Caroline Hoffman English- Searching for Self Ms. Edwards 4/22/13 Aspirations vs. Society Conflict often lies at the heart of good story-telling. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment all feature protagonists whose ambitions conflict with the prevailing mores of their societies. Each leading character deals with this conflict in a different way, with very contrasting resolutions: Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice finds a happy ending; an impoverished and despairing Madame Bovary commits suicide; Rodion Raskolnikov atones for his crimes and emerges a changed man. Each of these personalities has strained against restrictions imposed by their societies, with varying degrees of success. Each aspires to a different life, and in confronting the conflict between personality and society, each of them comes to a better understanding of his or her own personality. Elizabeth Bennet’s aspirations in Pride and Prejudice are directed at Mr. Darcy, whom she at first dislikes, but then comes to love. His estate, Pemberley House, represents the aristocratic and elegant lifestyle she will eventually share with him. When Elizabeth first catches sight of Pemberley House, she immediately feels, “to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” Elizabeth aspires for association with more intelligent, interesting, honest, and genuine people than those who populate her mundane life in early 19th century England. While her society purportedly lives by the maxim, “It
is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”(1), this ironic statement directly contradicts the actual prevailing view that every woman needs a husband. Elizabeth Bennet refuses to accept a future as just “a wife” to be her predestination in her society. For her, Darcy represents the kind of genuine, honest, and interesting individual she wants as a husband. As much as Elizabeth respects and loves her family, she aspires to act as her own person and to spend her life with a man whose intelligence and integrity satisfy her desires. Elizabeth’s sense of humor, her light-hearted attitude, and her perceptive insights contribute to her tendency to see the best people. In addition to her genuine optimism, Elizabeth maintains her independent spirit. For example, Elizabeth rejects Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s demand that she discontinue as inappropriate all communication with Mr. Darcy; Elizabeth’s refusal to accede to this demand manifests her determination and persistence. Elizabeth controls her aspirations in a refined and genteel manner, consistent with her own personality. She comes to feel content within herself and achieves her ultimate objective without becoming a different person. Elizabeth’s conflict with the standards of her society reveals itself in subtle and understated ways. She never acts in an openly rebellious way, but pursues her ambitions more indirectly. For example, when Mr. Darcy insults her appearance, she still retains her composure. In her own determined but understated fashion, Elizabeth Bennet insists on her own identity and on fulfilling her own aspirations. Emma Bovary’s life, by contrast, exemplifies despair and desperation carried to extreme degrees. In early 19th century France, women found themselves relegated to secondary status. Emma suffers from her powerlessness and craves independence, which,
among other factors, leads her to depression and rebellion. She seeks to enhance her status by marrying a doctor, but her marriage to Charles becomes boring and only encourages further aspirations. The idea that epitomizes her feelings of humiliation emerges from the thought, “A man, at least, is free; he can explore all passions and all countries, overcome obstacles, taste of the most distant pleasures. But a woman is always hampered.” In other words, Emma Bovary wishes she were a man with independent power and authority as reflected in her wish for a son, who would epitomize for her a second chance. Emma yearns to be a part of the aristocracy, but as a farmer’s daughter, her desire expresses itself in a more unsophisticated fashion. Emma accepts the illusion that “love conquers all” without thinking beyond the surface. Emma resents the restrictions imposed by her society, but resorts to the extreme of licentious behavior to escape those restrictions. Unlike Elizabeth Bennet, Emma behaves in a hypocritical way; Emma is not genuine and adopts whatever façade suits her immediate purpose. Her personality presents conflicts within herself as well as with society’s standards. Emma’s social ambitions conflict with societies restrictions, but they also destroy her own inward sense of morality. As a result, she imposes unwarranted hardships on her husband and child as well as her many lovers. Emma constantly confronts the social barriers that impede her efforts to improve her social status and enhance her power. Emma wastes her life pursuing fantasies by behaving in ways frowned on by her society. Emma lives a life of shattered illusions and frustrated ambition. She fixates on one goal after another, with lovers like Rodolphe, that elude her. When she reunites with Rodolphe and says to him, “If only you knew all I dreamed!” (185), she captures in capsule form the story of her life. Emma thinks of love as a panacea, but society disagrees.
Hoffman 4 Raskolnikov, the male protagonist, on the other hand, comes from a society and
background poles apart from those of Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Bovary. Raskolnikov’s name translates as “split.” Raskolnikov’s personality displays two very different components: a malicious, arrogant, cunning, angry, rebellious nature, and a morally aware, socially conscious, genuinely empathetic character. His immediate and primary conflict with Russia’s 19th century society consists of his violation of the moral imperative that murder cannot be condoned. Raskolnikov’s feelings of isolation, fulfillment, anger, and insecurity lead him to commit the crime. He rationalizes the death of the pawnbroker as beneficial to society, but at the same time he recognizes the sin. In acting out on his emotional, financial, social, and political insecurities, Raskolnikov falls into the trap of extreme criminal behavior frowned on by his society. He blames society for his inferior status; society in turn blames his for not rising above that status; and the result produces a discordant clash between his personality and his society. In addition, Raskolnikov finds Socialist ideas appealing, but in an irrational and incoherent way. Thus, upon learning of the pawnbroker’s riches, he adopts the Socialist principle of distributing wealth. After committing the crime, his guilt leads him to think, “that it was no longer possible for him to address these people,” which articulates his feeling of total isolation. Raskolnikov’s emotional instability and actions make him an uncomfortable fit into any niche in society, and his efforts to escape from that quandary constitute exactly the wrong way to go about it. Raskolnikov’s defiance of society comes to a climax when he confesses to his crimes and accepts the inevitability of punishment. Raskolnikov has to “stand at the cross-roads, first bow down and kiss the earth…then bow to the whole world…and say aloud to all the world: “I have done murder.’”(355) Because all societies
universally condemn murder, his confession consists of a kind of moral death that finds redemption and rebirth later on through the kind and spiritual Sonya. Raskolnikov comes to learn that his varying personality traits create a complex and tortured soul that can only find redemption and escape once he gives in to society. He realizes that, in order to do so, he must reject his ubermench theory of superiority to other human beings. Raskolnikov resolves his conflict with society by confession and acceptance of the flaws of his theory and the consequences of his crimes. All three of these novels portray characters in conflict with themselves and their societies. Elizabeth Bennet eventually resolves her conflict with society and comes to a happy ending. Emma Bovary, on the other hand, can only resolve her internal and external conflicts with society by suicide. Rodion Raskolnikov’s resolution of his dilemma is confession, absolution, and redemption. All three protagonists deal with the cultures and standards of their own countries, and all resolve their conflicts within their own cultural parameters. Elizabeth Bennet achieves a greater understanding of herself in the refined culture of early 19th century England; by insisting on her own individuality, she comes to find comfort in a genuine relationship with her ideal mate. Emma Bovary’s violations of the standards of 19th century France lead inevitably to disaster for her; Emma’s response to her ultimate realization of the futility and immorality of her behavior leads to her escape through suicide. Raskolnikov’s tormented soul typifies the dark and brooding spirit of 19th century Russia; his eventual acknowledgement of the fallacy of his ubermench theory leads him disassociate himself from the idea and recognize his own individual humanity. These three protagonists come to find themselves through storytelling conflicts at their best.