Bovary is a novel of realism, a literary
movement in which Flaubert was a pioneer.
Realism stressed the
presentation of life as it is, without
embellishment or idealization. Although
Flaubert’s realism portrays the world as it is,
he fashions his images with the pen of an
artist. Thus, his words may please the eye and
ear even though they describe an ugly, foul or
revolting event. His writing is careful,
precise, objective, and emotionally restrained.
Rather than rely on the approximate
adjective-noun phrase to represent a thought,
Flaubert sought the exact word, unadorned—le
mot juste. Consequently, he revised his
manuscripts again and again. Realism contrasts
sharply with romanticism, a literary movement
emphasizing emotions over reason and
subjectivity over objectivity. In Madame Bovary,
Emma reads romantic novels, which distort her
vision of real life.
action begins in 1830 in northwestern France.
The locales include the fictional towns of
Tostes and Yonville and the real-life city of
Rouen, on the Seine River about seventy-five
miles inland from the English Channel. It is
famous for its Tour de Jeanne d'Arc, a tower in
which Joan of Arc was held captive in 1430. She
was burned at the stake there in 1431.
Bovary: Moeurs de province. Literally,
this title translates as Madame Bovary:
Customs of the province. But the title is
usually translated to capture the spirit of its
meaning: Madame Bovary: Scenes From
Provincial Life or Madame Bovary: Life
in the Provinces. Here, provincial
life or life in the provinces
refers to the humdrum life of persons with
Rouault Bovary (Madame Bovary) A young
woman who pursues romantic dreams but wakes up
time and again in the harshness of the real
Charles Bovary: Emma's dull and
faithful and tolerant—husband.
His last name, Bovary, is a play on the
word bovine, which means slow,
stupid, ox-like. Homais:
Pompous, know-it-all apothecary. Leon
Dupuis: Law clerk who shares Emma's
romantic ideals and later becomes her lover.
Boulanger: Wealthy womanizer who has an
affair with Emma, then abandons her.
Greedy merchant and moneylender who drives Emma
into debt, then claims her and her husband's
Daughter of Bovary and Emma.
Clubfooted servant who is the victim of a
botched operation by Dr. Bovary. Guillaumin:
Lawyer who offers to help Emma in return for
sexual favors. Heloise
Dubuc: Homely first wife of Dr. Bovary.
. Madame Bovary begins
in 1830 in northwest France. There, Charles Bovary is
a dull Normandy farm boy of 15 who is ridiculed by his
schoolmates. After his parents decide he is to be a
physician, they enroll him in medical school at Rouen,
and he struggles through—just barely—and establishes a
practice in the Normandy town of Tostes. His mother
matches him with 45-year-old Heloise Dubuc, a
plain-Jane widow with money, and they settle down into
a humdrum life in which Heloise dominates the
Emma Roualt is an attractive
student at a convent school who dreams of ideal love,
dashing heroes, and life in high society, the kind of
life she reads about in romance novels. When her
mother dies, Emma quits school and returns to her
father’s farm at les Bertaux in Normandy. One day, her
father breaks his leg, and Dr. Bovary travels 18 miles
to les Bertaux to treat him. While there, he is
attracted to Emma, and she to him, believing he is the
magic prince who will fulfill her dreams. When he
returns to look in on Monsieur Roualt, the
relationship between Bovary and Emma blossoms.
notary overseeing Heloise’s financial affairs runs off
with a good portion of her money. Her remaining
assets, which Dr. Bovary’s parents previously thought
to be substantial, are meager, and they chastise her
for pretending to be well-to-do before marrying their
son. The doctor defends her, but Heloise is deeply
wounded. A week later, while hanging out the wash, she
coughs blood and dies.
Bovary and Emma Roualt then
marry, and she becomes the second Madame Bovary.
