Madame Bovary
By Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)
A Study Guide
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Characters, Plot Summary
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2004

Type of Work and Writing Style

Madame 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.


The 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.

Complete Title

Madame 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 bourgeois values.

Main Characters
Emma Rouault Bovary (Madame Bovary) A young woman who pursues romantic dreams but wakes up time and again in the harshness of the real world.
Dr. Charles Bovary: Emma's dull and unimaginativebut faithful and toleranthusband. 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.
Rodophe Boulanger: Wealthy womanizer who has an affair with Emma, then abandons her.
Lheureux: Greedy merchant and moneylender who drives Emma into debt, then claims her and her husband's possessions.
Berthe: Daughter of Bovary and Emma. 
Hippolyte: 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.

Plot Summary

By Michael J. Cummings...© 2004
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 household. 

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. 

Meanwhile, the 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 Rouen. 

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 of death.

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 other property. 

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.


The climax 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 owes him. 


In the denouement, or conclusion, Madame Bovary kills herself, Dupuis marries, and Dr. Bovary discovers the truth about his wife.

Publication Year

Madame 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.


Main Theme

How 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 Marx-Aveling (Project Gutenberg e-text):

    Emma, on 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.
In this rarefied world, Emma sees only surface reality—the way men look and act rather than the way they think and feel: .
    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.
Emma’s 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.

Other Themes

Deception: 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.


Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • After researching the life of Flaubert, write an essay explaining how his background helped him when he wrote Madame Bovary 
  • Who is the most admirable character in the novel? Who is the least admirable? 
  • To 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? 
  • Write an informative essay about what life was like for the typical young woman in rural France in the 1830's and 1840. 
  • Was 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?
  • What is Flaubert's attitude toward his main character? Does he sympathize with her? Does he condemn her? Or does he remain neutral and objective?
  • Does American popular culture overemphasize romantic ideals in dealing with relationships between men and women? Explain your answer.