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Title page of the original French edition, 1857
|Publisher||Revue de Paris (in serial) & Michel Lévy Frères (in book form, 2 Vols)|
|1856 (in serial) & April 1857 (in book form)|
Madame Bovary (1856) is the French writer Gustave Flaubert's debut novel. The story focuses on a doctor's wife, Emma Bovary, who has adulterous affairs and lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of provincial life. Though the basic plot is rather simple, even archetypal, the novel's true art lies in its details and hidden patterns. Flaubert was a notorious perfectionist and claimed always to be searching for le mot juste ("the precise word").
When it was first serialized in La Revue de Paris between 1 October 1856 and 15 December 1856, the novel was attacked for obscenity by public prosecutors. The resulting trial, held in January 1857, made the story notorious. After Flaubert's acquittal on 7 February 1857, Madame Bovary became a bestseller when it was published as a single volume in April 1857. The novel is now considered Flaubert's masterpiece, as well as a seminal work of realism and one of the most influential novels ever written. In fact, the notable British critic James Wood writes in How Fiction Works: "Flaubert established for good or ill, what most readers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible".
Madame Bovary takes place in provincial northern France, near the town of Rouen in Normandy. The story begins and ends with Charles Bovary, a stolid, kindhearted man without much ability or ambition. As the novel opens, Charles is a shy, oddly dressed teenager arriving at a new school amidst the ridicule of his new classmates. Later, Charles struggles his way to a second-rate medical degree and becomes an officier de santé in the Public Health Service. His mother chooses a wife for him, an unpleasant but supposedly rich widow named Heloise Dubuc, and Charles sets out to build a practice in the village of Tostes (now Tôtes).
One day, Charles visits a local farm to set the owner's broken leg, and meets his client's daughter, Emma Rouault. Emma is a beautiful, daintily dressed young woman who has received a "good education" in a convent and who has a latent but powerful yearning for luxury and romance imbibed from the popular novels she has read. Charles is immediately attracted to her, and begins checking on his patient far more often than necessary until Heloise's jealousy puts a stop to the visits. When Heloise dies, Charles waits a decent interval, then begins courting Emma in earnest. Her father gives his consent, and Emma and Charles are married.
At this point, the novel begins to focus on Emma. Charles means well, but is boring and clumsy, and after he and Emma attend a ball given by the Marquis d'Andervilliers, Emma grows disillusioned with married life and becomes dull and listless. Charles consequently decides that his wife needs a change of scenery, and moves from the village of Tostes into a larger, but equally stultifying market town, Yonville (traditionally based on the town of Ry). Here, Emma gives birth to a daughter, Berthe; however, motherhood, too, proves to be a disappointment to Emma. She then becomes infatuated with one of the first intelligent young men she meets in Yonville, a young law student, Léon Dupuis, who seems to share her appreciation for "the finer things in life", and who returns her admiration. Out of fear and shame, however, Emma hides her love for Léon and her contempt for Charles, and plays the role of the devoted wife and mother, all the while consoling herself with thoughts and self-congratulations for her own virtue. Finally, in despair of ever gaining Emma's affection, Léon departs to study in Paris.
One day, a rich and rakish landowner, Rodolphe Boulanger, brings a servant to the doctor's office to be bled. He casts his eye over Emma and decides she is ripe for seduction. To this end, he invites Emma to go riding with him for the sake of her health; solicitous only for Emma's health, Charles embraces the plan, suspecting nothing. A four-year affair follows. Swept away by romantic fantasy, Emma risks compromising herself with indiscreet letters and visits to her lover, and finally insists on making a plan to run away with him. Rodolphe, however, has no intention of carrying Emma off, and ends the relationship on the eve of the great elopement with an apologetic, self-excusing letter delivered at the bottom of a basket of apricots. The shock is so great that Emma falls deathly ill, and briefly turns to religion.
