What’s the Difference Between Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina?

what lies beneath

Whatever “ethical” dilemma it is, whether it be: murder, lying, cheating, or stealing – what do we really value? Can we not, each and every one of us, imagine a situation where we might steal, lie or even murder? Where we would feel justified in acting thusly? If I value my children I would steal a loaf of bread to prevent them from starving- is that still stealing? If I value love I would murder an immediate threat to those I love, or lie to protect them. And what about love? Forbidden love? In reality all of societal black and whites quickly turn gray. We all know Anna Karenina deserves our sympathy, but Madame Bovary…

What is the point of ethics that forbid what we value most in the world. An ethic that goes against what makes life worth living is not a good ethic. If the ethic is placed above the value- it renders it null and void; firstly by lacking probable adherence and also by a drowning out of what is true about people. We want to be kind to one another, we like to love one another and there are all sorts of instances where a little unethical act or even a huge one is born out of this essential aspect of our psychology. Finding ways to allow for and predict this proclivity in order to minimize counter-productive, ham-fisted laws, practices, codes and attitudes would be much more useful.

In a teleological approach, if we acknowledge that that happiness is our goal, Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics can be most useful on an individual and subsequent societal level.  The only real effect we can have, after all, is to, by habitual purposefulness, instill the qualities and modes of behavior that we value: what is referred to as “virtue ethics.”  Eudemonism (the likelihood that good actions will produce happiness) is a tried and true methodology. What makes us truly happy (not in the hedonistic selfish now I have a stomach-ache-from-too-much-cake-cocktails-coitus-fill-in-your-pleasure sense, rather in the I-have-never-felt-so perfectly-satiated-exquisitely-balanced sense) is what we must work and strive for, finding, or at least aiming for that golden mean. By constantly keeping our sense of who we want to be at the forefront of our daily habits and interactions, by being true to what we love and value we can set our sails in the right direction.

There will always be complications. Both Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina are adulteresses. But are they worthy of equal contempt? If society had been kind enough to allow Anna out of an unhappy marriage (which can never be “good” for the children whom must live under the asphyxiation of lovelessness) when she fell in love, her story could have met a reasonable end. Her guiding force was love, perhaps a quality that is so rare it alarms the masses. The guiding force for Emma however was hyper-narcissism; societal reactions are irrelevant to such a twisted soul. The sin is the same, but is the ethic? There is a difference between the two.


28 responses to “What’s the Difference Between Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina?

  1. If you do wish to ‘unpublish’ a blog in future, you can always edit Visibility and set as Private. You may already know this. And thanks for sharing your piece on ethics. For an example of an ethical business see co-operative http://www.co-operative.coop/corporate/aboutus/. have fun today.

    • that is useful knowledge that I did not know. Thanks.

    • but..once it went into people’s emails…is there anyway to grab it back? probably not. Anyway it’s so long it’s very likely no one will read it anyway!

      • Emails will only notify your Followers of your Post. But if you then decide to amend it to Private they won’t then be able to see it. OK, so it is doesn’t matter for this, but useful to know if you were to publish something that later you wished you hadn;t. Of course you can always Delete any Post.

    • Thank you for taking the time answering what must be really remedial questions. I do appreciate it. So maybe I can dig my hole of ignorance just a little further…I thought that once I sent it out, it was out (at least into subscriber’s emails). But I follow blogs as well so I know what you are talking about, but my question is this- is it an option? (mine or the subscribers) because some of the blogs I follow are simply headlines or “notification” emails, but some of them deliver the content in its entirety, I don’t actually have to go to their site unless I want to “like” or comment. Why the difference? Maybe I should follow myself so that I can see what others see….

      • This is getting complex, but I hope my feedback helps. I am not a guru on this topic, but here goes.
        1. I don’t usually follow WP blogs via my email, I use Reader > Blogs I follow.
        2. For some reason this blog appeared twice, one after the other in my Reader stream.
        3. Having checked my gmail, I have notifications of all the comments here in full, but no notification of the original post (not either of them) given that 2 were in my Reader stream! So on this occasion I would not have been able to read in full via email (although you are right, once the email has gone (post is Publish) you can’t retrieve.
        4. Hope you are following so far.
        5. I am not sure whether it is possible to set preferences so posts are not notified by email. I think this can be controlled by receiver(reader) rather than author/publisher. Perhaps others may be able to advise.
        6. What you might consider in future is that WP defaults to Publish your post immediately. I find this often means that I Publish a post only to go back and Edit it to improve typos etc almost immediately. So if it is a long post that I am writing directly on WP I prefer to set a Scheduled date in the future. This way you can View the post without immediate Publication. If and when I am happy with it, I can then amend date, if I want to Publish the same day. You only have all these options if you create a New Post from within your blog.
        7. If you start New Post via WordPress logo it doesn’t offer the same options. While it is nice to ‘get started’ with a clean layout, it is annoying that the same options don’t seem to be available.
        8. Again others may correct me if I’m wrong. I’m just sharing my limited experience to date.

