Madame Bovary begins on Charles Bovary’s first day at a boarding school. At fifteen, Charles is much older than most boys when they first leave home, but his parents have waited to enroll him in school to save money. He is placed in a class with younger students who ridicule him. Because of this, he remains aloof. He concentrates on his schoolwork and forms no close friendships.
Charles has grown up in the countryside. His father is a surly, superior man who failed at several occupations in his young adulthood and is now resigned to a life of discontent and idleness. Charles’s mother, who married her husband mainly because she thought him handsome, does all the work of running the household. It is she who has pushed Charles’s reluctant father into paying for an education for the boy. Charles himself would prefer to stay at home and live a simple country life forever, but nobody asks his opinion.
After a few years at the boarding school, Charles’s parents pull him out and send him to a medical college. They make this choice to save money, figuring that he can study on his own to make up anything he has missed. However, the work at medical school is far too difficult for Charles. At first he tries very hard to master it, but eventually he gives up. He falls into a habit of drinking and gambling. When he fails his exams, he seeks out his mother and confesses everything to her. Afterward he redoubles his efforts at the medical college. He passes his exams on his second attempt.
When Charles is finally a doctor, his mother sets him up in private medical practice at a town called Tostes. At this point, Charles thinks he can finally do what he likes. However, his mother soon finds him a wife, an old, ugly widow whose only attractive quality is her wealth. Many men want to marry her because of her money, and Charles’s mother engages in a great deal of scheming and manipulation to get this woman for her son.
Adulthood is not the life of freedom that Charles had imagined. His new wife, Heloise, expects him to obey her as he used to obey his mother. She dictates what Charles eats, what he wears, and how he spends his money. Constantly sick, she demands his medical attentions all the time. Emotionally needy, she also demands more love than he is able to give.