Summary of Madame Bovary

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Madame Bovary book summary

Literary Classic

  • Novel
  • Realism

What It’s About

Bourgeois Boredom and Lustful Liaisons

In 1856, the relatively unknown French author Gustave Flaubert caused outrage with what was to become one of the most influential novels of literary history. Madame Bovary is the story of Emma Bovary, a doctor’s wife whose passions and romantic notions drive her to start an affair, accumulate debts, entangle herself in lies and, in the end, commit suicide. What upset the public most about Flaubert’s novel was that at no point did he take sides or condemn his protagonist’s actions. With Madame Bovary, Flaubert created one of the first truly modern novels and pre-empted some of the innovative narrative forms of the 20th century. He did this by taking the role of an omniscient and impersonal narrator, who describes the romantic inner life of the main character, and contrasting it with the hopeless and rather dismal reality of her life. The novel is a social study and the beginning of the age of Realism in literary history.

Take-Aways

  • Madame Bovary is one of the most influential novels of the 19th century and a prime example of French Realism.
  • To escape the mundanity of small-town life, the novel’s married heroine, Emma Bovary, takes a lover. Her recklessness with money leaves her and her husband with crippling debts. When these finally fall due, Emma commits suicide. Her husband is found dead shortly after by the couple’s young daughter.
  • Flaubert’s controversial subject matter – female sexuality and adultery – caused a huge scandal, and Flaubert had to appear in court on charges of obscenity.
  • It took Flaubert five years to write the novel, and he would often spend a day working and reworking just one page.
  • Madame Bovary was a turn away from the Romanticism that Flaubert had previously embraced.
  • The objective and impersonal style of the novel and the use of free indirect discourse marked the development of a new literary form: the Realist novel.
  • A motif of blindness is present throughout the novel in character’s unwillingness to see what is right in front of them.
  • There are several film and TV adaptations of the novel, and it was even turned into an opera.
  • Flaubert traveled widely, and these travels inspired many of his stories.
  • “She wished at the same time to die and to live in Paris.”
 

Summary

Charles Becomes a Doctor

As a 15-year-old young man, Charles Bovary moves with his parents to Rouen in Normandy, France. His mother, Madame Bovary senior, has greats plans for him to become a doctor. Charles, however, is an average student; it is only on his second attempt that he passes his exams. His mother must then pull strings to get him a practice in the small village of Tostes. She also finds him a wife: the wealthy but ugly Héloïse Dubuc. Life with Héloïse soon becomes unbearable for Charles. She is extremely jealous and desperate for reassurance and eventually starts spying on Charles and opening his mail.

Meeting Emma

One night, a messenger comes to call Charles to the house of a Monsieur Rouault, who has broken his leg. There, Charles meets Rouault’s daughter, the young and pretty Emma Rouault. She fascinates him with her beauty, elegance and artlessness, and his visits to the Rouaults’s home turn out to be a lot more frequent than Monsieur Rouault’s injuries require. Héloïse becomes suspicious and demands answers from Charles. He simply lets her outbursts wash over him. At the same time, Charles and his parents find that Héloïse’s fortune isn’t as extensive (or even existent) as they had thought, and the situation escalates. Shortly after, Héloïse dies of a hemorrhage, and Charles finds himself a bachelor once again.

The Wedding

Not long after Héloïse’s death, Monsieur Rouault comes to visit Charles and hints strongly that he wouldn’t be averse to Charles asking for Emma’s hand in marriage. Charles, who for weeks has been trying to work up the courage to ask Emma, finally proposes, and Emma accepts. The wedding feast lasts for three days, bringing together people from the town and the village. Unfortunately, Emma’s relationship with her mother-in-law isn’t off to a good start: The elder Madame Bovary is upset because she didn’t get any say in the wedding preparations.

Passion and Disillusionment

Charles feels like a new person after his wedding night. He is certain that a new and better life is beginning for him, and he savors the domestic moments with his new wife, spending a lot of time just watching her. Sadly, Emma’s initial enthusiasm for Charles wanes rather quickly, as she finds that life with him doesn’t correspond to her romantic childhood dreams of happiness and passion.

