Madame Bovary Book summary

Gustave Flaubert




Gustave Flaubert’s first, and perhaps the most successful novel focuses on a young woman, Emma Bovary, and her boredom with married life. Madame Bovary established Flaubert as a meticulous writer because of its beautifully symmetric and poetic prose. His careful use of language is further evidenced as he often talked about the accident of discovering the perfect word, le mot juste. Broadly, this piece of realist literature is seen as a criticism of Bourgeoise culture. The book does not directly talk about class, but it focuses on the deficiencies of the social group through its description of the minor characters in the book.


Plot Summary


Madame Bovary begins with the description of Charles Bovary’s childhood in the French countryside with a domineering mother and a careless father. He grows up to become a doctor, though he fails his first attempt at the medical examination. His mother sets up Charles’s first clinic in a small town called Tosets and arranges for him to be married to a widowed woman with a large inheritance. His wife behaves very suspiciously with him and forces him to live according to her. During a visit to a patient with a broken leg, Charles becomes acquainted with the beautiful, and convent-educated daughter of this patient. He enjoys seeing her, and so he goes to check on the patient, Roault, far more than necessary. Charles’s controlling wife puts an end to these visits, but she passes away a short time afterward. Farmer Roault invites him back to his farm so that he can enliven his spirits with some countryside activities. During these visits, Emma and Charles grow closer to one another. He decides that he will ask her father for her hand.

Roault agrees to Charles’s proposal primarily because he is eager to marry off his daughter, and he believes Charles will not try to negotiate too large a dowry for her hand. They are married the following year, and they soon return to Charles’s home. The narrator’s perspective shifts to Emma, a young woman who had been educated at a convent in the city until the age of 15. Emma had at first loved the religious zeal of the nuns at the convent, but she had later become obsessed with romance novels. Emma became too troublesome for the convent, and so she was removed from the school to return to the quaint countryside. This change also failed to live up to her expectations, and she soon grew to resent her life, which is when Charles came into her life. Although she had been eager to marry Charles, she suddenly found herself disillusioned by the monotony of marriage.

Charles was deeply in love with her and adored having her in his life. Meanwhile, Emma began to resent Charles for not understanding her needs, but a distraction came her way in the form of an invitation to a ball held by a Marquis. Emma loves every minute of her time at the palace of the Marquis and even shares a dance with a viscount. She ignores Charles the whole night and tries to stay awake as long as possible to absorb more of the night. They return to their lives, and Emma tries to emulate the tastes of the rich in whatever way she can. Emma is desperate for another taste of that world, but it never arrives, as they are not invited back to the ball the following year. Emma sinks into depression, and Charles decides that moving to a new town would make her feel better.

The Bovarys relocate to Yonville L’Abbaye at the same time as Emma’s pregnancy. Emma becomes acquainted with a young clerk called Leon, who shares many tastes with Emma including literature and music. The Bovarys frequently dine with Leon since he is a lodger at the house of Monsieur Homais, the pompous pharmacist of Yonville, who works closely with Charles. Emma wishes for a son, but she has a daughter and names her Berthe. Charles hates Yonville because he doesn’t have any regular customers meanwhile Leon tries to muster the courage to confess his love to Emma. She soon discovers his true feelings and it improves her disposition wonderfully, but this does not last long as Leon decides to leave for Paris.

Emma then falls prey to a recently relocated Bachelor, and experienced suitor, Rodolphe. He woos her with practiced ease, and they begin a wild affair right under Charles’s nose. Rodolphe’s charm wears off after he has wooed her, and she begins to experience guilt over her treatment of Charles. She tries to aid Charles in his career by convincing him to perform an ill-thought-out and novel surgical procedure upon Homais’ insistence. The patient undergoing the surgery suffers from gangrene during the recovery, which leads to the amputation of his leg. Thoroughly disappointed in Charles, Emma rushes back into the arms of her lover. She practically forces him to agree to flop together, with Berthe, even though he tries to raise concerns. Eventually, Rodolphe sends her a letter on the agreed day of their departure, to regretfully inform her that he can’t take her away after she has made all the preparations. Emma suffers from a fit at the sight of Rodolphe leaving town and becomes severely ill. She eventually recovers under Charles’s devoted and unwavering care. He takes her to see a play at the theatre in Rouen, hoping that it would cheer her up. They run into Leon, who takes the opportunity to get Emma alone and confess his true feelings. Emma and Leon begin an affair on that very trip.

She returns to Yonville to discover that Charles has lost his father, and she convinces him to give her the power of attorney for his inheritance. She goes to Rouen to supposedly work on the documents using Leon’s legal aid, but they instead spend the three days like a honeymoon. Emma borrows money heavily from Monsieur Lhereux to supply herself with money for an indulgent trip to Rouen every week. Eventually, she begins to lose interest in Leon, and Lhereux stops lending her money. Debt collectors begin to call her house, and when she is unable to pay them, they initiate proceedings for auctioning her belongings. Charles remains none the wiser, and Emma tries to arrange the money through Leon, who has no incentive to aid her since he no longer wishes to continue their affair. She is treated like a prostitute when she asks the local lawyer for aid, so she storms out of his house. In desperation, she goes to Rodolphe for aid, who refuses her outright.

Emma decides to poison herself and she gets the arsenic from Homais’ apothecary. She then composes a letter of explanation, hands it to him when he arrives, and asks him not to open it until the following morning. However, Emma begins to experience severe agony, so she directs Charles to open the letter and he learns that she has poisoned herself. He calls for aid, and several people arrive but alas Emma Bovary passes away after receiving the sacrament. Charles mourns her loss and losses all of his property in repaying Emma’s debts. He learns about her affairs with Rodolphe and Leon through the correspondence that Emma had kept hidden in her drawers. He does not hold any resentment when he meets Rodolphe, but he dies the following day. Berthe, their daughter, ends up living with an impoverished distant relative, with whom she is forced to work in a cotton mill.

  • Author(s)

    Gustave Flaubert
  • Publication date

    December 15, 1856

  • Language


  • Classification

    Realist Literature

  • Pages



French Literature, 19th Century


Revue de Paris

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