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The Cursed Women in Literature: Emma Bovary and Bihter Ziyagil

By the end of the 18th century, many things had begun to change in every aspect such as politics, individual rights and literature. The age of logic started and people began to utilize scientific reasoning to understand the world. Women started to participate in intellectual life thanks to private gathering places. Coffee houses opened and writers, philosophers, politicians had a chance to discuss their ideas. In the field of literature, improvements in printing technology made the written texts available to a growing population of readers. In this way, the middle class grew and prospered. They were willing to read and pay for literature. Also, newspapers flourished and restrictions were eased. Hence, newspapers gave opinions on everything from social attitudes to politics. Besides that, writers began to write the novel genre. At the beginning of the 19th century, people kept pace with these changes. Just like the other countries, France was one of the countries that underwent changes. After the French Revolution took place, the republic was established. It is a turning point in the history of Europe and the Western world. As a consequence of that, in the field of literature with the effects of the Revolution, the romanticism movement started. The political liberalism of the French Revolution inspired the liberation, individuality and rejection of prescribed rules in romantic literature. On the other hand, most of the writers chose realism rather than romanticism within the novel genre. Unlike romanticism, realism is synonymous with veracity and it focuses on the experience of the individuals as subject matter. In France, Gustave Flaubert was the pioneer of the realism movement, he wrote the best realist novel among his contemporaries in Europe. Also, on the other side of the world, there was a writer who followed in Flaubert’s footsteps: Halit Ziya Uşaklıgil.


Gustave Flaubert was born in 1821 in France as a member of a bourgeois family. His father was a chief surgeon and clinical professor and his mother was a doctor’s daughter. His literary career began in school, he published a little review firstly in 1837.

Figure 1: Gustave Flaubert photographed by Etienne Carjat. (1860). [Photograph]. (1)

His best friend was the young philosopher Alfred Le Poittevin whose pessimistic outlook had a powerful influence on him. At the age of 22, Flaubert dropped out of university because of epilepsy. As a result that, he concentrated on literature and devoted all his time to reading and writing. After his father and sister died, he moved to Croisset with his mother and niece and he spent the rest of his life there. In terms of literature, in 1839 he wrote ‘Smarh’ which is the French version of Faust. However, he did not publish it until 1874. It can be said that Flaubert was a perfectionist and sedulous; he resumed working on his tasks until 1870 and published them in 1874. The tasks show us how his ideas changed over time. In the 1849’s version, he was influenced by Spinoza’s philosophy of nihilism, in the second version, his language is clear, but the content remains the same. In the third version, he shows respect for conservative ideas differently from the other versions. While he was writing the third version, he read British philosopher Herbert Spencer and accommodated the Spencerian notion of the Unknown with Spinozism. In 1849, he travelled to Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Turkey and Greece. This trip helped him to expand his ideas. Before leaving, he wanted to finish his work called ‘La Tentation’ and get his friends’ opinions, but they criticized him mercilessly. They said, “Throw it into the fire, and let’s never mention it again.” However, as mentioned before, Flaubert was a hardworking writer. Six years after his friends’ negative comments, he would have written the most important work in French literature: Madame Bovary. The story that was propagated by Maxime Du Camp in his Souvenirs littéraires took place on the Upper Nile, Flaubert began shouting, “I have found it! Eureka! Eureka! I will call her Madame Bovary’’

Even though Maxime Du Camp, who was the founder of the periodical Revue de Paris, encouraged him to publish the book in a short time, he did not do it. After five years of hard work, he finished Madame Bovary. He worked studiously during that period, almost every day he sat down to work and did not let anyone disturb him. He spent time on his desk with Madame Bovary but on his couch with Apuleius, Molière, Chateaubriand, Dante, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Boileau, Stendhal, Balzac, La Fontaine, Montaigne, Bossuet, Hugo, Horace, and Homer.

Besides those authors, Goethe’s Faust and also Bouilhet, who had a comparable range, accompanied him at nights. Bouilhet was as much a critical voice as a coreligionist, and his acumen profited not only Madame Bovary which Flaubert read to him chapter by chapter, then part by part (150 pages at a stretch), but also the work of Louise Colet who was the lover of Flaubert and often sent them poems and plays for repair. He was a man of nocturnal habits, usually awoke at 10 a.m. and announced the event with his bell cord. Only then people did dare to speak above a whisper. This book affected not only the permissible volume of household noise but also the rituals of daily life in Croisset in Flauberts’ home. In those days, his little niece Liline took the name ‘’Bovary’’ which is a French word for “work”. Even Madame Flaubert complained about it, but she always came and sat beside him like a loyal chamberlain.