“She was the lover in every novel, the heroine in every play, the ‘vague she’ in every volume of poetry.”

Emma spent much of her childhood in a convent, where she was sent to be educated. The mystical symbols, the smells, the flickering candles – everything about the convent fascinated her. It was there that one of the local washwomen introduced her to romantic novels, and Emma started dreaming of medieval romance, of being swept away by love and passion, and of finding her very own prince – a role that Charles is unable to fulfill. The more time she spends in Charles’s house as his wife, the further away her dream seems to drift.

The Ball

Emma is bored with her monotonous life. She wants travel, explore foreign places and instill some romance into her marriage, but she fails miserably as her attempts clash with Charles’s down-to-earth and unrefined nature. An invitation from the Marquis d’Andervilliers to a ball at his mansion La Vaubyessard finally brings the much-craved for excitement. Emma is in her element. She loves everything about the ball, from the lights and the dancing to the people and the food. She spends the evening dancing with various partners and pretty much forgets that she came with Charles. Charles, on the other hand, is only too glad finally to return to Tostes.

Bourgeois Mediocrity

Emma feels trapped in the narrow-minded and bourgeois milieu in which she finds herself. She is terribly bored, longs to return to the world of the ball, and devours novels and women’s magazines. Her feelings for her husband, who – lulled by the apparent peacefulness of his domestic life falls asleep in his armchair in the evenings – have turned into mild disdain. She despises him for his mediocrity and lack of vision and ambition.

“But she – her life was cold as a garret whose dormer-window looks on the north, and ennui, the silent spider, was weaving its web in the darkness in every corner of her heart.”

A year comes and goes. Emma falls ill; a deep melancholy and despair strike her down. Charles suspects that there’s a physical reason for it, but she refuses any medication. He thinks that maybe a change of location might help, so he finds a new position in the small village of Yonville-l’Abbaye and starts organizing the move. When they leave, Emma is pregnant.

Soul Mates?

When Emma and Charles arrive in Yonville-l’Abbaye, they stop at an inn. There, Charles gets into a conversation with the local pharmacist, Monsieur Homais, while Emma starts talking to the young Léon Dupuis, who works as a clerk in the village. They get on extremely well, and their conversation flows easily from topic to topic. Both are fascinated with and drawn to all things new, and it almost seems like they have found soul mates in each other. However, Yonville-l’Abbaey overall proves to be as boring and narrow-minded as Tostes. Charles isn’t too happy with his new home either, as there are few patients and money is becoming a problem. The only excitement for them is the birth of their first child. However, when Berthe is born, Emma soon grows tired of her and gives her over to a nursemaid in the village. One evening, when she goes to visit her daughter, she bumps into Léon, who walks part of the way with her and sets the rumor mills in the village turning. Léon feels more and more drawn to Emma, who to him seems to be so different from all the other people in the village. He doesn’t dare to confess his feelings to her, though. Emma, too, begins to wonder if she might be in love with him.

Saying Good-Bye

Emma and Léon spend more and more time together – whether at the Sunday gatherings at Homais’s house or during walks with a group of people, but they never manage to have time on their own. Like Léon, Emma doesn’t have the courage to show him how she feels, despite her suspicion that he is in love with her. Léon, on the other hand, can’t imagine that Emma would reciprocate his feelings; she appears to him as the epitome of the good wife and mother. One day, Emma receives a visit from the cunning shopkeeper Lherueux, who shows her his goods and assures her that he can get whatever luxury item she desires; he will also sell them to her on credit. While Emma doesn’t buy anything from him on this occasion, his offer will come back to haunt her. Heartbroken by Emma’s apparent indifference, Léon decides to leave the village to finish his studies in Paris. He says good-bye to Emma, hoping that she might give him a sign that would convince him to stay. But nothing happens, and he leaves.

