Emma Bovary and Ivan Ilych: Evidence of Psychoanalysis Thirty Years Before Freud

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Sigmund Freud, the founder of modern day psychology and psychoanalysis, described human consciousness as the combination of three elements, id, ego and superego. The id is what controls our personal desires, the superego controls our ideas about where we fit in society and the ego is in between these two elements balancing their effects to help us make rational decisions. Despite the fact that these theories were developed well after Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary or Tolstoy wrote The Death of Ivan Ilych the main characters of each (Emma and Ivan) both represent people who have become dominated by one aspect of their subconscious. Whereas Emma is dominated by her id, seeking only selfish pleasures in life, Ivan is dominated by his superego, letting society's standards run his life for him. Even though there is this major difference in their subconscious motivations, both Ivan and Emma are seeking essentially the same thing: fulfillment in life. To Emma this means romantic escapades with Dukes in the royal court, but to Ivan fulfillment in life is marked by proper career progression and a stable position in society. Interestingly, despite all these differences in their manner and means both characters find themselves confronted with the same problems in the end.

Emma Bovary has every characteristic of a person living only to fulfill her own wishes and desires. Like a child, she seeks out pleasure, and when she is not actively being stimulated by something she wants to do she is plagued by boredom. As she searches for these stimuli she pays no attention to the consequences her actions will have on others. This attitude pervades her every action, to point that she does not even take the needs of her only child, Berthe, into consideration. The child has a wet nurse to take care of her from infancy, and she sees her mother less and less as Emma becomes more involved in her affairs with Rodolphe and Leon. This attitude of Emma is most apparent in a scene towards the end of the novel in which Emma attends a masquerade ball with Leon in Rouen. After the dance they go to a seedy restaurant where Emma has a fainting spell. After recovering, "she thought of Berthe, sleeping in the maid's room back in Yonville" (252). After a loud cart rumbles by, disrupting her train of thought, the next thing she thinks is "everything, including herself, seemed unbearable to her. She wished she could fly away like a bird and make herself young again somewhere in the vast purity of space" (252). Here, Flaubert juxtaposes the image of Emma's pre-school aged child sleeping with her desire to restart her life and try again. These contrasting images powerfully show Emma's indifference towards her child, and reveal her complete selfishness. While her feelings towards her daughter show how Emma is controlled by her id, she also displays a lack of superego function, as she commonly is unconcerned with the rules of society. At the peak of her relationships with both Rodolphe and Leon, Emma defiantly chooses to not to care if she is seen in public with her lovers. This lack of discretion finally works against her when one day in Rouen, "Monsieur Lheureux met her as she was leaving the Hôtel de Boulogne on Leon's arm. She was frightened, for she was sure he would talk. But he was not foolish enough to do that. Three days later he walked into her room, closed the door and said ‘I need money" (234). This is a pivotal point in the progression of the plot because now Lheureux has the upper hand in their relationship, and from this point on he consistently demands money from Emma. As she has spent all her money and exhausted all her other resources, Lheureux eventually demands the seizure of all her and Charles' estate. While Emma's spending habits make her eventual financial ruin inevitable, Flaubert calls special attention to Emma's lack of social awareness by having her carelessness be the catalyst that brings upon this unavoidable fate....
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