However, when she discovers her husband's sober
simplicity—that he wants little more than to live
quietly in Tostes and heal common folk—she is
crestfallen. Bovary does try to please her, though. He
outfits her in the latest Paris fashions and even
takes her to a grand ball in Rouen at the estate of a
marquis. Mingling with bejeweled nobles and
aristocrats in sumptuous surroundings—and waltzing
with a viscount—whets her appetite for more of the
same. But when life returns to normal at Tostes, she
languishes and falls ill. Bovary and another physician
decide that new surroundings will restore her vigor,
so Monsieur and Madame Bovary—who has become
pregnant—move to Yonville, a small town near
On the night of their
arrival, they dine with Homais, a pompous local
apothecary every ready to display his knowledge of
science and other subjects, and Leon Dupuis, a shy law
clerk for a local attorney. His looks and interests—he
shares her love of music, literature, and art—are a
considerable improvement over her husband’s, and they
enjoy each other’s conversation. After Emma gives
birth to her child, christened “Berthe,” she turns the
day-to-day care of the child over to a nurse while she
meets frequently with Dupuis. They talk, but little
more. Emma dreams of running off with Leon. But she
also tries hard to remain faithful. If only Dr. Bovary
would offend her in a way that would give her reason
to run off. But he does not. The presence of little
Berthe does little to cheer her, for Berthe is a girl;
Emma wanted a boy.
One day, a greedy dry-goods
merchant named Lheureux calls at her house to show her
his wares and announce that he is a moneylender who
can meet any needs that arise. He has a scheme in
mind: to lend her so much money and to allow her to
buy so much on time that she accumulates a debt that
will one day permit him to lay claim Dr. Bovary’s
assets. Prodigal Emma then begins ordering expensive
fashions and household items from Lheureux.
Although Emma decides that
she loves Leon, she continues to hold fast to her
marriage vows and, consequently, becomes frustrated.
She consults a priest to discuss her problems and ask
for guidance, but he is so busy with parish
problems—including unruly children in his catechism
class—that Madame Bovary leaves without explaining the
purpose of her visit.
Meanwhile, Leon Dupuis sees
no future in wooing a married woman even though he
loves her, so he decides to move to Paris to study law
and experience the city’s culture. Emma ends up just
as miserable as she was in Tostes.
Then she meets a wealthy
bachelor, Rodolphe Boulanger, who owns a nearby
estate, La Huchette, on which he oversees a farming
operation. When he brings an ailing worker to Dr.
Bovary’s office for treatment, he and Emma are
attracted to each other. Later, at an agricultural
show, Rodolphe declares his love for Emma, then keeps
his distance from her for six weeks to allow his
absence to kindle longing in her. His scheme works,
and they go horseback-riding and make love in a
forest, then begin trysting—sometimes in the morning
at his estate and sometimes in the evening in the
garden in front of the Bovary house after the doctor
has gone to bed. Numskull Bovary never catches on to
what Rodolphe is up to with his wife even though
Emma’s affair is the subject of town gossip. What is
more, Emma does not know that Rodolphe has a long
history as a Lothario. He loves women, then leaves
them; they are mere playthings to satisfy his needs of
the moment. However, Emma's promiscuity fills her with
guilt, so she suspends her affair with Rodolphe, and
resumes her role as a devoted wife.
When news of a revolutionary
treatment for clubfoot (a congenital affliction that
deforms the foot) reaches Yonville, Emma and the
apothecary Homais urge Dr. Bovary to perform the
procedure on Hippolyte, a clubfooted servant at a
local inn. Homais will assist. Emma thinks a
successful operation will bring her husband fame and
fortune, thereby relieving her guilt, restoring her
husband as a hero in her eyes, and enabling her to
climb to new heights in society. Homais believes his
own reputation will benefit, along with his
pocketbook. However, after Bovary and Homais perform
the operation, the patient develops gangrene, and a
doctor from another town must be called in to amputate
Hippolyte’s leg. The botched operation is a major
embarrassment for Dr. Bovary, for Homais, for Emma,
and for Yonville, although Homais denies that he was
in any way at fault for the regrettable result.
Emma then rekindles her
affair with Rodolphe, throwing herself into it with
passion and abandon. She even borrows from Lheureux to
buy a riding whip for Rodolphe, building her
indebtedness to the unscrupulous merchant to 275
francs. To pay the bill, she intercepts money a
patient sent her husband for treatment. Emma also
gives Rodolphe a seal engraved with “Amor nel Cor,” a
scarf, and a cigarette case. At night, she dreams of
running away with Rodolphe to live blissfully in a
peaceful seaside setting. In anticipation of the
fulfillment of this dream, she orders a cloak, a
trunk, and a traveling bag from Lheureux—cautioning
him to hold them for her at his shop. In time, however, Rodolphe,
tires of her and sends her a note informing her the
affair is over. Devastated, she faints and lapses into
an illness characterized by fever and delirium. She
recovers within six weeks after teetering on the brink
Dr. Bovary borrows to cover
Emma’s debts, but he remains indulgent with her and,
for diversion, takes her to a Donizetti opera in
Rouen. At the opera house, they chance upon Leon
Dupuis, who has moved to Rouen. He is a new
Dupuis—sophisticated, self-confident, and fashionably
stylish—and he and Emma renew their intimacy after Dr.
