On Identity and Alterity – from The Open University module AA316

Discuss identity and alterity, and its impact on narration, in two of the following novels: Madame Bovary, The Woman in White, The Portrait of a Lady.

Walter Besant considered characterisation, and therefore identity, an author’s key to creating a great novel, arguing that the ‘very first rule in Fiction is that human interest must absolutely absorb everything else.’ (Besant, p. 65) In Henry James’ reply to Besant’s argument he commented that ‘[t]he only obligation’ a novel could be held up to ‘is that it be interesting’ (James, p. 73) From the mid nineteenth century onwards authors were exploring different ways to pique their readers’ interest. In a letter to his mistress, Louise Colet, Flaubert expressed his ambition to write a book ‘dependent on nothing external […] held together by the internal strength of its style.’ (quoted in Brooks and Watson, p. 9) In doing so he created a character which could be considered the polar opposite, dependent on nothing internal and held together by the illusion she has created of her external persona. Wilkie Collins, on the other hand, took a new turn into the realm of the sensation novel with ‘The Woman in White set[ting] new standards for suspense and excitement’ (Collins, 2008, Cover notes) In order to explore further the concepts of identity and alterity consideration will be given in this essay to the language used by Flaubert to indicate the manufactured identity Emma Bovary creates for herself in Madame Bovary and also the unique way Collins manipulates the reader’s perceptions of identity to create his mystery within The Woman in White. If, as Simone De Beauvoir concluded, ‘women have been defined in relation to men, who are seen as the ‘Absolute’, while women are always the ‘Other’.’ (Quoted in Walder, 2007, p. 5) then it could be considered that both novels attended to here can automatically be defined as ‘other’ as their main protagonists are women who have been written into life by men.

It is somewhat ironic that although Walter Scott wrote about the dangers of reading novels, ‘[T]he young and inexperienced will sometimes be too ready to conceive that the picture is true.’ (Scott, pp. 22-23), Flaubert chose to name him as one of the key influencers in his leading lady Emma Bovary’s alternate reality: ‘From Walter Scott, subsequently, she conceived a passion for things historical. […] She would have liked to live […] like those chatelaines’ (Flaubert, p. 33). Flaubert created Emma Bovary as a character with no recognition of a defined role within society allowing her to ‘create’ her own superficial identity within defined stereotypical roles such as wife and mistress. Upon entering the convent aged thirteen she has already been influenced by Mademoiselle de la Valliére in the pictures on the plates at the inn which ‘glorified religion, the subtleties of the heart and the splendours of the court.’ (Flaubert, p. 33) She then begins a conscious construction of herself as a young pious woman, the first of the many roles she will play in her illusory life: ‘She attempted, as a mortification, to go a whole day without food. She tried to think of some vow or other to fulfil. When she went to confession she made up little sins so as to stay there longer’ (Flaubert, p. 33) Flaubert echoed Emma’s romantic idealism within the language he used in his narration; ‘In the music lesson […] there were nothing but little angels with golden wings […] that allowed her a glimpse […] of the seductive phantasmagoria of sentimental realities.’ (Flaubert, p. 35) His hyperbolic imagery and rich language gives the reader the opportunity to experience the connection Emma makes between reading and physical pleasure; ‘She shivered as her breath lifted the tissue paper’ (Flaubert, p. 35). Flaubert also cleverly uses third person narrative to enhance the connection the reader feels with Emma by interspersing it with elements of free indirect discourse; ‘She was observing herself with a certain curiosity, to see if she felt any pain. No, nothing yet.’ (Flaubert, p. 295)

