What happens in Madame Bovary?

Emma Bovary finds her marriage boring. She's unsatisfied with her role as a wife and a mother and starts having love affairs, first with Rodolphe and later with Léon. She gradually becomes more and more reckless. At the end of the novel, she dies after swallowing arsenic.

  • The novel opens on Charles Bovary, a humble country doctor and widower who marries Emma, the daughter of one of his patients. His modest income doesn't provide Emma the life she desires.

  • After giving birth to a child, Emma becomes bored with life and begins having an affair with Rodolphe, a selfish and unworthy man. When that affair fizzles out, she starts dating Léon, a musician. This affair doesn't satisfy her, either.

  • Emma's lies and delusions catch up with her, and she kills herself with arsenic in order to escape the consequences. She's survived by her husband and son. 

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 2,122 words.)