Bovary returns to Yonville and Emma remains in Rouen
to go to the opera again. However, this time, the
relationship between Emma and Dupuis is no longer
platonic only. Meanwhile, Lheureux provides Emma more
high-priced merchandise and suggests that she pay for
it by obtaining a power of attorney that enables her
to use her husband’s assets whenever she wishes. Dr.
Bovary goes along with the idea, unaware of the extent
of Emma’s indebtedness, and allows her to travel to
Rouen to have Dupuis do the legal work. She and Dupuis
meet in a hotel, and from then on they rendezvous
often, either in Rouen or in Yonville. Emma visits
Rouen weekly under the pretext that she is taking
piano lessons there.
One day, Lheureux sees the
lovers together in Rouen. How unlucky for Emma. To
prevent the merchant from tattling on her, she
completes further transactions with him that increase
her indebtedness. She also runs up other bills.
Meanwhile, the thrill has gone out of her affair with
Dupuis; she has eaten of forbidden fruit—and become
sated. Her old restlessness and ennui return, and she
begins to find fault with Dupuis. She picks at him and
demands that he entertain her in lavish style.
Sometimes she even provides him the money to fulfill
her wishes. But nothing goes right. The ideal man and
the ideal life that she seeks suddenly seem out of
reach. What’s more, her debts catch up with her: A
court orders her to pay Lheureux 8,000 francs in cash
or an equivalent amount in household furnishings and
When banks refuse to lend her
the money to cover the debt, she asks Leon Dupuis for
help and angers him when she suggests that he steal
the money from his employer, if necessary. To pacify
her, he agrees to see what he can do, but Emma is not
hopeful. Next, she sees a lawyer, Guillaumin, who once
had an eye for her, and asks him for money. He agrees
to provide it if she will pay him with sexual favors.
Shocked, Emma storms out. Meanwhile, agents of the
sheriff have been taking an inventory of the property
in the Bovary house, and a notice of confiscation and
auction of the property has been posted on a public
street. Everyone in town now knows what is going on.
In a last desperate attempt to save herself and the
Bovary property, Emma offers to renew her affair with
Rodolphe if he will lend her the needed money.
Ironically, she is doing what she so righteously
refused to do for Guillaumin—offering herself for a
price. Rodolphe turns her away.
Emma then goes to the shop of
the apothecary, Homais. After an attendant lets her
inside, she finds arsenic and swallows it, then
returns home and goes to bed. Dr. Bovary, who has been
out looking for her to find out why their possessions
have been confiscated, also returns home and discovers
Emma dying and in great pain. Although he attempts to
save her, calling in other doctors, she dies.
In time, Leon Dupuis marries
a respectable woman and Bovary settles Emma’s debts by
selling silver, drawing-room furnishings, and other
property. He also discovers the truth about Emma’s
affairs from incriminatory love letters from Dupuis in
Emma’s ebony writing desk in the attic. When he
ransacks the entire attic, he discovers a box
containing a portrait of Rodolphe mixed in with love
letters. The discovery shatters him. When he goes to
Argueil to sell a horse, he encounters Rodolphe in a
café and he tells him he bears no ill will
toward him. Then, the next day, while sitting in his
garden—the sun bright, the sky blue, the air fragrant
with the scent of flowers—he dies. Berthe discovers
him when calling him to dinner. Relatives take her in,
but she eventually ends up working in a cotton mill.
occurs when Emma realizes her affair with Leon
Dupuis fails to live up to her expectations at the
same time that Lheureux demands the 8,000 francs she
denouement, or conclusion, Madame Bovary kills
herself, Dupuis marries, and Dr. Bovary discovers
the truth about his wife.
Bovary was published in October, November, and
December, 1856, in Revue de Paris.
