Plot Summary

Part 1

Charles Bovary is a country boy, sent to college in Rouen. Despite Flaubert's assertion that "the author, in his work, must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere" the first chapter, in which Charles is ridiculed by his classmates, implicates the reader in his humiliation with the use of the word "we". However, this narrative voice is quickly abandoned ("we should all of us now find it impossible to remember a thing about him") and Charles's tale of mediocrity begins. He scrapes through medical school and returns to Normandy to take up a post in the village of Tostes. Here his mother sets him up with a wife, an ugly but respectable widow of forty-five. The marriage is a sterile disappointment for Charles (1). One night he is called out to Les Bertaux, a farm belonging to a Monsieur Rouault who has broken his leg. Charles attends to the patient with the assistance of his lovely daughter Emma. Despite the fact that M. Rouault is soon on the mend, Charles visits the farm regularly. His caustic wife is jealous, but after a very brief illness she is dead (2). Monsieur Rouault, hearing of his loss, invites him out to the farm "to take his mind off things". Charles becomes increasingly aware of the attractions of his charming and sophisticated daughter. He finally plucks up the courage to ask M. Rouault for her hand; he accedes and Emma begins to prepare for the wedding (3). It is a joyous occasion, although Emma begs her father to spare her the "customary horseplay" of the wedding night. Charles is delighted with his new bride and the couple set off for Tostes (4).

The rhythm of married life soon establishes itself. Charles is "happy, without a care in the world", constantly revelling in his wife's perfections. Emma, on the other hand, barely conceals her disillusion. She is not in love but is determined "to discover what it was that people in real life meant by such words as 'bliss', 'passion' and 'intoxication' - words, all of them, which she had thought so fine when she read them in books." (5) During her time at convent school she read extensively, developing a passion for Romantic literature, especially Walter Scott and medieval courtly romances. Her tastes are escapist, her temperament dreamy and she cannot now believe "that this uneventful existence was the happiness she had dreamt of" (6). This terrible discrepancy between the expectations fostered by Romantic literature and provincial reality is the book's key theme. Charles is certainly no hero: "he could not swim or fence or shoot with the pistol" and Emma soon becomes bored. However, at the end of September her hopes are raised when Charles receives an invitation from the Marquis d'Andervilliers to a ball at his château in Vaubyessard (7).

The magnificent ball is everything Emma dreams of: she even dances with a Viscount. Yet the experience is also cruel, for it affords Emma a tantalising glimpse of what might have been and she becomes obsessed with reliving its every moment (8). She envisages the other guests leading glamorous lives in Paris, a city that holds mythical qualities for her. Emma replaces her maid Nastasie with Félicité. The more time passes, the more Charles's total lack of ambition exasperates her. There are no more balls. Emma abandons all diversions ("'I have read everything,' she said to herself, and could find nothing better to do than heat the tongs red-hot and watch the falling rain") and a year and a half after the first ball she develops a nervous condition. Charles decides that a change of scene is the only possible cure and arranges a move to the small town of Yonville- l'Abbaye. By this stage, Emma is pregnant (9)

Part 2

The inhabitants of Yonville, as unexceptional as their town is banal, await the new arrivals excitedly. They include Monsieur Homais, the self-important pharmacist, Madame Lefrançois, the busy innkeeper of the Lion d'Or and Binet, who has a hobby making napkin rings. The local carriage, The Swallow, belongs to a Monsieur Hivert and on this occasion the Bovarys share it with Lheureux, the draper (1). On arrival they are invited to dinner with Monsieur Homais and Léon Dupuis, a trainee lawyer. He too feels the constraints of provincial life and is delighted to discuss literature with Emma. He shares her romantic sensibilities. Not only does he agree emphatically with Emma when she declares that she hates "low heroes and lukewarm sentiments of the sort one finds in real life" but goes on to express the joy he finds in identifying with characters of noble virtue and "pure affections". As the critic Terence Cave points out, "this an awful warning to the would-be reader of Madame Bovary. There are many ways of misreading the novel and most of them are itemized here". Ironically, Emma remains hopeful about her prospects in Yonville (2).

Charles struggles to establish his practice but is delighted when his wife gives birth to Berthe, a baby girl (she had hoped for a boy). She has few maternal instincts and hands the child over to the wetnurse, Madame Rollet. On one occasion she visits the baby in the company of Léon (a fact which does not go unnoticed by Madame Tuvache, the mayor's wife) who is becoming increasingly attracted to her (3). Despite their growing intimacy, Léon is too shy to say anything and Emma remains oblivious to her own affection: "Love, she believed, should come with the suddenness of thunder and lightening" (4). A trip to a flax mill with the Homais provides
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