the gender of her child because she is unhappy. She wanted the child to be male so the child could experience life the way she wants to; freely and without societal constraint. Emma’s desire for a boy reveals that she understands that girls live with the disadvantage of their gender. Therefore, she would rather have been male herself. Her longing for a baby boy reflects her desire to be a male herself. This is similar to Daisy’s experience when she gave birth to a baby girl. While speaking to a friend, Daisy says “She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head and wept. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope shell be a fool- that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool” (Fitzgerald, 206). In this quote Daisy reveals her sadness due to her child’s gender. She also understands the disadvantages her daughter will face due to her gender. Daisy’s disappointment in her child’s gender reflects her desire to be male as well. She wished that she could have been male, like Emma, to experience life differently and have a place in society. Emma and Daisy wanted baby boys so they could live vicariously through their children. Unfortunately, they will have to see the pain of gender expectations and live through this pain as with their daughters again.

In conclusion, throughout the two novels, one can see the desire of Daisy and Emma to find a place for themselves in a society that rejects women who are unfulfilled by their husbands. Daisy and Emma pursue their freedom by adultery, only to find themselves tangled in the need for revenge and justice for their mistreatment by society. The two women seek freedom to live without judgement and experience life as men do, but they are hindered by society. Finally, Emma and Daisy desperately wish for their children to be born male, but find them to be female instead. This wish reflects their inner longing to be male as well, only to experience the freedom that men had so often take for granted. Throughout the ages, the eighteen-hundreds in which Madame Bovary was set, and the nineteen-twenties in which The Great Gatsby was set, the struggle of women remains unchanging. However enlightening the books may be towards female suffrage, the reader should notice they always end the same, with the female falling into her place as a wife again, such was the case with Daisy, or the woman finding a tragic ending to her story, such as the death of Emma.

Works Cited

  • Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Toronto, Indigo Books and Music Inc., November 2015.
  • Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. London, Arcturus Publishing Limited., January 2018.
  • “The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.” , By Plato, The University of Adelaide Library,
  • Shmoop Editorial Team. “Madame Bovary Freedom and Confinement Quotes Page 3.” Shmoop, Shmoop University, 11 Nov. 2008,
  • Edwards, Halle. “SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips.” How to Improve Reading Comprehension: 8 Expert Tips,
16 December 2021
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