Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s first published novel, is arguably his greatest. Emma Bovary has become one of the most famous characters in world literature, and critics continue to debate and interpret her life, which, in its depiction of the conflict between idealism and reality, remains every bit as relevant today as it did when first published.
Formally divided into three parts, each one corresponding to a stage in Emma’s life, the novel opens with Charles Bovary’s youth and ends after Emma’s death, making Charles, as it were, a set of parentheses that enclose Emma’s life. Each section corresponds to an important stage in the narrative. The first part ends with the move to Yonville and the news that Emma is pregnant, thus presenting optimism at the prospect of change. As the reader suspects, however, the change does not bring happiness, and Emma quickly becomes dissatisfied once again. In her search for happiness, she turns to adultery with the rakish and unabashedly exploitative Rodolphe, whom Emma persists in seeing as a romantic hero. Emma plans to elope with him, but he balks at the last minute, and Emma is thrust into a depression that ends the second part of the novel. In the final section, Emma engages in yet another adulterous affair, this time with Léon, using the pretext of music lessons as the cover for her regular visits to nearby Rouen. The affair quickly becomes a routine, however, and a typical day sees Emma lying ever more blatantly to cover her tracks, selling property to pay the mounting bills, juggling the money problems, and taking less and less trouble to be discreet about the affair. For once, Emma is getting what she wants—excitement, romance, luxuries—and is forced to confront the fact that these are not the things that bring happiness. Unable to extricate herself from the financial problems that are ruining the family, and now irrevocably disillusioned about the possibility of finding happiness, she concludes that the only alternative is suicide.
Her dissatisfactions are highlighted by the contrast between her ideals and her uninspiring husband. The novel opens with the description of Charles Bovary as a schoolboy, a rather bumbling and boorish figure who provokes derision and mockery in his new classmates. It has often been noted that the name “Bovary,” derived from the Latin for “ox,” symbolizes Charles’s bovine character: slow, coarse and unrefined, rather dull-witted. Charles’s unfortunate start in life does not prevent him from becoming a doctor with a modest country practice and marrying for the second time for love, not for money. He marries Emma, the daughter of one of his farmer-patients, who then takes over as the central character of the narrative. Charles is an “officier de santé,” a phrase often simply translated as “country doctor,” but it is important, especially for contemporary readers, to remember that this was a second-class kind of doctor. Thus, although Charles is associated with the prestigious field of medicine, he is presented as one of its less-skilled practitioners. His was a modestly paid and extremely unglamorous occupation, which consisted mainly of contact with the most distasteful aspects of human malaise.
Flaubert describes in detail Emma’s background and education, for the fact that her outlook has been conditioned by reading novels is important in understanding her subsequent disappointments in life. She has high expectations of marriage and looks to it to fulfill all her dreams and ideals. When reality does not live up to these hopes, she is quickly dissatisfied. She imagines that satisfaction can be found in motherhood, romantic affairs, religion, material possessions, and any number of other fads that temporarily inspire her enthusiasm, but she is disappointed every time. At the end of the novel, when she despairs of finding happiness and realizes that she has ruined her family’s life through the debts she has incurred, she poisons herself with arsenic, turning her disillusionment inward in a self-destructive gesture of defeat.
Critics have disagreed over how Emma’s character should be interpreted. According to some, her idealism is seen as destructive and unrealistic, an example of the negative forces unleashed by romantic and indulgent imagination or, more reductively, as the folly of a materialistic and acquisitive woman who brings about the downfall of her family through her unbounded and selfish desires. A more sympathetic reading has also emerged based on a different understanding of the role of gender in the novel, a reading that sees Emma less as a silly woman, and more as a character in search of a deeper meaning to life but trapped by circumstances. These differences of interpretation are highlighted by different interpretations of the title of the work, which stresses that the heroine is not Emma, but Madame. Does the title, symbolizing Emma’s married, public identity, call attention to what she betrays, or to the situation that entraps her?