Comparison of Romanticism and Realism in Jane Eyre and Madame Bovary

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Romanticism was the most prevalent artistic style found in the earliest literature. Poets, musicians, authors, and playwrights all applied romantic themes in their works. Romanticism was more than an artistic style; it was a movement. It found its roots in Europe at the ending of the 18th Century. On this time, both the agricultural and industrial revolutions were taking place. The population was increasing, new scientific theories on nature were arising, and social and political structures were changing. The act of romanticizing literature was a reaction to these changes that were taking place all over Europe and was intended as an escape.  The use of romantic ideas in literary works was so common that this period became known as the romantic era.

 Romanticism glorified individualism and originality among literary writers (Forward 1). It promoted the idea that artists should create their works from nothing, rather than draw inspiration from the creations of others. The movement emphasized intense emotion in the quest for sensory experiences. As such, romantic works were written when artists channeled their emotions. They were also framed in such a way that they would evoke these feelings in the readers. Literature from this era also persistently invoked respect for nature and the past, focusing on medieval times. These can be seen in the literature that featured tales of knights and heroes. Another recurring theme was the application of folklore. These works contained elements from legends and fairytales. The romantic era gave rise to some of the greatest romance works of all time. A perfect example is a novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, which was published in 1847.

At around 1837, the romantic era was coming to an end. The general public craved more realistic ideas, and the content of literature shifted to reflect this change. While romanticism tended to show life in a way that created an image of an ideal lifestyle that was more adventurous and pictures perfect than real life was, realism literature works at painting a picture of life depicting the way it is (Šnircová 9). With this, the realism era came into existence. The era can be traced back to France in the 19th century. Realism in literature seeks to create a relationship between what is written in literary works and what is happening in the real world. The composition of novels and poetry now consisted of storylines that reflected day to day lives and the situations that the everyday people endured. The contrast between realism and romanticism leads to the assumption that realism literature applied to the bourgeois, the common man, while romantic works catered to the feudalists (Taghizadeh 1).

 It was during this time that Gustave Flaubert published Madame Bovary and Émile Zola published Thérèse Raquin. These both books are among the most widely recognized examples of the use of realism in literature. Both of these novels completely abandon all the themes of romanticism and instead, tackle a real-life issue that the authors’ people faced then. They, therefore, doubtlessly fall under the category of realism literature. A critical analysis of these two novels; their plots, themes, and characters, will provide insight on the abandonment of unrealistic romantic notions. It will show the use of realistic themes in literature, and highlight the marrying of reality and fiction.

Madame Bovary is a novel that was published in 1856. It was the first novel to be written by Gustave Flaubert. Gustave was born in France in 1821. He was born in a rich family, with his father being a doctor. Flaubert spent a majority of his childhood in solitude, using his time alone to advance his literary skills. When Madam Bovary was first published, it generated a lot of controversies. The novel highlighted themes of adultery in an otherwise conservative era. The controversy surrounding the novel was so much that a year after its publication, Gustave was brought to trial on charges of obscenity. The prosecution claimed that the events described in the book undermined the sacred union that is marriage while simultaneously glorifying adultery (Šnircová, 2015). The novel was even argued to be pornographic by various critics. The charges against Gustav were eventually dropped. Despite all the fuss surrounding the book, it is mostly negative; it served to popularize it.

The book tells the story of Charles and Emma Bovary. The setting of the story in northern France, his childhood, Charles is painted as shy and quiet. He was having problems fitting in with his classmates who continuously ridicule him. He struggles through school and barely passes the exam to qualify as a doctor. He is then married to a wealthy widow named Heloise; a decision made for him by his mother.  Heloise soon passes away, leaving him an inheritance that was smaller than he had expected. Charles then makes the acquaintance of Emma, the young, educated and beautiful daughter of one of his patients and immediately falls in love with her. Emma’s father gives them his blessings, and their courtship begins.

At this juncture, the novel’s focus shifts to Emma. The first years of the couple’s married life are blissful. As time goes by, however, Emma begins to find their life dull. She is disillusion by the tales she reads in romantic novels and yearns for more from life. After attending a luxurious ball with Charles at the home of a nobleman, Emma’s cravings for a richer and more sophisticated lifestyle increase. They get so bad that she gets depressed and seriously ill. Charles decides to move his wife to a new town, in the hope that it would improve her health. It was while living in this new town that their daughter, Berthe, was born. Motherhood brings with it a fresh bout of boredom for Emma, who had initially wanted a son. Her continuous dissatisfaction with life slowly edges her towards a life of adultery.

While living in this new town, Emma meets Leon, a young law clerk who shares her love of literature and her dissatisfaction with basic life. They begin a love affair, which only ends when Léone has to leave to further his law studies. After Léone, Emma meets Rodolph, a wealthy neighbor, who seduces her and leads her into yet another affair. Emma neglects discretion, often sending letters to her lover and visiting him. However, Charles remains oblivious, blinded by his love for his wife. The affair lasts four years, and ends after Emma suggests that the two elope, sentiments which Randolph did not share. The end of this affair leaves Emma ill. After she recovers, Charles takes her to a nearby city to watch an opera. She meets Léone, now fully educated and working, and the two rekindle their passions. Emma frequently travels into the city to meet him, under the guise of taking piano lessons. She also indulges her luxurious fancies by making purchases on credit. Her debts soon pile up, and, unable to raise funds to clear them, she kills herself.