Figure 2: Madame Bovary, manuscript. [Photograph] (2)

Some people claimed that Flaubert was inspired by Mémoires de Mme Ludovica, discovered by Gabrielle Leleu in the library of Rouen in 1946. As Herbert Lottman wrote about Flaubert’s life in his book: “Reducing Flaubert’s achievement to this outline, we can find factual sources such as the Delamare affair… But surely the most suggestive source is a curious manuscript entitled ‘Mémoires de Madame Ludovica,’ a naïve narrative of the adulterous loves and chilling debts of Louise Pradier, the sculptor’s estranged wife. In it, there is even a judicial seizure of property, as in Madame Bovary, and when Ludovica’s confidant threatens to tell her husband about her debts, the erring spouse says she will kill herself. Ludovica’s story, put together by an unknown confidante, was among the manuscripts found in Flaubert’s possession after his death, together with his own notes on the techniques used by Ludovica to obtain money– many of which became Emma Bovary’s techniques in turn. Louise Pradier wrote Flaubert a letter offering information on how the property of ‘an easy lady’ was seized, and she signed off with, ‘I gather up my energy and leap to [kiss] your neck.’’ Unambiguously, Louise Pradier was the inspiration for Flaubert. Even though society excluded her because of her love affair, Flaubert continued to see Louise Pradier.

Presumably, Louise Pradier showed her document. In March 1845, before the family’s nuptial voyage with Caroline, Flaubert had visited Mme Pradier, a notoriously indiscreet woman, in the hope of collecting bedroom stories about her recent quarrel with her husband who had caught her in flagrante delicto and started divorce proceedings. “Ah, what a great study I made there! And what a face I put on!” he informed Alfred Le Poittevin. “I approved of her conduct, declared myself to be the champion of adultery, and may even have astonished her by my indulgence. What is certain is that she found my visit extremely flattering and invited me back to dine with her… All of this should be painted, chiselled, narrated in.’’ However, despite curious questions about who inspired the novel heroine, Flaubert never mentioned Louise Pradier.

Figure 3: Louise Colet. (n.d.). [Photograph]

He answered the question wisely: ‘’Madame Bovary c’est moi.‘’ (Madame Bovary is me). Although some people claimed that Louise Pradier’s story was not the only inspiration for Flaubert. According to Frederick Brown’s ‘’Flaubert’’ biography, another inspirational woman figure for Flaubert was Mazza Willer. The same wanton who told the saint in La Tentation de Saint Antoine how much she relished “the play of hidden perfidies” was inspiring Flaubert since early adolescence years when he roughhewed Emma in a story entitled “Passion and Virtue: A Philosophical Tale.” Mazza Willer, the banker husband she cuckolds, and Ernest, a callous rogue who seduces and abandons her, all three modelled after people involved in a horrible drama of which the Gazette des Tribunaux gave a full account on October 4, 1837. Perhaps the reason why the characters are shaped in flesh and bones while reading is because it is inspired by a true story. Even Flaubert himself wrote: “My poor Bovary suffers and cries in more than a score of villages in France at this very moment.” When it is considered he converted a cliche story to a classic, Flaubert’s turn of expression’s effect is not undeniable.

The realistic style Flaubert used while conveying daily life, besides giving a reputation to the book, was the beginning of the literary realism movement. Even though critics accepted Madame Bovary as a realist novel, Flaubert did not like the work of the realist movement. The realism movement started in France and it reacted against the romanticism movement. According to William Harmon and Hugh Holman, “Where romanticists transcend immediately to find the ideal, and naturalists plumb actually or superficially to find the scientific laws that control its actions, realists centre their attention to the degree of the immediate actions, the here and now, the specific actions, and the verifiable consequences.” According to Rene Wellek, who was a literary critic, realist literature’s purpose is the objective representation of social reality. Madame Bovary has some realistic elements in terms of style and content which make it a realist and anti-romantic novel. First, it has verisimilitude which is the appearance of being real. Flaubert achieved this element successfully when Madame Bovary was published, readers and critics tried to find who Emma Bovary was based on. Even today, we are discussing this issue.

Figure 4: The first edition of Madame Bovary [Photograph] (1857).

