55 pages 1 hour read

Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1856

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Summary and Study Guide


Madame Bovary is a foundational realist novel. Authored by the esteemed French writer Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), Madame Bovary was first released through serialization in 1856, and then formally published as Flaubert’s debut novel in 1857. Madame Bovary is one of the earliest examples of realism in literature and is credited with helping to develop the importance of psychological realism in literature. It is a love story, a vociferous critique of the ways in which society subjugates women, a celebration of literature, and the story of how a human being can become their own worst enemy.

This guide uses the Oxford University Press 2008 edition of the novel, translated from the French by Margaret Mauldon. Pagination and specific wording may vary.

Content Warning: This guide discusses suicide, racism, and domestic violence.

Plot Summary

Charles Bovary is an average student whose father has squandered the family’s money through excessive partying. Charles’s mother is active in his development. She helps secure him an education in the medical field, a job as a doctor, and a wife with some financial means. Charles goes along with his mother’s plans for him. His life is changed when he treats the broken leg of Monsieur Rouault, who has a beautiful daughter named Emma. When Charles’s first wife dies, he is thrilled to quickly marry Emma.

Emma was educated in a convent, and she took care of her father after her mother’s death. She marries Charles because she is inspired by novels that led her to believe that love is dramatic and interesting. Instead, she learns her marriage is boring and feels like a trap. Emma is desperately unhappy with Charles. She finds him uninteresting and average. She craves intellectual and emotional stimulation. She becomes so unhappy with her situation that she falls ill. Charles moves them to a larger town called Yonville-l’Abbaye, hoping that a change of scenery will reinvigorate Emma. Emma is pregnant with a daughter, whom they name Berthe.

In Yonville-l’Abbaye, Emma’s mental health and mood are again impacted. She spends Charles’s hard-earned money on frivolous goods for the house and elegant dresses, hoping that these material goods will fulfill her. Emma falls in love with a young clerk named Léon, whom she connects with on literature and their desire to avoid boredom. However, Léon knows that he cannot act on his love for Emma, so he moves to a larger city to escape his impossible love. This saddens Emma further.

Emma meets and is seduced by a wealthy bachelor named Rodolphe. Emma believes that she is passionately in love with Rodolphe, and she falsely believes that Rodolphe is in love with her too. Rodolphe is a man who enjoys manipulating women’s emotions and playing around with unavailable women. Emma plans on running away with Rodolphe, but he writes her a letter ending their relationship and then leaves town, realizing that he took his affair with Emma too far. Emma’s mental health is further impacted.

To make her feel better, Charles brings Emma into Rouen, the bigger city nearby, for a night at the opera. There, they run into Léon. Charles has Emma stay an extra day in Rouen alone so she can enjoy the theater again. Charles trusts in Léon and has no idea that Emma is so unhappy with him, let alone that she has already had an affair. Léon and Emma quickly confess their past love and begin an affair. Emma pretends to take piano lessons in Rouen so that she can see Léon on a regular basis. With Léon, Emma uses the same seductive techniques Rodolphe used on her, giving her power of Léon. Emma is thrilled by the affair until she becomes bored: She learns that an affair can become as routinized as a marriage.

Meanwhile, Emma has been spending too much money. A local pawnbroker and lender, Monsieur Lheureux, has been selling Emma luxurious items that she can’t afford by instead signing her on for credit. In Emma, Monsieur Lheureux sees a woman who is easily taken advantage of because she is naive about money. Emma can’t keep up with her debts, and soon Monsieur Lheureux signs off the debt Emma owes him to another lender. Now, Emma is in real trouble. Charles has no idea that Emma has accrued so much debt. A bailiff arrives to itemize the assets in her house. Emma could be imprisoned for not paying off her debt. No one will lend her money, not even Léon or Rodolphe, whom she begs for help. Emma’s house of cards falls because of her mismanagement of money. She pushes her family into poverty. She is so desperate for a way out that she consumes arsenic and dies a slow and painful death.

After Emma’s death, Charles finds the letters between her and her two former lovers, providing irrefutable evidence of her affairs. Still, Charles, who was always oblivious about Emma’s real life, keeps her on a pedestal. Charles is so devastated by her death that he himself dies of heartbreak. Charles’s daughter Berthe lives with his mother until she dies, and Berthe then moves in with a distant aunt. Berthe ends up living a life of poverty, working in the cotton mill while still a child.

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