The novel begins at the village school, where a new student has just arrived. He is Charles Bovary, the son of a former army surgeon and his wife, who lives on a small farm. After observing Charles on his first day at school, we follow him as he grows up. Charles’s father, who manages money poorly and philanders with “all the village harlots,” has long since lost the respect of his wife, who lavishes her effusive affections on Charles instead. Despite the ridiculous way she spoils him, Charles remains an unremarkable child—good-natured, but lazy and unimaginative. Eventually, his parents send him off to medical school, where he regularly skips classes and plays dominoes instead of studying. His laziness causes him to fail his first attempt at the medical exam, a failure concealed from his father until years later. After retaking the exam, he passes and becomes a doctor. His mother arranges for him to practice in the village of Tostes. She also finds him a wife—Heloise Dubuc, a wealthy widow, years older than Charles. Heloise gives Charles little love but plenty of nagging and scolding.
One night, Charles is called from his bed at 4 a.m. to set a simple fracture at a distant farm. He admires the patient’s daughter, a young woman named Emma, who was raised in a convent and is unhappy with country life. Struck by her beauty, he returns to visit her father, Rouault, far more often than necessary while his leg heals. Heloise grows suspicious and asks around about Rouault’s daughter, who, she hears, is prone to putting on airs. Jealous of Emma’s looks and good breeding, Heloise forces Charles to promise never to go there again. He agrees but learns soon after that Heloise’s lawyer has stolen most of Heloise’s money, and that Heloise lied about her wealth before the wedding. Charles’s parents argue violently about this development, and Heloise, shocked and humiliated, dies suddenly, a week later.
After Heloise’s death, Charles befriends Rouault and often visits his farm. He spends time with Emma, watching her work or chatting with her about her boredom in the country. Although he pays no attention to the meaning of her words, Charles soon finds himself in love with Emma, and Rouault, a heavy drinker who has mismanaged his farm, agrees to give his daughter to this meek but kind and well-mannered physician. After consenting, Rouault instructs Charles to wait outside while he goes to the house to ask Emma. He alerts Charles to her agreement with a pre-arranged signal, a shutter banged against the wall. The couple must wait for Charles’s mourning period to pass. They bide the time planning the wedding. Emma wants a romantic midnight wedding, but in the end she is forced to settle for a more traditional ceremony, with raucous celebration.
The novel’s early chapters set the middle-class provincial scene and introduce the fundamental elements of Emma’s and Charles’s characters. Charles’s failure to pass his medical exams and his inability to comprehend Emma’s words illustrate his dullness and complacency, and his awareness of the tiny details of her physical beauty betray that he thinks of her more as an object than as a person. For her part, Emma possesses an impractical, romantic, melancholy nature—she hopes for a torch-lit midnight wedding—which even at this early stage seems at odds with the realities of her life.
Madame Bovary does not begin its narrative focused on Madame Bovary, and, throughout the first few chapters, Flaubert delays the introduction of the novel’s heroine. Flaubert’s use of narrative perspective in these chapters keeps his reader waiting for a glimpse of his heroine, Emma. It’s almost as if Flaubert makes us penetrate through several layers of perspective before we are allowed to see through Emma’s eyes. The first scene in the book is told in the first-person plural. “We” are Charles’s classmates observing his bumbling arrival at his new school. Soon afterward, this narrative voice fades into the background and Flaubert begins to use the third person, restricting most of his observations to Charles’s point of view. At first, Charles seems to be the protagonist of the story. Emma seems somewhat peripheral, and we learn about her only through other characters’ perceptions. Charles finds her charming, and Heloise has heard that she puts on airs.
The novel introduces two Madames Bovary before Emma: Charles’s mother and his first wife. The relations between these women and Charles prefigure his relations with the “Madame Bovary” of the title. Both Charles’s domineering mother and his first wife render him a man who expects to be controlled. The Madames Bovary differ from Emma. Whereas, like Charles himself, the first two Madames Bovary are petty and unimaginative, Emma longs for a grand, romantic life. In that sense, she has a hard time filling the shoes of either Charles’s mother or his dead wife, while her own qualities are beyond Charles’s powers of comprehension.