Bronfen observes that Emma ‘write[s] herself out of existence to become the romantic heroines she has been so possessed by in her reading’ (Bronfen, p. 411). Bronfen goes on to recognise that Emma writes this existence ‘almost exclusively in the order of the body’ (Bronfen, p. 411); she physically becomes her own narrator. It is interesting to note that although her form of reality has come from the obsessive reading of novels filled with ‘love, lovers, loving, martyred maidens swooning in secluded lodges’ (Flaubert, p. 34) she chooses to narrate her life with her body instead of with text. Bronfen describes Emma’s life as a ‘lengthy process of dying’ (Bronfen, p. 411), starting with her obsession with ‘illustrious or ill-fated women.’ (Flaubert, p. 35) and ending with her brutal ‘autobiographical suicide.’ (Bronfen, p.412) By creating her imagined reality through her own body she cannot avoid the inevitable martyr’s by which death she had become enraptured: ‘[S]he loved the sick lamb, the Sacred Heart pierced by sharp arrows, or poor Jesus, sinking beneath the weight of his cross.’ (Flaubert, p. 33) Death is imagined by Emma as something beautiful and the pinnacle of a heroine’s existence; ‘[S]he will need to write [death] with her body to perfect her triumph and be like them completely.’ (Bronfen, p. 414) Immediately after poisoning herself with arsenic she feels ‘almost serene, her task accomplished’ (Flaubert, p. 294), however, she then goes on to have her ‘serene’ illusion shattered by the painful and horrific nature of a death by poisoning. Flaubert retains his narrative style through to the end as even in the violent throes of death, ‘She was soon vomiting blood. […] Her limbs were rigid, her body covered in brown patches.’ (Flaubert, p. 298), Flaubert still manages to include the romantic imagery that defined her; ‘[H]er pulse raced away beneath your fingers, […] like a harp-string just before it breaks.’ (Flaubert, p. 298) The inclusion of simile comparing Emma’s pulse to a harp-string ensures the continuation of her constructed romantic identity.

It is clear that Emma has created her own alterity in her confusion between reality and the imaginary. She sees the created illusion of the ‘romances she reads’ as the self and the ‘death-like boredom and melancholy functions as the Other.’ (Bronfen, p. 413) Flaubert has Emma imitating that which she longs to become as if by moving through the physical actions the conceptual vision of what she desires herself to be will automatically come true; ‘In Rouen she saw ladies wearing bunches of trinkets on their watch-chains; she bought some trinkets’ (Flaubert, p. 56). He clearly indicates Emma’s desperation to be one of the ladies of Rouen and shows that she thinks all she need do is purchase the trinkets and that would complete her transformation.

Identity and alterity play a vital role in The Woman in White. Among the vanguard of the detective novel genre its ‘mystery to be solved is not one of murder, but one of identity’ (Pedlar, 2000, p. 78). The entire premise of the book is based on the interchangeable identities of Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick and the ease with which one person’s identity can be transferred to another: ‘Through the doubling of Laura and Anne, Collins imaginatively explores the extent to which identity can or cannot be established on the basis of physical appearance and behaviour.’ (Pedlar, p.78) The phenomenon of the Doppelganger was a common superstition in the Victorian period, thought to represent the approaching death of those that view their ‘twin’ and Collins brings a new dimension to its interpretation (Bronfen, 1992, in Regan, 2001). Both Anne and Laura can be seen on both sides of the illusion that was thought to be a thinning of the fabric between life and the after-life. At different points within the novel they can both be considered the self, viewing the doppelganger, and the other, the doppelganger that is viewed. Anne can be seen to represent Laura’s death in that she is a decayed version of her. Laura’s role as doppelganger falls neatly into the boundaries of the superstition in that her appearance does foretell Anne’s death. Anne’s first appearance in the story also has the reader unsure of whether she is not already dead and visiting Walter as a ghost; ‘[T]here, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven—stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white […] this extraordinary apparition stood before me’ (Collins, p. 20)

When looking at their relationships with Walter Hartwright it could be considered that Laura and Anne are in fact two sides of the same person. Pedlar suggests that Walter’s first meeting with Anne, the ‘woman in white’ who is closer to Walter’s social standing, ‘arouses in him a forbidden necrophiliac thrill.’ (Pedlar, p. 78). When he then goes on to recognise Anne’s likeness within Laura, with whom he has fallen in love but who is above his station and therefore unreachable, ‘[a] thrill of the same feeling which ran through me when the touch was laid upon my shoulder on the lonely high-road, chilled me again.’ (Collins, p. 60) Walter sees that for the physical resemblance to be fully complete Laura must suffer greatly; ‘If ever sorrow and suffering set their profaning marks on the youth and beauty of Miss Fairlie’s face, then, and only then, Anne Catherick and she would be […] the living reflections of one another.’ (Collins, p. 97) It is possible, therefore, that this foreshadowing of Laura’s anguish highlights what is needed for Laura to become Walter’s social equal and therefore attainable wife, she must become her ‘other’, Anne Catherick. Elizabeth Bronfen identifies that ‘[e]ven before Walter has seen the woman he will eventually marry […] the other woman has inscribed herself in his imaginary register.’ (Bronfen, p.430) It could, therefore, realistically be questioned whether Walter falls in love with Laura because she subconsciously reminds him of the woman in white; ‘Mingling with the vivid impression produced by the charm of her fair face […] was another impression […] the idea of something wanting. At one time […] in her; at another […] in myself.’ (Collins, pp. 50-51)

