Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1998

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using the Penguin 1992 edition.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of its commentary.   

Overall Impression: I found this required classic deliberately repulsive and grim, though well told.  The "heroine" Emma is very unsympathetically portrayed.

Notes per Penguin edition: Written in the early 1850s, covers period of 1827-46. Their marriage occurs during the reign of King Louis-Phillipe, the bourgeois blatantly middle-class "citizen king". Flaubert's intent is to satirize the lower middle-class. He invented a new modern style of writing in which dialog is minimal and there is no one obviously telling the story but a changing disembodied voice coming from somewhere.


Begins with recollection by a classmate of Charles Bovary at 15, when he entered prep school in Rouen as a provincial and is cruelly mocked by his classmates. He is the inept son of a former assistant army surgeon Charles-Denis-B. Bovary, who has spent his wife's fortune and retired to country life. Charles eventually muddles through a medical education of sorts and takes a position as a Public Health Officer in Tostes, marrying a domineering widow Mme. Héloïse Dubuc. He attends a farmer patient with an attractive daughter Emma Rouault with increasing frequency-- his wife becomes jealous but conveniently dies. He courts Emma and asks for her hand-- her father Théodore Rouault consents to their marriage and is relieved to have her married off since she does little useful work. They have a rustic and drunken country feast after the wedding and live afterwards in Tostes. Charles is ecstatic with his new wife but she almost immediately finds something lacking. 

We learn of Emma's schooling in a convent. She was initially enamored with the mysticism of Catholicism but eventually takes up with a dreamy passion for romanticism (novels, poems, etc.) and rebels against the mysteries of faith. As Mme. Bovary (the younger), she contemplates her boredom and is disappointed that her prosaic life has not lived up to her romantic fantasies.

The Bovarys are invited to a fine overnight ball put on by the Marquis d'Andervilliers at La Vaubyessard. There she repels Charles and discourages him from dancing-- but she dances with the Viscount, and is enamored with their wealth. Later, she discovers the ornate cigar case dropped by the Viscount. Afterward, she dreams even more of the world of wealth, is discontent, abandons her piano and crafts, thinks of Paris and travel, is disgusted with Charles' apparent lack of ambition, becomes moody and depressed. His old professor diagnoses a nervous ailment and advises that they move, despite his currently thriving medical practice. He decides on Yonville-l'Abbaye in the Neufchâtel area, 20 miles from Rouen. Emma is pregnant.

They move to Yonville, arriving in the crude carriage Hirondelle driven by Hivert. There they meet the anticlerical pharmacist Homais, the innkeeper of the Golden Lion Inn Mme. Lefrançois, the tax collector Mr. (Capn.) Binet, the young law clerk Mr. Léon Dupuis, the draper Mr. Lheureux. Léon and Mme. Bovary share common interests in romantic poetry. 

Emma has her daughter Berthe, who she sends to the carpenter's wife Mère Rolet for nursing. Charles' business is slow. Mr. Bovary senior visits and flirts with Emma-- Mme. Bovary worries that he may be an immoral influence on Emma and they leave early. Léon walks Emma to visit her baby-- their eyes meet and contemplate the possibility of future pleasures. Léon dines frequently with Homais and the Bovarys, and she and Léon converse privately as the older men fall asleep. Emma chooses to affect virtuousness even while she is filled with lust for Léon. The cunning and manipulative Mr. Lheureux begins to entice Emma to overspend on luxuries he brings over .

Emma makes an unsuccessful attempt to discuss her forbidden passion and frustrations with the curé Abbé Bournisien, but he keeps the conversation superficial and platitudinous and fails to connect with her real concerns. She is unkind and abrupt with her daughter. Léon tires of his unfulfilled passion for Emma and decides to move to Rouen to pursue his studies-- Homais is disappointed to lose him but Emma mourns the loss and is in despair. Mme. Bovary recommends that she work harder and read fewer novels, "wicked books, things written against religion". 

Soon she encounters Mr. Rodolphe Boulanger de la Huchette. He is a worldly 34 y/o bachelor and decides to seduce her and to dump his current mistress, Virginie, who is now too plump. During the agricultural show (country fair) he works on winning her over, talking of the mediocrity of all things provincial. He offers her a horse, and Charles, unsuspecting, encourages her to ride for her health. Rodolphe and she ride to the woods and he seduces her. She joys in her new ecstatic passion. She visits him at La Huchette at night, wading through mud and getting her dress wet to get there, and he warns her that she is compromising her reputation with her recklessness. As she returns, Capn. Binet spots her and suspects her actions. They resolve to meet more discreetly, now in her home in the examining room. Rodolphe's love dwindles. 

