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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Madame Bovary!