Flaubert's description of reprehensible morality in
the novel provoked a government lawsuit accusing him
of glorifying immorality. Flaubert gained acquittal.
false or perverted values debase and dehumanize
those who hold such values. Emma Bovary
idealizes romance, believing flirtation, trysts,
secret letters, and gala balls are the the pith, the
very soul, of love. She also prizes things—money,
chic fashions, sumptuous surroundings, the tinkle of
crystal. The dinner-dance she attends in Rouen is a
microcosm of the haut monde in which she wants to
live. Flaubert describes the scene this way in a
translation by Eleanor
(Project Gutenberg e-text):
entering, felt herself wrapped round by the warm
air, a blending of the perfume of flowers and of the
fine linen, of the fumes of the viands, and the
odour of the truffles. The silver dish covers
reflected the lighted wax candles in the candelabra,
the cut crystal covered with light steam reflected
from one to the other pale rays; bouquets were
placed in a row the whole length of the table; and
in the large-bordered plates each napkin, arranged
after the fashion of a bishop's mitre, held between
its two gaping folds a small oval shaped roll. The
red claws of lobsters hung over the dishes; rich
fruit in open baskets was piled up on moss; there
were quails in their plumage; smoke was rising; and
in silk stockings, knee-breeches, white cravat, and
frilled shirt, the steward, grave as a judge,
offering ready carved dishes between the shoulders
of the guests, with a touch of the spoon gave you
the piece chosen. On the large stove of porcelain
inlaid with copper baguettes the statue of a woman,
draped to the chin, gazed motionless on the room
full of life.
rarefied world, Emma sees only surface reality—the way
men look and act rather than the way they think and
A few men
(some fifteen or so), of twenty-five to forty,
scattered here and there among the dancers or
talking at the doorways, distinguished themselves
from the crowd by a certain air of breeding,
whatever their differences in age, dress, or face.
Their clothes, better made, seemed of finer cloth,
and their hair, brought forward in curls towards the
temples, glossy with more delicate pomades. They had
the complexion of wealth—that clear complexion that
is heightened by the pallor of porcelain, the
shimmer of satin, the veneer of old furniture, and
that an ordered regimen of exquisite nurture
maintains at its best. Their necks moved easily in
their low cravats, their long whiskers fell over
their turned-down collars, they wiped their lips
upon handkerchiefs with embroidered initials that
gave forth a subtle perfume. Those who were
beginning to grow old had an air of youth, while
there was something mature in the faces of the
young. In their unconcerned looks was the calm of
passions daily satiated, and through all their
gentleness of manner pierced that peculiar
brutality, the result of a command of half-easy
things, in which force is exercised and vanity
amused—the management of thoroughbred horses and the
society of loose women.
self-centeredness and quixotic perception of reality
cause her to ignore her child, deceive her husband,
surrender to promiscuity and go so deeply in debt that
she offers her body in payment. Emma’s distorted
vision of the real world also blinds her to the
intentions of those who use her. For example, she
fails to realize that Rodolphe is treating her as a
sex object rather than a cherished lover. Other
characters who also cling to false values are Homais,
the pompous apothecary; Lheureux, the greedy merchant;
and Heloise, the deceitful first wife of Bovary. Dr.
Charles Bovary’s perception of reality is also
distorted. He believes that to live means merely to
exist. Consequently, he lacks curiosity, passion,
spirit. He is so numb to the world around him that he
is blind to the obvious faults of Emma, Homais,
Lheureux, and others; he is, in this respect,
Panglossian. He is not without redeeming qualities,
however, including honesty and loyalty.
Emma continually deceives her husband while
committing adultery. Greed:
Unscrupulous Lheureux runs the Bovarys into debt to
satisfy his lust for money. Naiveté:
Dr. Bovary never suspects his wife of infidelity
even though his neighbors become well aware of
Emma's extramarital activity. Prodigality
and Materialism: Emma spends lavishly,
believing that money can buy happiness.
Questions and Essay Topics
researching the life of Flaubert, write an essay
explaining how his background helped him when he
wrote Madame Bovary.
is the most admirable character in the novel? Who
is the least admirable?
what extent is Emma Bovary blameworthy for her
tragic downfall? To what extent is she a victim of
her environment and the people around her?
an informative essay about what life was like for
the typical young woman in rural France in the
1830's and 1840.
it a custom in 19th Century France for parents to
choose the spouses of their children, and
Charles's mother and father did for him when they
selected his first wife?
is Flaubert's attitude toward his main character?
Does he sympathize with her? Does he condemn her?
Or does he remain neutral and objective?
American popular culture overemphasize romantic
ideals in dealing with relationships between men
and women? Explain your answer.