The Seducer

After Léon’s departure, Emma falls back into melancholy and depression. She tries to console herself by buying new clothes and knickknacks, baubles, changing her hairstyle, learning Italian, and studying philosophy, but nothing really seems to help. Then one day, a Monsieur Rodolphe Boulanger from La Huchette appears at their house to ask Charles to bleed one of his farmers, who suffers from tingling sensations. When the poor man faints at the sight of his own blood, Charles calls Emma to come and help. When Rodolphe sees Emma, he is struck by her looks. The experienced womanizer decides to seduce her. He gathers that her life with her boring husband must be devoid of passion and excitement, and he starts to execute his plan carefully.

“Love, she thought, must come suddenly, with great outbursts and lightnings – a hurricane of the skies, which falls upon life, revolutionizes it, roots up the will like a leaf, and sweeps the whole heart into the abyss.”

At an agricultural fair, Rodolphe seeks out her company and then leads her into a room in the town hall, from which they watch the ceremony. He hints at his feelings and tries to take her hand but doesn’t push her. After the encounter, he stays away for weeks. As expected, his absence kindles Emma’s passion. When he finally arrives again at her house, he plays the desperate, unrequited lover, claiming that he stayed away because he couldn’t bear the turmoil of feelings that her sight is causing. He tells her that he believes fate has brought them together.

The Affair

Emma still resists Rodolphe’s advances but is secretly desperate to have some time along alone with him. The opportunity comes when the naive Charles gives his consent to Emma going horseback riding with Rodolphe. Charles believes that it will be good for her health and – when she hesitates – even encourages her to take Rodolphe up on the offer. On a foggy October day, they ride out together, and Emma succumbs to Rodolphe’s charms. She returns a different woman; she finally has a lover like all the heroines in her romantic novels. Over the next days and months, Rodolphe and Emma meet regularly, and Emma, recklessly, even starts visiting Rodolphe in his house early in the mornings.

Breaking Up

Emma becomes obsessed with Rodolphe. To please and excite him, she dresses in the latest fashion and jewelry from Lherueux. She pushes Rodolphe to run away with her, but while her feelings for him grow stronger and stronger, he starts seeing her as just one more concubine in a long line of lovers. He enjoys the power he has over her and constantly humiliates her. However, in a moment of weakness, he agrees to her plan to run away together and to take Berthe with them. Emma starts planning and buys several items from Lherueux for the journey, such as a travel case and a cloak. At their last meeting before their agreed departure, Rodolphe promises Emma that he will be at the coach, but in reality, he already knows that he won’t go through with the plan. When he returns home, he sits down to write her a letter explaining his decision – claiming that he is doing it for her own good and despite his ardent love for her. He spills a drop of water on the paper so Emma will think he cried when he wrote it – and sends it to her.

Breakdown

When Emma receives the letter, she breaks down. For the first time in her life, she considers suicide, and a long illness follows. Charles is worried sick about her – and for more than a month doesn’t leave her side.

“She wished at the same time to die and to live in Paris.”

Lherueux chooses this time to deliver the cloak and travel case that Emma bought in preparation for her journey with Rodolphe. Charles tries to refuse them, but Lheureux insists that he can’t send them back; plus, it might upset Emma. Faced with severe money troubles, Charles takes out a loan with Lheureux with extortionate repayment conditions. Emma starts to improve slowly and begins to turn back to her religious upbringing. She finds that the rituals and sacraments of the Church offer her some consolation, and she throws herself into works of charity. When Emma is finally well enough, Homais suggests that Charles take her to Rouen for a day to visit the opera, and Charles agrees – anything to cheer up Emma.