When Emma is nearly fully recovered, she and Charles attend the opera, on Charles' insistence, in nearby Rouen. The opera reawakens Emma's passions, and she re-encounters Léon who, now educated and working in Rouen, is also attending the opera. They begin an affair. While Charles believes that she is taking piano lessons, Emma travels to the city each week to meet Léon, always in the same room of the same hotel, which the two come to view as their "home." The love affair is, at first, ecstatic; then, by degrees, Léon grows bored with Emma's emotional excesses, and Emma grows ambivalent about Léon, who becoming himself more like the mistress in the relationship, compares poorly, at least implicitly, to the rakish and domineering Rodolphe. Meanwhile, Emma, given over to vanity, purchases increasing amounts of luxury items on credit from the crafty merchant, Lheureux, who arranges for her to obtain power of attorney over Charles’ estate, and crushing levels of debts mount quickly.
When Lheureux calls in Bovary's debt, Emma pleads for money from several people, including Léon and Rodolphe, only to be turned down. In despair, she swallows arsenic and dies an agonizing death; even the romance of suicide fails her. Charles, heartbroken, abandons himself to grief, preserves Emma's room as if it is a shrine, and in an attempt to keep her memory alive, adopts several of her attitudes and tastes. In his last months, he stops working and lives off the sale of his possessions. When he by chance discovers Rodolphe and Léon's love letters, he still tries to understand and forgive. Soon after, he becomes reclusive; what has not already been sold of his possessions is seized to pay off Lheureux. He dies, leaving his young daughter Berthe to live with distant relatives; she is eventually sent to work at a cotton mill.
Emma Bovary is the novel's protagonist and is the main source of the novel's title (Charles's mother and his former wife are also referred to as Madame Bovary, while their daughter remains Mademoiselle Bovary). She has a highly romanticized view of the world and craves beauty, wealth, passion, and high society. It is the disparity between these romantic ideals and the realities of her country life that drive most of the novel, most notably leading her into two extramarital love affairs as well as causing her to accrue an insurmountable amount of debt that eventually leads to her suicide.
Charles Bovary, Emma's husband, is a very simple and common man. He is a country doctor by profession, but is, as in everything else, not very good at it. He is in fact not qualified enough to be termed a doctor, but is instead an officier de santé, or "health officer". Charles adores his wife and finds her faultless, despite obvious evidence to the contrary. He never suspects her affairs and gives her complete control over his finances, thereby securing his own ruin. Despite Charles's complete devotion to Emma, she despises him as he is the epitome of all that is dull and common.
Rodolphe Boulanger is a wealthy local man who seduces Emma as one more addition to a long string of mistresses. Though occasionally charmed by Emma, Rodolphe feels little true emotion towards her. As Emma becomes more and more desperate, Rodolphe loses interest and worries about her lack of caution. After his decision to escape with Emma he resigns and feels unable to handle it especially with the existence of her new daughter, Berthe.
Léon Dupuis is a clerk who has an affair with Madame Emma Bovary. He is the second person Emma has an affair with, after Rodolphe Boulanger.
Monsieur Lheureux is a manipulative and sly merchant who continually convinces people in Yonville to buy goods on credit and borrow money from him. Having led many small businesspeople into financial ruin to support his own business ambitions, Lheureux lends money to Charles and plays Emma masterfully, leading the Bovarys so far into debt as to cause their financial ruin and Emma's subsequent suicide.
Monsieur Homais is the town pharmacist. He is vehemently anti-clerical and an atheist. He also practices medicine without a license, and although he pretends to be Charles Bovary's best friend, he actively undermines Bovary's medical practice by luring away his patients and by setting Charles up to attempt a difficult surgery, which fails and destroys Charles's professional credibility in Yonville.
The wife of Monsieur Homais, Madame Homais, is a simple woman whose life revolves around her husband and four children.
Justin is Monsieur Homais' apprentice and second cousin. He had been taken into the house from charity and was useful at the same time as a servant. He harbors a crush on Emma. At one point he steals the key to the medical supply room, and is tricked by Emma into opening a container of arsenic so she can "kill some rats keeping her awake". She however eats the arsenic herself, much to his horror and remorse.
