Places Discussed

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*Rouen (rew-AN). City in Normandy where Emma Bovary is educated in a convent school. The home of Gustave Flaubert in his youth, Rouen represents Emma’s first moment of happiness—one that she later regrets. After her first lover abandons her, she returns to Rouen to attend an opera that she hopes will distract her and be a source of healing. This visit to Rouen serves as a transition between the second and third parts of the novel. At the opera Emma again meets the young Léon Dupuis, whom she met in Tostes. The affair they conduct in Rouen effectively replaces the spectacle they have both come to see. However, Rouen proves to be no different for Emma than Tostes, as Léon, too, abandons her.


*Tostes (tahst). Town south of Rouen that proves to be an ideal place for Dr. Charles Bovary to set up his medical practice and live a married life with his first wife, Héloïse, who soon dies. Emma Rouault marries him—and becomes “Madame Bovary”—but finds life in Tostes to be boring. Her only moment of relief comes when she is invited to a ball at a nearby château that symbolizes her ideal. This interval of happiness only serves to emphasize the general tedium that Emma experiences in Tostes and the disappointment she feels in her married state. To make her happy, her husband leaves his medical practice in Tostes and goes to Yonville-l’Abbaye, which he hopes will become their promised land.


*Yonville-l’Abbaye (YAHN-veel lah-BAY). Town near Tostes to which the Bovarys move in the hope of finding a better life for Emma Bovary. After entering the town and meeting its leading residents, who gather at the town inn to greet their new doctor and his wife, Emma spends most of her time talking about literature with the young Léon Dupuis and the life they have seen idealized in their readings. However, this romantic ideal is in strong contrast to the reality of Yonville. Described in great detail at the beginning of the second part of the novel, Yonville is situated in the region where Normandy, Picardy, and the Ile-de-France meet, a region characterized by poor soil and a people resistant to change. It is said to be a bastard part of France. This description echoes the meeting of the three main places of the novel and its three parts.

Flaubert describes Yonville in far more detail than he does Tostes and singles out the town’s civil and religious authorities for criticism. Yonville’s church, for example, uncharacteristically bears no proper name, and although it has been recently renovated, it remains in a state of disrepair. Just as Emma replaces Héloïse and Yonville replaces Tostes in the narrative, so does the pharmacy replace the church as the center of community activity, and its pharmacist becomes the town’s new priest and doctor. For this reason, Yonville turns out not to be a good place for Charles to practice medicine. As a solution to Emma’s boredom, the town offers Emma distraction in the form of two men who will become her lovers, Léon with whom she will eventually carry on an affair in Rouen, and Rodolphe Boulanger, who enters her life only because he has sought out the new Yonville doctor to care for one of his workers.

Yonville, thus introduced as a solution to Emma’s discontent in Tostes, will itself be replaced by Rouen in the third part of her search for a place in which to satisfy her desire.

(This entire section contains 603 words.)

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Historical Context

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The term realism first appeared in a Parisian periodical of 1826, as noted by Haig in his article on Flaubert in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. The journalist defines the term as a movement that would “lead to the imitation not of artistic masterpieces but of the originals that nature offers us.” Later in the article, the writer determines that realist works could in the future be considered “the literature of truth.” Realism became a popular form of painting, especially in works by Gustave Courbet, and literature in the mid-nineteenth century. Novelists in this movement turned away from what they considered the artificiality of romanticism to a focus on the commonplace in the context of everyday contemporary life. They rejected the idealism and celebration of the imagination typical of romantic novels and instead took a serious look at believable characters and their often problematic interactions with society. In order to accomplish this goal, realistic novels focus on the commonplace and eliminate the unlikely coincidences and excessive emotionalism of romanticism. Novelists like Samuel Clemens discard traditional sentimental novelistic forms as they chronicle the strengths and weaknesses of ordinary people confronting difficult social problems, like the restrictive conventions nineteenth-century African Americans suffered under. Writers who embraced realism use settings and plots details that reflect their characters’ daily lives and realistic dialogue that replicates natural speech patterns.

Realism in Madame Bovary emerges in Flaubert’s discarding of the idealism of traditional romantic literature in his exploration of the day-today life of Emma Bovary. Other writers like Honoré Balzac and Stendhal had also focused on the daily life of their characters; however, those characters lead exciting lives and can not be considered “ordinary.” Flaubert was one of the first to chronicle in his fiction the often monotonous and sordid life of the middle class.

Censorship in Nineteenth-Century France
France’s Second Empire (1852–1870), ruled by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte III, set a moral tone by repressing challenges to traditional codes of conduct. The government allowed authors to write about characters who threatened the accepted tenets of society; however, they expected the characters to be justly punished for such actions. They supported didactic literature that encouraged readers to condemn immoral behavior, such as adultery. However, when Flaubert refused to denounce Emma in Madame Bovary for her actions and Emma herself did not ask for forgiveness, Flaubert was charged with pornography and blasphemy, and the book was banned. All charges against him were eventually dropped and the ban lifted. However, Haig notes that the judge who discharged the case did so with a warning of the excesses of realism, a novelistic form that he considered both “vulgaire et souvent choquant” (vulgar and often shocking). Although Flaubert did not consider himself a realist, critics have placed the novel in this literary school.