An Unexpected Reunion

They see Lucie de Lammermore-Lagardy, and Emma gets completely caught up in the music and the action. Charles, on the other hand, endures the performance and can’t wait to get back to Yonville-l’Abbaye. However, when Charles and Emma unexpectedly bump into Léon during intermission, she instantly loses all interest in what is happening on stage. Feigning to struggle with the heat, she persuades Charles to leave early, and they all go to a café to catch up. Léon has finished his studies in Paris and is now working for a big law firm in Rouen. Seeing Emma again brings back all the old feelings for Léon, and he desires nothing more than to seduce her. They begin to talk about the opera. Charles wants to give Emma the opportunity to see the last act and, naively, he suggests that she could stay another day, even though he will have to return to the village the next morning.

Rekindled Feelings

Léon follows Emma and Charles to their hotel, planning to seek her out in the morning. He finds her in the hotel and gathers the courage to confess his feelings for her. Emma pretends reluctance but eventually agrees to a meeting in the cathedral the next day. Léon gets there early and waits impatiently for Emma. When she finally arrives, he persuades her to join him in a carriage, and they set off on a tour around the city – with the curtains drawn. Whenever the driver tries to stop, the only thing he hears is Léon’s command to “keep moving!” At six o’clock in the evening, the driver is finally allowed to stop at a backstreet, and Emma, veiled, gets out of the carriage and sets off back home.

Honeymoon

On her return to Yonville, Emma learns that Charles’s father has died. Lherueux, ever keen to draw her deeper into debt, congratulates her on the coming fortune of her and Charles’s inheritance. He tells her about Charles’s money troubles and that he had delivered her cloak and travel case. Emma gets worried that Lherueux might suspect something. When he suggests that she might want to ask Charles for power of attorney so she can sort out her debts with Lherueux directly, she sees it as a way to hide her deceit. She drafts a note and shows it to Charles but pretends that she isn’t happy with it and would like to consult Léon on the wording. Charles agrees, and Emma sets off to Rouen to spend three days with Léon. Driven by her desire for him, she comes up with a plan to see him regularly: She persuades Charles that she needs piano lessons from a well-known piano teacher in Rouen. Desperate to see her happy, Charles agrees, and from then on, Emma travels to Rouen every Thursday.

The Net Closes

Emma grows ever more brazen and entangles herself deeply in her own web of lies. Lherueux starts to hassle her to pay back the money she and Charles have borrowed, as well as to pay for all the items she has bought on credit. When she tells him that she doesn’t have the money at the moment, he suggests that she sell a property that used to belong to Charles’s father. He even comes up with a buyer for her. With her power of attorney, she agrees to the sale, but instead of taking her money to pay off the bills, Lherueux proposes that she might want to keep hold of it and pay back the money in six months’ time. Emma agrees and continues to live beyond her means, spending money and visiting Léon regularly. But their feelings for each other begin to grow stale.

“Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers.”

Emma discovers that, after a while, the affair begins to feel like her marriage. She becomes even more reckless and, after a night at a masked ball where she ends up in the company of rakes and prostitutes, Lherueux appears at her door, asking for his money back.

Desperation

This time, no amount of begging or crying changes his mind. The next day, the bailiff and two witnesses come to Emma and Charles’s house to value their possessions. Charles isn’t at home and is still unaware of what is happening, and Emma starts clutching at straws. First, she tries to convince Léon to get a loan of 3,000 francs for her. He is unsuccessful. Next on her list is the notary Monsieur Guillaumin, but when he falls to his knees, wraps his arms around her waist and professes his love for her, she leaves embarrassed and humiliated. As a last resort, she takes her old route to La Huchette to see Rodolphe, but he also refuses to give her money.

The Ultimate Price

At the end of her tether, Emma goes to the apothecary’s house and begs the young clerk Justin, who is secretly in love with her, to let her in. She claims she requires rat poison and, unable to deny her anything, he lets her in without telling Homais. She opens the cupboard, grabs a bottle of arsenic and drinks it. She returns home, writes a letter to Charles – who by now knows that the house is up for auction. The poison works slowly, and Emma is in agony for hours. All of Charles’s attempts to rescue her fail, and after a grueling struggle, she dies.