Charles is overwhelmed with grief at the death of his wife. He neglects his medical practice, instead of living of money he makes off of selling his property. He reveres the memory of his wife, converting her room into a shrine. He eventually finds the letters Emma received from Léone and Randolph. Heartbroken, he dies alone, leaving his daughter to live a life of abject poverty.

    It is very easy to see why Madame Bovary is considered one of the greatest realistic novels ever to be written. One of the defining characteristics of realistic novels is their relevance to current real life happenings. Emma’s characteristic lack of satisfaction is representative of the women that had existed during this period. The novel was published at a time when feminist movements were cropping up all over France, but the lives of women in the provinces, women such as Emma, had experienced no change for the better. Emma’s hunger for more fulfillment from life is a concept many readers at that time, and even today can sympathize with. Gustave, however, does not idealize this character. On the contrary, he uses her to show the dangers of wistful romantic ideologies (Kamal, 2014).

Another important aspect of realism literature is that they need to carry an air of verisimilitude. This means that the events described should appear real. Gustave achieves this by offering extremely detailed descriptions of the scenes in his book. Even the metaphors he uses are inspired by everyday occurrences, rather than being abstract. Madame Bovary was so realistic that people kept badgering Gustave to tell them who the “real” Emma Bovary was. Some aspects of his life certainly made their way into his novel. The fact that Charles was a doctor was probably inspired by his father being a doctor. Charles shy childhood persona could have been modeled after Gustave’s introverted tendencies while he was growing up. 

Realistic prose succeeds from its use of basic and plausible scenes in the portrayal of everyday life.  Gustave manages to masterfully describe the dull humdrum life of the middle class in France at the time of the novel’s penning.  Madame Bovary adequately shows how dissatisfying the life of the bourgeois was, that they were consumed with greed and an incessant need to better their lifestyles and escape this social standing.

Émile Zola’s novel, Thérèse Raquin, was published in 1867. Zola was born in 1840. His father passed on when he was young, leaving him with his mother. The two lived an impoverished life. His poor upbringing influenced his writing of this novel. The experiences he accumulated throughout his life were invaluable in his portrayal of burgeous life in nineteenth-century France. Zola names Gustave Flaubert, specifically Madame Bovary, as one of his most significant literary influences.  Thérèse Raquin was received with intense opposition. Many people did not agree with the tale it told, one of betrayal, lust, madness, and murder. Critics went as far as to label the work crude and filthy. Regardless, Thérèse Raquin eared Zola worldwide acclaim.

Thérèse Raquin tells the story of Thérèse and the consequences of the actions she takes. The setting of the book is back alleys of Paris. Thérèse, following her mother’s demise, is taken by her father to live with her aunt, Madame Raquin. Madame Raquin has a son, Camille, who sickly. For this reason, she spoils him. The two children grow up together, and when they come of age, their aunt marries them to each other. The family then moves to Paris so that Camille can find a career to pursue. In the meantime, Madam Raquin and Thérèse set up a shop which they run together to support the family while Camille hunts for jobs. Camille is finally able to secure employment at a railway company. While here, he meets an old childhood friend.

At this point in the story, Thérèse is already dissatisfied with her life and is disgusted by her husband, Camille. So when she meets Laurent during his visit to the family, the two begin to have an affair. They have regular secret rendezvous in Thérèse’s room, but eventually find that they need to bring a plan that will allow them to meet more regularly. It is at this juncture that they come up with the plan to kill Camille. The pair drowns Camille while the three of them were taking a boat trip. Thérèse and Laurent soon marry, but theirs is a turbulent union. They are constantly haunted by visions of Camille, visions that slowly drive them insane. Unable to tolerate the madness, each one hatches a plan to kill the other. Just when they are about to carry out their plans, they find out each other’s schemes. The two end up committing suicide via the ingestion of poison.

.Zola’s work in Thérèse Raquin alludes heavily to naturalism. In many ways, Zola is regarded as the founding father of the naturalist movement. Naturalism stems from realism and is the application of a scientific and experimental approach to literature. The study of characters is done based on their reaction to their surroundings. Writers using a naturalism approach believe that the study of human behavior might lead to a better understanding of the laws and principles governing this behavior (Campbell 1). There are some characteristics that identify novels written using a naturalist approach. The characters in these works are usually lower class characters. Thérèse Raquin, fulfills this conditions, seeing as its characters reside in the backstreets. The themes governing these books are taboo themes, such as violence, lust, and greed. All of these are covered in Zoila’s novel, which explains why the book generated so much controversy.


    The romance was the recurring theme in early literature. Literary compositions created during this era emphasized the importance of emotions such as awe and affection. They idolized nature’s beauty and revived folklore. However, it soon became clear that audiences were inclined to more realistic works of fiction, stories that they could relate to their lives. Thus arose the realism era. Realism trumped over romanticism and works such as Madame Bovary and Thérèse Raquin started to gain popularity. This change in literary consumption preference signified the death of romance.


Campbell, Donna M. naturalism in American literature. Literary movements. Department of             English, Washington State university. 2017. Web. 13 Jan 2018

Kamal, Nudrat. Madame Bovary and realism. 2014. Web. 13 Jan 2018

Forward, Stephanie. The romantics. Discovering Literature: romantics and Victorians. British Library. Web 13 Jan 2018.

Šnircová, Soňa. Realism, modernism, postmodernism. Five modern literary texts in context.           Pavol Jozef Šafárik university in Košice. 2015. Print.

Taghizade, Ali. A theory of literary realism. Academy Publisher. 2014. Print

December 12, 2023



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