The setting of the novel is important first as it applies to Flaubert's realist style and social commentary and second, as it relates to the protagonist, Emma.
It has been calculated that the novel begins in October 1827 and ends in August 1846 (Francis Steegmuller). This is the time of the "July Monarchy", or the rule of King Louis Philippe I, he who strolled Paris carrying his own umbrella, as if to honor an ascendant bourgeois middle class. Much of the time and effort that Flaubert spends detailing the customs of the rural French people shows them aping an urban, emergent middle class.
Flaubert strove for an accurate depiction of common life. The account of a county fair in Yonville displays this and dramatizes it by showing the fair in real time counterpoised with a simultaneous intimate interaction behind a window overlooking the fair. The regional setting was known to Flaubert, the place of his birth and youth, in and around the city of Rouen in Normandy. His faithfulness to the mundane elements of country life has garnered the book its reputation as the beginning of the movement known as “literary realism”.
Flaubert's capture of the commonplace in his setting contrasts with the yearnings of his protagonist. Emma's romantic fantasies are foiled by the practicalities of common life. Flaubert uses this juxtaposition to reflect on both setting and character. Emma becomes more capricious and ludicrous in the light of everyday reality. Yet the self-important banality of the local people is magnified by the protagonist's yearnings. Emma, though impractical, her provincial education lacking and unformed, still reflects a hopefulness regarding beauty and greatness that seems absent in the bourgeois class.
The book was in some ways inspired by the life of a schoolfriend of the author who became a doctor. Flaubert's friend and mentor, Louis Bouilhet, had suggested to him that this might be a suitably 'down-to earth' subject for a novel and that Flaubert should attempt to write in a 'natural way', without digressions. Indeed, the style of the writing was of supreme importance to Flaubert. While writing the novel, he wrote that it would be 'a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the external strength of its style'.: an aim which, for the critic Jean Rousset, made Flaubert 'the first in date of the non-figurative novelists' such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Although Flaubert avowed no liking for the style of Balzac, the novel he produced became arguably a prime example and an enhancement of Realism in the vein of Balzac. The 'realism' in the novel was to prove an important element in the trial for obscenity: the lead prosecutor believing that not only was the novel immoral, but that realism in literature was, in itself, an offence against art and decency 
The realist movement was, in part, a reaction against romanticism. Emma may be said to be the embodiment of a romantic; in her mental and emotional process, she has no relation to the realities of her world. Although in some ways he may seem to identify with Emma, Flaubert frequently mocks her romantic daydreaming, and her taste in literature. It is often asserted that Flaubert said 'Madame Bovary, c'est moi' ('Madame Bovary is me') but the accuracy of this assertion has been questioned. He never wrote such a thing; and in his letters often distanced himself from the sentiments expressed in the novel. For example 'Tout ce que j’aime n’y est pas':'all that I love is not there'(letter to Edma Roger des Genettes) and 'je n’y ai rien mis ni de mes sentiments ni de mon existence.':'I have used nothing of my feelings or of my life'(letter to Marie-Sophie Leroyer de Chantepie)  For Mario Vargas Llosa, Emma's choice of reading may have contributed to her inability to come to terms with the situation in which she found herself. 'If Emma Bovary had not read all those novels, it is possible that her fate might have been different.' 
Madame Bovary has been seen as a commentary on the folly of aspirations which can never be realised, or a belief in the validity of a self-satisfied, deluded personal culture, termed 'bourgeois' and associated with Flaubert's period. For Vargas Llosa, 'Emma's drama is the gap between illusion and reality, the distance between desire and its fulfillment' and as such shows 'the first signs of alienation that a century later will take hold of men and women in industrial societies'. However, the novel is not simply about a woman's dreamy romanticism. While it is true that Emma is lost in delusions, Charles is also unable to grasp reality or to understand Emma's needs and desires.