Literary Style

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Flaubert often illustrates Emma’s character and situation through a juxtaposition of scenes in the novel. Most of these instances involve Emma’s mingling of past memories with present reality. One occurs when Emma is at the ball. As she looks out the windows and observes the servants on the lawn, separated from the evening’s glamour and festivities, she envisions herself “as she had been once” on her father’s farm. The juxtaposition of past and present reinforces Emma’s obsession with “this luxurious life” that she witnesses at the ball. Another instance occurs when she is looking at Léon one day. As she gazes at him, she conjures an image of Charles as she has seen him so many times in the past. The juxtaposition of her image of Charles with her gaze on Léon prompts her to compare the two. Deciding that Charles is infinitely inferior, she promptly falls in love with Léon.

Flaubert uses a different kind of juxtaposition during the scene at the agricultural fair. Here he jumps back and forth between two simultaneous events: Rodolphe’s initial seduction of Emma and the awarding of prizes at the fair. As a result, Flaubert highlights Rodolphe’s calculated, selfserving attempt to lure Emma into his bed.

Flaubert also uses symbolization to reinforce his themes. He adds a note of foreshadowing at the ball when Emma sees a guest rumored to have been Marie Antoinette’s lover. The description of the slovenly man with bloodshot eyes and “drops of gravy falling from his lips” reinforces the fact that he has “led a life wild with debauch” and forecasts Emma’s own decline. In another scene, at the close of the agricultural exposition, the crowd enjoys a display of fireworks. In an effort to allay fears that they might start fires, Monsieur Binet notes that no sparks have fallen. Yet, destruction is eminent for Emma, as her affair with Rodolphe has been sparked.

Compare and Contrast

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Mid-nineteenth century: In 1835, French philosopher Victor Cousin first uses the phrase “l’Art pour l’Art” (“Art for Art’s sake”) to define a new literary movement that promotes style over other literary elements. Flaubert is greatly influenced by this movement.

Today: The confessional narrative gains a prominent position in the literary world.

Mid-nineteenth century: In 1848, the first American convention concerning women’s rights is held in Seneca Falls, New York.

Today: Women have made major gains in their fight for equality and although some bills—like the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment Bill—still have not passed to this day, discrimination against women is now against the law.

Mid-nineteenth century: The Second Empire begins in France in 1852. French social mores, under the leadership of Bonaparte III, include a devotion to a strict moral code, at least in public.

Today: Some see the election of George W. Bush to the office of president as the result of America’s desire to return to a more conservative sense of morality.

Media Adaptations

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There have been eight film versions of Madame Bovary, and five television versions. The most famous adaptation was directed by Vincente Minnelli in 1949 for MGM. Jennifer Jones starred as Emma and Van Heflin as Charles.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Davis, Lennard J., “Gustave Flaubert,” in European Writers, Vol. 7, Scribner’s, 1985, pp. 1373–94.

Haig, Stirling, “Gustave Flaubert,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 119: Nineteenth-Century French Fiction Writers: Romanticism and Realism, 1800–1860, Gale Research, 1992, pp. 120–51.

Hemmings, F. W. J., ed., The Age of Realism, Penguin, 1974.

Lee, Susanna, “Flaubert’s Blague Supérieure: The Secular World of Madame Bovary,” in Symposium, Vol. 54, No. 4, Winter 2001, pp. 203–17.

Further Reading
Ginsburg, Michal Peled, Flaubert Writing: A Study in Narrative Strategies, Stanford University Press, 1986. Ginsburg presents a penetrating analysis of the structure and style of Flaubert’s work.

Green, Anne, Flaubert and the Historical Novel, Cambridge University Press, 1982. Green places the novel into its historical and cultural context.

Knight, Diana, Flaubert and the Historical Novel, Cambridge University Press, 1985. Knight presents a comprehensive psychological study of Emma Bovary and compares her to Flaubert’s other characters.

Levin, Harry, The Gates of Horn: A Study of Five French Realists, Oxford University Press, 1963. Levin places the novel in the realist tradition and compares it to other works in this movement.


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Bloom, Harold, ed. Emma Bovary. New York: Chelsea House, 1994. Includes excerpts from reviews and articles (some contemporaneous with the novel), as well as ten essays that analyze the heroine in light of twentieth century and feminist perspectives and understanding. Extensive bibliography.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. An excellent and balanced collection of some of the best and most provocative essays published in the last third of the twentieth century. Topics range from thematic to linguistic and from deconstructionist to psychoanalytical.

Fairlie, Alison. Flaubert: “Madame Bovary.” London: Arnold, 1962. A well-written, sensitive, and insightful interpretation that provides a thorough examination of the themes, characters, narrative structure, style, and importance of the masterpiece.

Gans, Eric. “Madame Bovary”: The End of Romance. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A brief but very good introduction that covers the work’s essential points, influence, and critical reception. Also places it in its historical and sociological context.

Giraud, Raymond, ed. Flaubert: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964. Includes essays dealing with Flaubert’s literary theories and his other works. Also reprints several stimulating pieces on the novel (two not translated elsewhere) that include a perceptive reading by the poet Charles Baudelaire and thoughtful character analyses by Martin Turnell and Jean Rousset.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide