By Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2004
Type of Work and Writing Style
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.
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
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.
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.
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 continually deceives her husband while