“To please her, as though she were still alive, he adopted her predilections, her ideas…He waxed his moustache, he signed bills just as she had done. She was corrupting him from beyond the grave.”

Charles is inconsolable. He stops working and keeps Emma’s bedroom almost as a shrine. But his memory of his wife shatters when he finds the crumpled-up letter Rodolphe wrote to Emma on the day of their planned escape. The very same day, Berthe finds him sitting on the bench in the garden – dead.

About the Text

Structure and Style

Madame Bovary is split into three parts, connected to the three main periods in Emma’s life: first, her marriage to Charles and the boring life with him, then the first excitement of Rodolphe’s attention and her eventual affair with him, and finally the reunion with Léon and their passionate relationship. Flaubert frames these three episodes with Charles’s youth and life before he met Emma, and then his life after Emma’s suicide. Style is of prime importance in the novel. Flaubert even went so far as to say that it was a novel “about nothing” that would be held together by the strength of its style. The narrator records every trait and incident with a dispassionate objectivity. These observations give insight into the psyche of his characters and how they play into the logical development of the novel. There is little dialogue, and the descriptive approach allows for the realistic depiction of the outer life but also offers an unvarnished view into Emma’s emotional world. In his description of surgeries and Emma’s death scene, Flaubert shows a detailed knowledge of medical procedures and the process of dying – something that he, no doubt, also picked up from living in a hospital when he was growing up.

Interpretation

  • Madame Bovary is one of the first novels about the mundanity of a bourgeois marriage – not a romantic love story, but a story of boredom, mediocrity and disillusionment. The banality of everyday life in her marriage contrasts sharply with Emma’s romantic ideas.
  • With the character of Emma Bovary, Flaubert turns against the tropes and style of late Romantic literature. His heroine suffers from the “romantic malaise”: Emma has romantic notions even about dying – but is proved horribly wrong in her own death struggles.
  • In the novel, Emma reads novels that the readers of Flaubert’s time would have read. By discussing the books within the novel, Flaubert creates what is called “metafiction.”
  • The novel contains much symbolism – for example, the burning bridal bouquet, which indicates the destruction of Emma and Charles’ relationship, as well as closed and open windows, which reflect Emma’s feelings of imprisonment and freedom.
  • The novel plays with gender stereotypes. Charles shows the contentment and happiness with domestic touches usually associated with the female partner and later becomes the carer and nurturer for Emma. Emma, in contrast, increasingly enters the traditionally male world of both physical and business affairs.
  • There is also an inversion of power hierarchies in Emma’s other relationships. With Rodolphe, Emma is submissive and entirely dependent on him, but in her relationship with Léon, she soon becomes the dominant partner.
  • A motif of blindness is present throughout the novel in both Emma’s and Charles’s unwillingness to see what is right in front of them – and is eventually represented physically through the blind beggar, with whom Emma identifies at the end of the novel.
  • Emma constantly moves from wild passions to religious devotion and back again. But rather than depicting the spiritual and the physical as opposing ends of a spectrum, Flaubert cleverly draws out the parallels between the two.

Historical Background

Counterrevolutionary France and the Birth of Realism

Counterrevolutionary tendencies greatly influenced the first half of the 19th century in France. Romanticism was in its heyday, and there was a renewed interest in religion and Christian faith. These stood in contrast to the move towards rationalism and science, which began to emerge around the same time. After the 1848 revolution, many turned consciously toward a highy scientific mind-set, which valued fact over idealism and objectivity over subjective impression. Some followers of this “positivism” even began to apply its principles to questions of religion and faith. During the Second Empire (1852–1870), artists, writers and intellectuals began to explore various new ways of rebelling against concepts that had been taken for granted for centuries – whether based in religion, morality, human nature or an understanding of the universe. 

The concept of Realism started with the work of the artist Gustave Courbet, whose art focused on the emotionally neutral presentation of ordinary life rather than beauty. In literature, the term was less clearly defined and applied to works as diverse as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal and the social dramas of Alexandre Dumas. Flaubert allowed impassibilité (impassivity) und impartialité (neutrality) to guide his Realism, in contrast from others who suggested that Realism should serve a social purpose or that the aesthetic perfection of style was paramount.