Accordingly, Emma is the reflection of women who feel unsatisfied with the life they have at that time. Even today, modern readers can establish a bond with Emma’s boredom and ennui. The ordinary and simple reality set up by Flaubert is in complete contrast with the extreme desires of the main character Emma. The banality of everyday life does not fit into Emma’s romantic fantasies and demands, that’s why she is never satisfied. As a reader, to me, Emma is a woman caught between her dreams and the bittersweet realities of life. She thinks that life is like a romantic novel which she reads. In addition to this, Flaubert tried to show the bad sides of romantic ideas. Emma is seen as a symbol of romance because neither her thoughts nor emotions are compatible with the realities of the world she lives in and Flaubert explains her romantic ideas with irony, in other words, he makes fun of her. Also, Flaubert tries to warn readers about romanticism through Emma and criticizes the romanticism idea as well. Besides all these, Flaubert criticizes bourgeois life, too. During the times of Flaubert, the new urban class began to emerge between the working class and nobility. He underestimated this new class and their dreams and arrogance. At this point, some people see Madame Bovary as a bourgeois criticism that satirizes their ignorance. Flaubert expressed his hate towards this class through Emma’s disgust at a middle-class life. However, Madame Bovary caused trouble for Flaubert in 1857. Flaubert wrote this letter ten days before his trial: ‘’The police have blundered. They thought they were attacking a run-of-the-mill novel and some ordinary little scribbler whereas now (in part thanks to the prosecution) my novel is considered as a masterpiece; as for the author, he has for defenders a number of what used to be called “grandes dames”; the Empress, among others, has spoken twice in my favour; the Emperor said, the first time: “They should leave him alone”. Despite all these, the case was taken up again. Why? There the mystery begins… They are all so stupid that I have come to enjoy it greatly.‘’. According to some sources, Madame Bovary was accused of ruining society’s moral decency and insulting religion. In those days, censorship was formally strict but often administered haphazardly during the Second Empire. As F. W. J. Hemmings observes: ‘’If the Second Empire provided a discouraging climate for literature and the arts, this would be because of the philistinism of the general public more than in consequence of the repressive measures that were put into force after the coup d’état.’’. But, Flaubert thought that the accusations aimed at the government that wanted to close Revue de Paris, the periodical in which Madame Bovary first appeared in serial form. Flaubert himself commented: “I am a pretext. The government is out to destroy the Revue de Paris, and I have been chosen as its instrument.” (December 31, 1 856). No doubt, the trial was a pretext for the government in part to exercise authority over an unruly periodical. But this narrowly Realpolitik function of the trial hardly exhausts its meaning and significance. Indeed, Flaubert’s own conception for the trial as a pretext for a governmental attack upon the Revue de Paris was related to his firm belief as much as two weeks before the trial that his case would never get to court. In a letter that its probable date is January 16, 1857, he changed his mind about his role as a pretext and indicated his puzzlement over the course of events. In the trial, Flaubert’s defence attorney pointed out that great work could demolish society’s moral decency to show people how life was going on.

However, when Flaubert was struggling with trial and the other things, Halid Ziya Uşaklıgil was writing a novel about a woman who had a similar destiny with Emma on the other side of the world, he named the novel Aşk-ı Memnu.


Halid Ziya Uşaklıgil was born in Istanbul in 1866. He moved to Izmir in 1879 and finished his high school education there. Later, he came back to Istanbul and attended an Armenian Catholic school. He started writing in his school years, he learned French and made translations from French authors. In school, he had Armenian friends and with the help of them, he learned about non-Muslim culture and lifestyle.

Figure 5: Halid Ziya Uşaklıgil. (1914). [Photograph].

Thanks to his education and entourage, he was influenced by the culture and literature in the west. He was a loyal reader of Emile Zola, Balzac and Flaubert, at this point it can be said that he was influenced by French literature. Furthermore, he published his works in the literary journal Servet-i Fünun. He published Aşk-ı Memnu in this journal. It was the turning point of his writing career, even today Aşk-ı Memnu is liked by modern readers. According to literary critic Ömer Faruk Huyugüzel, success is coming from an abundant number of characters and their own individual lives. For Parlatır and Enginün, Aşk-ı Memnu is superior to other novels of the time since it displays the inner dilemma of the characters in dramatic tension. Aşk-ı Memnu is distinguished in terms of the plot in 19th-century Turkish literature. Until Halit Ziya, no one had written the theme of forbidden love. Before him, novel topics were limited. During the 19th century, Ottoman Empire tried to adapt western world and they made changes in politics, literature and education. The idea of modernization contributed people to question women’s status in society, that’s why some intellectuals like Halit Ziya, used women figures in their works. It should be known that he was the author of the Servet-i Fünun era. In this era, authors tried to adapt European literary style to Turkish literature in a westernized attitude. In the 19th century, European writers used the novel to contribute to the developments and problems in society, in other words, they put the human and its problems in the centre of the novel. However, the novels in Turkish literature at the time were not enough to show human’s problems or psychology. Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar claimed that in Turkey, the actual novel writing started with Halit Ziya as he was a natural novelist by birth because Uşaklıgil explained the importance of using the human spirit as the main source in literary works by comparing Turkish works with those of western literature in which stories were seen as a mirror of people’s lives and their psychology. There is no doubt that Halit Ziya was affected by Madame Bovary when he was writing Aşk-ı Memnu. In “Hikaye’’ he stated his ideas on Madame Bovary and how this book was revolutionary for literature. For him, Madame Bovary was one of the best novels which analyze psychology. Also, there is no doubt that Emma was the main inspiration for Uşakligil when he created Bihter.