She begins to long for her father (who writes her), pays better attention to Berthe, and repents her actions. She looks more favorably on Charles. But Homais, ever infatuated with the wonders of science and progress, convinces Charles to perform an ill-advised experimental surgery for clubfoot on the ostler Hippolyte Tautain. Homais makes much of the surgery, writing a glowing article for the paper Le Fanal de Rouen. But Hippolyte's leg becomes gangrenous, and an outside physician called in, Mr. Canivet has to perform a midthigh amputation. Charles is crushed and Emma's contempt for him is even greater than ever before. She resumes her affair with Rodolphe. Lheureux begins to discuss her mounting debts with him, suspecting her infidelity and using this as a subtle hold over her. Rodolphe finds her tyrannical and too importunate and uses her brutishly. She persuades him to run away with her and Berthe. She orders traveling bags and clothes from Lheureux. But when the time comes for them to depart, he sends her a letter calling off the affair. 

She is horrified at the letter, contemplates suicide, goes into wild behavior and convulsions, develops a cerebral fever, and is sick for 6 weeks. Charles has more money woes and borrows from Lheureux. Emma turns to religion and charity. Charles takes her to Rouen to see an opera. They attend Lucia di Lammermoor, where she encounters Léon. She stays another day while Charles returns to Yonville-- Léon tries to entice her but she repels him. They meet at the cathedral, then go for a long carriage ride. She tears up the letter of dismissal she has written him.

On returning, she learns that Charles' father has died. Homais is berating the adolescent Justin for entering his inner sanctum, the Capharnaum, where he stores arsenic and other drugs. Charles' mother arrives. Lheureux comes to persuade Emma to get power-of-attorney from her husband, so she can spend his money more unrestrainedly. She leaves for Rouen to get Léon's help with this document, and stays 3 days having a passionate affair with him at the Hôtel de Boulogne. Under the pretense of taking piano lesson, she begins to make weekly visits to Rouen to be with her new lover. 

She continues to overspend, concealing her actions from her husband, and even sells Charles' inherited land. The affair is described in all its passion. She becomes more careless, spends more and more time with Léon, compromising his work. Charles comments that the claimed piano teacher, Mme. Lempereur has never heard of her, but she explains this away and he remains oblivious to her lies and deceptions. She and Léon are seen at the hotel by Lheureux. Mme. Bovary criticizes Emma for her extravagances. Homais comes to Rouen for a day and monopolizes Léon, to Emma's displeasure-- Léon is exasperated with her. She is acting more strangely. Léon's employer advises him to extricate himself from her grip. He feels bored with her and begins to rebel against her tightening grip. His mother has received an anonymous letter warning that her son is ruining himself with a married woman-- he swears not to see her again, though he does not keep to this resolve. 

Emma's bills come due-- the bailiff sends a private document. Lheureux is losing patience with her. Her furniture is to be seized. She tries unsuccessfully to appeal to Lheureux (who blames another rather than acknowledging his own doing), bankers, Léon, the notary Guillaumin (who demands sex), tax-collector Binet (who she tries desperately to seduce), and Mère Rolet. At last, the notice of seizure has been posted in the market. She feels more belligerent. Her husband is weeping and wondering where she is. 

Finally she turns to Rodolphe, who tells her he does not have the money. She scorns and berates him, commenting on the wealth of the objects around him. She leaves, bewildered, confused, ?hallucinating, with a touch of madness. She goes to the pharmacy and persuades Justin to let her in to the Capharnaum, where she ingests a handful of arsenic. She returns home to her distraught husband and goes to bed. When her illness becomes apparent, he send for renowned physicians to help her, though they can do little in the end. The curé Bournisien arrives and administers the last rites. The Blind Man, a beggar who pestered her in Rouen, appears. She dies an agonizing death. 

Charles grieves. Homais and Bournisien debate religion. Emma's body is prepared and the cause of her death is covered up as an accident. At the funeral, Père Rouault and Mme. Bovary attend-- Rouault cannot bear to see his granddaughter. 

Charles' money problems worsen, he becomes withdrawn. He discovers Emma's love letters from Lèon and Rodolphe. He breaks with his mother and further deteriorates. He tells Rodolphe that he forgives him, blaming fate. Emma's clothing is plundered by her maid Félicité. Numerous creditors make demands. Charles must sell many of their belongings, though he cannot part with things from her bedroom. Léon gets married. Homais pulls away from Charles because of the difference in social position. Homais has the Blind Man incarcerated. Emma's tombstone says in Latin "A loving wife lies buried here". Charles dies, a broken man, from no obvious cause. Berthe is taken in by a poor aunt, who sends her to earn her keep at the cottonmill. Homais at last receives the Legion of Honor for his scientific writings etc.