Development

In a way, Flaubert started Madame Bovary as early as 1837, when he wrote the short story Passion et vertu, whose heroine Mazza resembled Emma Bovary. However, work only began in earnest after Flaubert read the manuscript for his novel La Tentation de Saint Antoine to two of his friends to get their honest opinion. Unfortunately, they ripped it to pieces, told him to “throw it all into the fire,” and suggested he should try to write a down-to-earth novel. The down-to-earth novel took its inspiration from the life of Eugéne Delamare, a country doctor in Normandy who died of grief after being deceived and ruined by his wife, as well as that of Louise Pradier, the wife of a sculptor, who had cheated on her husband and found herself ostracized from bourgeois society.

It took Flaubert five years to finish the novel. He was a perfectionist in his writings, and most of his novels exist in various drafts, crafted over several years. From 1851 to 1856, he worked on and refined the text, often taking a whole day to write and rewrite one page, until eventually he turned 4,300 pages of manuscript into the finished product. This intense period led him to empathize with his heroine. In a letter, he wrote, “When I described Emma Bovary’s poisoning, I had the taste of arsenic on my tongue.” The novel was first published in serialized form 1856 in his friend Maxime du Camp’s magazine La Revue de Paris and was then published as a two-volume book in April 1857. 

Reviews and Legacy

Flaubert’s impassive, nonjudgmental approach to the subject matter of female sexuality and adultery caused an immediate scandal. After its publication in serial form, several places censored the novel and Flaubert was brought before the court on charges of “offenses against public moral, good manners and religion.” Thanks to his brilliant solicitor, Flaubert was acquitted in January 1857. It was partly this scandal that helped to put Madame Bovary at the top of the bestseller list when it was published in book form in April 1857. Yet beyond the furor around its subject matter, it has become the seminal work of French Realism and one of the most influential works in literature. Writers and critics such as Henry James, Marcel Proust and Vladimir Nabokov considered it a perfect novel with an unequaled purity of style.

The novel was turned into an opera in 1951 and made into several films, including Albert Ray’s 1932 version, Vincente Minelli’s 1949 adaptation and Claude Chabrol’s 1991 version, starring Jennifer Jones in the lead role. More recently, director Sophie Barthes cast Mia Wasikowska as Emma for her 2014 adaptation.

About the Author

French novelist Gustave Flaubert was born on December 12, 1821 in Rouen, Normandy. His father was chief surgeon and clinical professor at the Hôtel-Dieu hospital in Rouen. His mother, a doctor’s daughter from Pont l’Évêque, belonged to a family of distinguished magistrates. Flaubert started writing as a teenager, and he returned in later years to several of the subjects with which he experimented during this time. In 1841, he went on to study law in Paris but had to abandon his studies because of a nervous condition. He moved to his estate at Croisset near Rouen, where he was to spend most of the rest of his life. There, he dedicated his time to writing, which he approached with almost religious asceticism. During a visit to Paris in 1846, he met the poet Louise Colet, who became his mistress. Between 1849 and 1851, Flaubert traveled widely with Du Camp, visiting Greece, Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, Syria and Italy. In 1857, the publication of Madame Bovary finally brought the literary success he had been waiting for – though with some less desirable side effects, as he was taken to court on charges of the novel’s alleged immorality. A trip to Tunisia toward the end of the 1850s inspired his next novel, Salammbô (1863). However, neither this nor the two ensuing novels L’Education sentimentale (1870) and La Tentation de Saint Antoine (1874) replicated the success that Madame Bovary brought. Only the 1877 collection of short stories titled Trois Contes received critical acclaim. Flaubert died suddenly on May 8, 1880 in Croisset of an apoplectic stroke. He left an unfinished page and notes for the second volume of his latest novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet, which was published after his death.


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