Madame Bovary

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For related uses, see Madame Bovary (disambiguation).
Madame Bovary
Madame Bovary 1857 (hi-res).jpg
Title page of the original French edition, 1857
Author Gustave Flaubert
Country France
Language French
Genre Realist novel
Publisher Revue de Paris (in serial) & Michel Lévy Frères (in book form, 2 Vols)
Publication date
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. The 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".[1]

Plot synopsis[edit]

Illustration by Charles Léandre Madame Bovary, engraved by Eugène Decisy (fr). (Illustration without text on page 322: Emma as a transvestite at the ball)

Madame Bovary takes place in provincial northern France, near the town of Rouen in Normandy. Charles Bovary is a shy, oddly dressed teenager arriving at a new school where he is ridiculed by his new classmates. Charles struggles his way to a second-rate medical degree and becomes an officier de santé in the Public Health Service. He marries the woman his mother has chosen for him, the unpleasant but supposedly rich widow Heloise Dubuc. He 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 patient's daughter, Emma Rouault. Emma is a beautiful, daintily dressed young woman who has received a "good education" in a convent. She has a powerful yearning for luxury and romance inspired by reading popular novels. Charles is immediately attracted to her and visits 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 before courting Emma in earnest. Her father gives his consent, thus Emma and Charles marry.

The novel's focus shifts to Emma. Charles means well, but is plodding and clumsy. After he and Emma attend an elegant ball given by the Marquis d'Andervilliers, Emma finds her own married life rather dull and becomes listless. Charles decides his wife needs a change of scenery and moves his practice from the village of Tostes to the larger market town of Yonville (traditionally identified with the town of Ry). There, Emma gives birth to a daughter, Berthe, but motherhood proves a disappointment to Emma. She becomes infatuated with one of the first intelligent young men she meets in Yonville, a young law student, Léon Dupuis, who shares her appreciation for literature and music and who returns her esteem. Concerned with maintaining her self-image as a devoted wife and mother, Emma does not acknowledge her passion for Léon and conceals her contempt for Charles, drawing comfort from the thought of her virtue. Léon despairs of gaining Emma's affection and 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 imagines she will be easily seduced. He invites her to go riding with him for the sake of her health and Charles, solicitous for his wife's health and not at all suspicious, embraces the plan. Emma and Rodolphe begin an affair. She, consumed by her romantic fantasy, risks compromising herself with indiscreet letters and visits to her lover. After four years, she insists they run away together. Rodolphe never really shares her enthusiasm for this plan and on the eve of their planned departure he ends the relationship with an apologetic, self-effacing letter placed at the bottom of a basket of apricots he has delivered to Emma. 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, at Charles' insistence, in nearby Rouen. The opera reawakens Emma's passions and she 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 ecstatic at first, but by degrees Léon grows bored with Emma's emotional excesses and Emma grows ambivalent about Léon, who himself becomes more like the mistress in the relationship, comparing poorly, at least implicitly, with the rakish and domineering Rodolphe. Emma indulges her fancy for luxury goods with purchases made on credit from the crafty merchant Lheureux, who arranges for her to obtain power of attorney over Charles’ estate. Emma's debt steadily mounts.

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. Charles, heartbroken, abandons himself to grief, preserves Emma's room as a shrine, as well as in an attempt to keep her memory alive adopts several of her attitudes and tastes. In his last months, he stops working and lives by selling off his possessions. When he by chance discovers Rodolphe and Léon's love letters, he still tries to understand and forgive her. He becomes reclusive. His remaining possessions are seized to pay off Lheureux. He dies and his young daughter Berthe is placed with her grandmother, who soon dies. Berthe then lives with an impoverished aunt who sends her to work in a cotton mill. The book concludes by stating that, after Charles's death, the local pharmacist Homais, who had competed with Charles's medical practice, has gained prominence among Yonville people and has been awarded for his medical achievements.


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, as well as 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 possibly a deist since it's hinted that he accepts the deist conception of God. 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.[2] 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'.:[3] 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.[4] 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[5]

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,[6] 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.[7][8][9] 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)[10] 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.'[11]

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'.[12] 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[edit]

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."[13] 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'[14] Similarly, in his preface to his novel The Joke, author Milan Kundera wrote, "[N]ot until the work of Flaubert did prose lose the stigma of aesthetic inferiority. Ever since Madame Bovary, the art of the novel has been considered equal to the art of poetry."[15] Giorgio de Chirico said that in his opinion "from the narrative point of view, the most perfect book is Madame Bovary by Flaubert".[16]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wood, James. How Fiction Works.New York: Picador. 2008. 39.
  2. ^ Flaubert, Oeuvres, vol 1, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1972 p.305
  3. ^
  4. ^ Quoted in Madame Bovary: a Reference Guide, Laurence M Porter, Eugene F Gray, 2002, p130 ,
  5. ^ .
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ Mario Vargas Llosa quoted in
  12. ^ Quoted by Erica Jong
  13. ^ James, Henry (1914). Notes on Novelists. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 80. 
  14. ^ quoted by Malcolm Bowie, introduction to Madame Bovary, translated by Margaret Mauldon, OUP, 2004 p vii
  15. ^ Kundera, Milan. The Joke. 
  16. ^ Siniscalco, Carmine (1985). Incontro con Giorgio de Chirico. Matera–Ferrara: Edizioni La Bautta. pp. 131–132.  See excerpt on
  17. ^

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