Using diary extracts, statements and letters, known as the epistolary form, Collins gives the reader a sense of the diverse characters within the novel. This allows him to stay within the confines of first person narrative but with the added flexibility of differing points of view from differing social classes. Interestingly, though, Collins denies the main subject of the plot, Laura Fairlie, a voice of her own and she is instead created through the perceptions of others. With the need to prove Laura’s identity as the key to the mystery of The Woman in White the denial of this narrative voice enhances the challenge Walter faces of restoring Laura to her rightful place at Limmeridge House. She has never been ‘felt’ by the reader like the rest of the cast, although Anne Catherick is only given a limited ‘voice’. The intimacy first person narration gives would perhaps have removed the ambiguity of her identity that was vital to Collins’ creation of the mystery that drives the novel and could have ruined this effect.

So in conclusion the concept of identity within the nineteenth century novel was vital and as authors evolved their writing from romanticism and realism in to new genres, such as the sensation novel and detective fiction, they were continually finding new ways of challenging the readers’ perceptions of this concept. Margaret Oliphant recognised that Collins was highly skilled in his manipulations of the readers’ sensations; ‘Not so much as a single occult agency is employed in the structure of his tale. […] His effects are produced by common human acts, performed by recognisable human agents’ (Oliphant, p. 41). Flaubert and Collins both experimented with alternative forms of narration giving their characters and their identities layers that perhaps would not have been felt otherwise. By exploring the alternative dimensions of their protagonists’ personalities they were able to push the boundaries of normality and create new sensations within their readers. The subtle narrative techniques and language the authors used to create the identities of Emma Bovary, Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick allows the reader to be seduced by the romanticism and mystery surrounding these multi-dimensional characters. It also gives depth to the sense that all three of these women have another side to their personalities that isn’t always quite clearly evident and seems to hover around the edge of the reader’s awareness.



Besant, W. (1884) ‘The Art of Fiction’ in Regan, S. (ed.) (2001) The Nineteenth Century Novel: A Critical Reader, London and New York, Routledge.

Brooks, M & Watson, N. (2000) ‘Madame Bovary: a novel about nothing’ in Walder, D. The Nineteenth Century Novel: Realisms, London and New York, Routledge.

Bronfen, E. (1992) ‘Over Her Dead Body: Madame Bovary’ in Regan, S. (ed.) (2001) The Nineteenth Century Novel: A Critical Reader, London and New York, Routledge.

Bronfen, E. (1992) ‘Over Her Dead Body: The Woman in White’ in Regan, S. (ed.) (2001) The Nineteenth Century Novel: A Critical Reader, London and New York, Routledge.

Collins, W. ([1859-60]2008) The Woman in White, Oxford World Classics, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Flaubert, G. ([1856]2003) Madame Bovary, Penguin Classics, London, Penguin Books.

Hall, G. (2003) ‘Introduction’ in Madame Bovary, Penguin Classics, London, Penguin Books.

James, H. (1884) ‘The Art of Fiction’ in Regan, S. (ed.) (2001) The Nineteenth Century Novel: A Critical Reader, London and New York, Routledge.

Oliphant, M. (1862) ‘Sensation Novels’ in Regan, S. (ed.) (2001) The Nineteenth Century Novel: A Critical Reader, London and New York, Routledge.

Pedlar, V. (2000) ‘Drawing a blank: the construction of identity in The Woman in White’ in Walder, D. The Nineteenth Century Novel: Identities, London and New York, Routledge.

Walder, D. (2000) The Nineteenth Century Novel: Identities, London and New York, Routledge.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s