Overview: Madame Bovary
The book begins in the school room of Charles Bovary, a boy of few talents and little charisma who grows up to be a man of the same temperament. Charles becomes a doctor and, after marrying once and being made a widower, falls in love with a country girl, Emma. The new Madame Bovary is a very beautiful--but flighty--girl who was brought up in a convent and truly believed that love and marriage would bring fulfillment to a life that hitherto had not lived up to expectations. Despite all her hopes, marriage to Charles proves dull and restless. Country-life becomes a slow trudge with no end in sight.
Emma finds a fellow romantic in the form of a young clerk, Leon, who is as bored and restless with the pace of country life as she is. She considers the possibility of an affair, but draws away from Leon, who leaves town to seek a future in Paris. Bereft at his leaving, Emma falls into the arms of Rodolphe, with whom she starts a passionate affair.
Emma can't find the romantic, free life she craves--even in Leon's arms. Leon becomes merely another appendage--like her husband. Finally, she determines to commit suicide by taking arsenic. Far from being the beautiful farewell from the world she envisioned, Emma dies in the most horrible and painful way possible. Charles is left to grow old by himself--as he attempts to reconcile his idealized vision of his wife with the knowledge of her adultery and frivolity.
Illusion and Reality
Flaubert's Madame Bovary negotiates between the world as it is and the world as Emma would wish it to be. This French novel is brilliant in its realistic portrayal of the ennui that was endemic in the French countryside of the time. Madame Bovary is forward looking, revolutionary, and controversial for its time. The novel was influential in the shaping of future work of realism and modernism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Powerful but understated, Flaubert's writing is at its best when it deals with the minutiae of every day life and delving into the depths of a character's psychology. Strong, unflinching in its desire to reach the truth of humanity, Madame Bovary treads a fine line between the desire for a more romantic life and understanding the inevitability of its eventual frustration.