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Madame Bovary begins
when Charles Bovary is a young boy, unable to fit in at his new
school and ridiculed by his new classmates. As a child, and later
when he grows into a young man, Charles is mediocre and dull. He
fails his first medical exam and only barely manages to become a
second-rate country doctor. His mother marries him off to a widow
who dies soon afterward, leaving Charles much less money than he
Charles soon falls in love with Emma, the daughter of
a patient, and the two decide to marry. After an elaborate wedding,
they set up house in Tostes, where Charles has his practice. But
marriage doesn’t live up to Emma’s romantic expectations. Ever since
she lived in a convent as a young girl, she has dreamed of love
and marriage as a solution to all her problems. After she attends
an extravagant ball at the home of a wealthy nobleman, she begins
to dream constantly of a more sophisticated life. She grows bored
and depressed when she compares her fantasies to the humdrum reality of
village life, and eventually her listlessness makes her ill. When Emma
becomes pregnant, Charles decides to move to a different town in
hopes of reviving her health.
In the new town of Yonville, the Bovarys meet Homais,
the town pharmacist, a pompous windbag who loves to hear himself
speak. Emma also meets Leon, a law clerk, who, like her, is bored
with rural life and loves to escape through romantic novels. When
Emma gives birth to her daughter Berthe, motherhood disappoints
her—she had desired a son—and she continues to be despondent. Romantic
feelings blossom between Emma and Leon. However, when Emma realizes
that Leon loves her, she feels guilty and throws herself into the
role of a dutiful wife. Leon grows tired of waiting and, believing
that he can never possess Emma, departs to study law in Paris. His
departure makes Emma miserable.
Soon, at an agricultural fair, a wealthy neighbor named
Rodolphe, who is attracted by Emma’s beauty, declares his love to
her. He seduces her, and they begin having a passionate affair.
Emma is often indiscreet, and the townspeople all gossip about her.
Charles, however, suspects nothing. His adoration for his wife and
his stupidity combine to blind him to her indiscretions. His professional
reputation, meanwhile, suffers a severe blow when he and Homais
attempt an experimental surgical technique to treat a club-footed
man named Hippolyte and end up having to call in another doctor
to amputate the leg. Disgusted with her husband’s incompetence, Emma
throws herself even more passionately into her affair with Rodolphe.
She borrows money to buy him gifts and suggests that they run off
together and take little Berthe with them. Soon enough, though,
the jaded and worldly Rodolphe has grown bored of Emma’s demanding
affections. Refusing to elope with her, he leaves her. Heartbroken,
Emma grows desperately ill and nearly dies.
By the time Emma recovers, Charles is in financial trouble
from having to borrow money to pay off Emma’s debts and to pay for
her treatment. Still, he decides to take Emma to the opera in the
nearby city of Rouen. There, they encounter Leon. This meeting rekindles the
old romantic flame between Emma and Leon, and this time the two
embark on a love affair. As Emma continues sneaking off to Rouen
to meet Leon, she also grows deeper and deeper in debt to the moneylender
Lheureux, who lends her more and more money at exaggerated interest
rates. She grows increasingly careless in conducting her affair
with Leon. As a result, on several occasions, her acquaintances
nearly discover her infidelity.
Over time, Emma grows bored with Leon. Not knowing how
to abandon him, she instead becomes increasingly demanding. Meanwhile,
her debts mount daily. Eventually, Lheureux orders the seizure of
Emma’s property to compensate for the debt she has accumulated.
Terrified of Charles finding out, she frantically tries to raise
the money that she needs, appealing to Leon and to all the town’s
businessmen. Eventually, she even attempts to prostitute herself
by offering to get back together with Rodolphe if he will give her the
money she needs. He refuses, and, driven to despair, she commits suicide
by eating arsenic. She dies in horrible agony.
For a while, Charles idealizes the memory of his wife.
Eventually, though, he finds her letters from Rodolphe and Leon,
and he is forced to confront the truth. He dies alone in his garden,
and Berthe is sent off to work in a cotton mill.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Madame Bovary!