Emma from Madame Bovary and Ivan Ilyich from The Death of Ivan Ilyich are intrinsically linked by their personality and attitude. They share similar ideas of fashion and society, and their obsession with appearances consumes their lives. They also share a contempt for their spouses, seeking a stronger idea of social norms. Because of their way of living, they each experience a role reversal with their children, with their children being more worldly and informed about what is important in life.
Ivan Ilyich enjoyed a pleasant childhood, explained in his flashbacks. The second of three sons, he attends a School of Law and gains social skills and graces that make him valued company. He was respected for both his abilities and his personality, even as he performs acts to him that would have previously been repugnant to him, as seen in:
At school he had done things which had formerly seemed to him very horrid and made him feel disgusted with himself when he did them; but when later on he saw that such actions were done by people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong, he was able not exactly to regard them as right, but to forget about them entirely or not be at all troubled at remembering them. (Tolstoy 42).
Social pressures caused him to marry a respectable woman, Praskovya Fedorovna. His marriage is one of convenience and to fulfill social norms. His loveless marriage results in children, something Ivan had never considered and is mostly unexpected. He decides that a family man must be formal towards his family and adopts a more studied approach to his family rather than one of familiarity and casualness.
Consumed by ideas of traditional values and duty, Ivan focuses all of his efforts on his work, rather than his wife or family. After adjusting curtains in his home, Ivan suffers an accident and his condition deteriorates. He is plagued by fear of death and pain and the realization he lived his life with a focus on the wrong things. His relationship with his family suffers any further, with Praskovya not understanding her husband’s condition or what he suffers, and treats him with no concern.
However, at the end of his life, his son Vladimir kisses his father’s hand and comforts Ivan. Vladimir never fell into the social norm obsession that took up the family’s time, and helps his father realize at the end what is really important in life, ““Can it be that I have not lived as one ought?” suddenly came into his head. “But how not so, when I’ve done everything as it should be done?” (Tolstoy 122). Ivan is comforted by Vladimir’s gesture and reaches a state of peace.
A key aspect of the novel is role reversal. Rather than acting as a real father, Ivan is instead a child in his relationship with Vladimir. He does not guide Vladimir in life’s essentials. Instead, he teaches Vladimir about society and fashion. It is Vladimir who gets what is truly important in life and he teaches Ivan instead at the very end, causing Ivan to have to rethink allof his life’s ideals, as evidenced in: “He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death. In place of death there was light. (Tolstoy 123).
Like Ivan, Emma’s childhood was pivotal to shaping her worldview. Romantic novels are pivotal to her life, shaping what she views to be typical behavior and shapes her ideas of what romance should look like. It causes her to be dissatisfied with her lot and constantly look for more, as evidenced in, “Everything immediately surrounding her—boring countryside, inane petty bourgeois, the mediocrity of family life—seemed to her the exception rather than the rule” (Flaubert 65). This has longstanding consequences throughout her life, affecting her life, marriage, and interactions with her own children.
Unlike Ivan who sought solace through order and formality, Emma seeks comfort and fulfillment by indulging her romantic ideals. She embraces selfishness, pursuing affairs with Leon and Rodolphe, and even neglects her daughter Berthe. She is extremely cold to her daughter, leaving Berthe alone to shape her own ideas without motherly influence.
Unlike Leon, however, Emma never comes to any realization about her behavior and its impact on Emma. Instead, she carries her indifference to her death. Her influence, however, continues to shape Emma’s treatment. Her husband Charles, so obsessed with Emma’s memory, pursues the same lifestyle she loved, buying expensive things and wearing the latest fashion. This leads them into distinct poverty, as seen in, “He suffered, poor man, at seeing her [Berthe] so badly dressed, with laceless boots, and arm-holes of her pinafore torn down to the hips; for the charwoman took no care of her. But she was so sweet, so pretty, and her little head bent forward so gracefully, letting the dear hair fall over her rosy cheeks, like those ill-made wines that taste of resin” (Flaubert 293). After Charles’ death, Berthe is sent away as a poor relation to live with a distant relative and has a pitiful life outlook.
Emma and Ivan share a similar obsession with fashion and society driven by their childhood experiences. While Ivan pursues the idea of propriety and formality, Emma pursues a lavish lifestyle and romance. Their obsession with society causes them to neglect their children until the very end, while their children become the family leaders in sense and life goals.