Literary significance and reception
Long established as one of the greatest novels ever written, the book has been described as a "perfect" work of fiction. Henry James wrote: "Madame Bovary has a perfection that not only stamps it, but that makes it stand almost alone; it holds itself with such a supreme unapproachable assurance as both excites and defies judgment." Marcel Proust praised the 'grammatical purity' of Flaubert's style, while Vladimir Nabokov said that 'stylistically it is prose doing what poetry is supposed to do'  Giorgio de Chirico said that in his opinion "from the narrative point of view, the most perfect book is Madame Bovary by Flaubert".
- An opera Madame Bovary was produced in 1951.
- Madame Bovary has been made into several films, beginning with Albert Ray's 1932 version. The most notable of these adaptations was the 1949 film produced by MGM. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, it starred Jennifer Jones in the title role, co-starring James Mason, Van Heflin, Louis Jourdan, and Gene Lockhart.
- It has also been the subject of multiple television miniseries and made-for-TV movies. It was adapted by Giles Cooper for the BBC in 1964, with the same script being used for a new production in 1975. A 2000 miniseries adaptation by Heidi Thomas was made for the BBC, starring Frances O'Connor, Hugh Bonneville and Hugh Dancy.
- Edwige Fenech starred in a version in 1969, directed by Hans Schott-Schobinger.
- David Lean's film Ryan's Daughter (1970) was a loose adaptation of the story, relocating it to Ireland during the time of the Easter Rebellion. The script had begun life as a straight adaptation of Madame Bovary, but Lean convinced writer Robert Bolt to re-work it into another setting.
- Claude Chabrol made his version starring Isabelle Huppert in 1991. In Chabrol's remake, critics claimed the direction was sumptuous, that the period piece was a "pertinent tragic drama."
- Indian director Ketan Mehta adapted the novel into a 1992 Hindi film Maya Memsaab, in which Deepa Sahi played the lead role of disillusioned wife.
- Posy Simmonds graphic novel Gemma Bovery reworked the story into a satirical tale of English expatriates in France.
- Vale Abraão (1993) (Abraham's Vale) by Manoel de Oliveira is a close interpretation set in Portugal, even referencing and discussing Flaubert's novel several times.
- Another film adaptation (2014) directed by Sophie Barthes and starring Mia Wasikowska, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Paul Giamatti, and Ezra Miller
- Wood, James. How Fiction Works.New York: Picador. 2008. 39.
- Flaubert, Oeuvres, vol 1, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1972 p.305
- Quoted in Madame Bovary: a Reference Guide, Laurence M Porter, Eugene F Gray, 2002, p130 ,
- . http://www.archivesdefrance.culture.gouv.fr/action-culturelle/celebrations-nationales/2007/litterature-et-sciences-humaines/le-proces-de-madame-bovary
- Mario Vargas Llosa quoted in http://flaubert.univ-rouen.fr/article.php?id=5
- Quoted by Erica Jong
- James, Henry (1914). Notes on Novelists. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 80.
- quoted by Malcolm Bowie, introduction to Madame Bovary, translated by Margaret Mauldon, OUP, 2004 p vii
- Siniscalco, Carmine (1985). Incontro con Giorgio de Chirico. Matera–Ferrara: Edizioni La Bautta. pp. 131–132. See excerpt on Fondazionedechirico.org
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- Original text from Project Gutenberg
- Madame Bovary in English, translated by Eleanor Marx Aveling 1886, first English translation.
- Les manuscrits de Madame Bovary (French) – Site with images and transcriptions of Flaubert's original manuscripts, plus 4500 pages deleted/censored material
- Commentary on Madame Bovary by A. S. Byatt
- Commentary on Madame Bovary by Erica Jong
- Madame Bovary, 13-part Globe Radio adaptation, aired on NPR Playhouse in the late 1980s.
- (French) Madame Bovary, audio version