Madame Bovary (1856) is Gustave Flaubert’s first published novel and is considered his masterpiece. 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 notoriously a perfectionist about his writing and claimed always to be searching for le mot juste (“the right word”).
The novel was attacked for obscenity by public prosecutors when it was first serialized in La Revue de Paris between October 1, 1856 and December 15, 1856, resulting in a trial in January 1857 that made the story notorious. After the acquittal on February 7, 1857, it became a bestseller when it was published as a book in April 1857, and now stands virtually unchallenged not only as a seminal work of Realism, but as one of the most influential novels ever written.
A 2007 poll of contemporary authors, published in a book entitled The Top Ten, cited Madame Bovary as one of the two greatest novels ever written, second only to Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
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, 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 his wife’s jealousy puts a stop to the visits. When his wife 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 of 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 three-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, and he dies, leaving his young daughter Berthe to live with distant relatives and she is eventually sent to work at a cotton mill.
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