      • I think that is helpful. I will have to read it slowly a few more times for complete comprehension.
        The manner in which I posted it is somewhat of a mystery to me. I think I may have hit return twice or something of that sort. I have in the past accidentally hit publish instead of preview, but in this case I didn’t make that mistake. I hit something on my keyboard with a little too much enthusiasm and out it went- no matter how sweetly I tried to call it back, “Come back! Come back!”

      • I got your first post as a numbered one. but I couldn’t locate it. it said it did not exist. then i got the second one, ie this one, and I managed to read it. teh original one was sent out but vanished, to be replaced with this. does this help?

  2. Wow! so many words, so many ideas. Hmmm. Realy hard to pin down what is right, or even good practice. Even ideas like thou shall not kill are open to interpretation – like if everyone’s dying after a plane crash, is it ok to kill one to save the lives of others? It’s all about what makes sense, or is necessary at the time. There is also debate as to why we are ever nice to each other. Well, that’s simpler, because none of us like having to sleep with a gun under our bed, so there is an incentive to be nice to others. And kids who are brought up well tend to be better people and in turn produce better kids themselves. Better stop now as my brain is starting to overheat. Hope this helps. Cheers and have a good weekend.

  3. that’s the “aspiration” part I guess. People crave completion, but it’s only ever going to be a process.

  4. What a coincidence — I happen to be reading The Dialogues of Plato now. I’m in the middle of his arguments concerning what is innately good, etc. It’s making me dizzy. Your paper was interesting to read.

  5. Thanks. I keep tinkering with it probably because it is so dizzying.

  6. And now for a comment on your topic: Ethics. I’m not sure what your brief is but your thoughts seem to be centred on the personal or individual rather than the macro/global/cultural ethical issues. Economic growth v. the planets resources, medical ethics, scientific, biological developments like genes, stem cells. Many countries and corporations claim to be ‘ethical’ but in reality people bend the ‘rules’ to gain advantage. United Nations ‘peace keepers’ abusing in Haiti or Bosnia.
    A ‘big’ topic. Hope this is not too heavy. You might also mention cultural / religious differences around the globe. Eastern cultures v. Western values. And Good Luck…………

    • That’s true, I am very much more focused in this paper on personal ethics. But it seems a full understanding of personal ethics would have to come before societal ethics which should naturally take their cue from personal behavior.
      It is a big topic, one could go on and on…an entire paper could be written just on corporate ethics – an oxymoron if ever there was one!

  7. We definitely need a “Come Back” button – I can hear you calling it back in vain – lovely. It made me smile 🙂

  8. I was watching Eddie Izzard the other night on Netflix, and he does this great routine about ethics and the animal kingdom, and speculates that there are no bad giraffes–he wonders what a bad giraffe would look like, then imitates a bad giraffe chewing on leaves…”I will eat more leaves than I should, and other giraffes will die…(evil laugh)… I am an evil giraffe…” Jessica, this is a great essay–and so glad I found you and your blog in cyberspace, and especially after watching Eddie Izzard… Anyway, I’m struck with Izzard’s idea that human beings alone can be bad of all the creatures that inhabit this world. And I think, for me, this springs from the fact that human beings are capable of complex, creative thought–which interestingly suggests that beauty and complexity and value, love, compassion…could perhaps spring from the self-same place as that which is bad… And while I love the way you look at the dance between utilitarian and other arguments for the good (have you read Geneaology of Morals?), for me I still feel, and I suppose I could be fooled into thinking this by a complex web of socio-cultural forces beyond my control, that there is some line out there beyond cultural norms that you can cross where you are just “bad,” that there are things that are always bad for all cultures… I’m reminded of a book I read years ago by C.S. Lewis–the name escapes me right now–a kind of religious parable, in which a character who is basically the devil, just goes around slitting open frogs with his long fingernail and leaving them to die… While I’m sure one could work hard to construct a narrative where that’s culturally acceptable, I do think, or maybe just really really want to think that there is some line, and that humans are the only species who find a way to cross it…with all too much regularity…

    • I think that’s true. The entire time I wrote this I kept thinking of that famous quote (unfortunately not so famous that I can recall the name of the author of said quote, but he was a supreme court justice…) about pornography: “I can’t say what it is, but I know it when I see it.”
      There are some things that ARE wrong; slavery for example…no amount of cultural relativism, or intuition can make that right. But there are a lot of areas that just can never be anything other than gray. I always want to say to the rule-makers- Why be so rigid fellas?
      I have not read Genealogy of Morals, but I will look for it. Thank you.

      • The question I find perhaps more haunting than the issue of all those grays is wondering about things that are just bad or just good and how it is that that is so….do we need religion or biology or what? Why the utter joy I feel when listening to Segovia, and the utter revulsion when reading about the Holocaust? Maybe Wittgenstein was right: that which we can not speak of, we must simply pass over in silence (loosely quoted) ….

      • Oh that’s a lovely quote. I love Segovia, utter joy indeed. But be careful of that intuitive ethic creeping in, just because you feel it doesn’t make it real if I can borrow from Radiohead…

  9. “What is moral is what you feel good after. What is immoral is what you feel bad after,” Hemingway.

  10. well said, well done

    • Thank you…I have to admit I find this particular post….dissatisfying, the subject is one of my most frequent search hits…sigh….but I thank you for your kind words all the same.

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