Figure 6: Cover of Servet-i Fünun Journal. [Photograph].

In terms of the plot and Uşaklıgil’s notes, it can be said that Aşk-ı Memnu is a Turkish adaptation of Madame Bovary. Accordingly, both writers give the storyline to readers with a psychological perspective of the characters. Consequently, readers can understand their feelings and empathize with them. Thus, they cannot judge their infidelity. However, both writers’ turn of impressions is different from each other. Flaubert made fun of romanticism. As a result of this, his descriptions are more detailed. He explains Emma’s pain word by word when she commits suicide. On the other hand, Halit Ziya shows Bihter’s pain in a softer description. To explain the common points between Madame Bovary and Aşk-ı Memnu, both novels are about unhappy married women who cheated on their husbands and in the end, they commit suicide. Also, both Emma and Bihter are imprisoned by their demands and desires. Even though they know how bad their attitude is, they cannot control themselves. But, at this point, we can say that Bihter is more conscientious than Emma. Moreover, both women have high ideals, hence, they are never satisfied. Both of them have rich but passive husbands, so they are looking for a saviour who can take them out of their dull and stable lives. Nevertheless, both novels are written by authors from different nationalities, the storylines show us the developments in society as well. Thanks to the French Revolution, new phenomenons began to spread such as republic and equal rights. Also, the idea of feminism was inseminated.

Figure 7: The First Chapter of Aşk-ı Memnu. [Photograph].

By the late 19th century, the idea of feminism started to develop and women’s role in society was discussed. Women started to show up from places they were hiding, strict family-style started to lose its importance. According to some critics, Emma and Bihter are examples of new women concepts. For instance, Emma is interested in reading and learning, unlike the other characters. Also, Bihter is a model of westernized women in Turkey in the 19th century. She stands against her mother regarding her marriage with Adnan Bey who is older than Bihter. Therefore, Bihter can be seen as a rebel figure in the novel.

Flaubert’s success was not a coincidence, he fought for this success even in trial. Besides that, unlike her disloyalty to Charles, Emma Bovary did not betray Flaubert and she made him a successful writer. Likewise, Bihter made Halid Ziya the best novelist among his contemporaries. I can not help but wonder if Emma and Bihter had crossed paths, these two desperate women would support each other or would they choose suicide again?

Bibliographical References

Akman, A. C. (2014). The Experience of marriage: a comparative study of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary & Halit Ziya Uşakligil’s Aşk-ı Memnu with a psychoanalytic feminist perspective.

Becker, G. J. (1963). Gustave Flaubert, ‘On Realism’. Documents of Modern Literary Realism. Princeton University Press.

Brown, F. (2007). Flaubert: A Biography. Harvard University Press.

Culler, J. (2007). The Realism of Madame Bovary. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Demir, E. (2021). Halit Ziya’nın Aşk-ı Memnu Romanında Kadın Temsillerinin Toplumsal Cinsiyet Perspektifinden İncelenmesi. Turkish Academic Research Review – Türk Akademik Araştırmalar Dergisi [TARR]. Published.

Dumesnil, R. (2021, May 4). Gustave Flaubert | French author. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Flaubert, G. (1857). Madame Bovary. Penguin Publishing.

Harmon, W. (2010). A Handbook to Literature. Oxford Publishing.

LaCapra, D. (1982). Madame Bovary on Trial. Cornell University Press.

Lottman, H. R. (1990). Flaubert: A Biography. Little Brown and Company.

Uşaklıgil, H. Z. (1998). Hikâye: İnceleme (N. G. Arslan, Ed.). Yapı Kredi Kültür Sanat Yayıncılık.

Wikipedia contributors. (2006, June 5). Halid Ziya Uşaklıgil. Wikipedia.

Visual Sources

1 komentaras

Great post about the young dreamer, Madame Bovary.

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Çağla Deniz Bülbül

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