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Introduction Critical Reception Plot and Major Characters Major Themes Writings on the Work Further Readings about the Work  


  • Madame Bovary: moeurs de province [Madame Bovary: A Tale of Provincial Life] (novel) 1857

  • Salammbô (novel) 1862

  • L'Education sentimentale, histoire d'un jeune homme. 2 vols. [Sentimental Education: A Young Man's History] (novel) 1869

  • Le Candidat, comédie en 4 actes [The Candidate: A Humorous Political Drama in Four Acts] (play) 1874

  • La Tentation de Saint Antoine [The Temptation of Saint Anthony] (novel) 1874

  • *Trois contes [Three Tales] (short stories) 1877

  • Bouvard et Pécuchet [Bouvard and Pécuchet] (novel) 1881

  • Ouvres complètes. 8 vols. (novels, short stories, plays, travel essays, and prose) 1885

  • Correspondance. 4 vols. (letters) 1887-93

  • Les Mémoires d'un fou (novel) 1901

  • Notes inédites de Flaubert (prose) 1910

  • Ouvres de jeunesse inédites (prose) 1910

  • Théâtre: Le Candidat, Le Château des coeurs, Le Sexe faible (plays) 1910

  • Dictionnaire des idées reçues [Flaubert's Dictionary of Accepted IdeasA Dictionary of Platitudes] (prose) 1913

  • Voyages. 2 vols. (prose) 1948

  • Carnets de travail (prose) 1988


Most scholars regard Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857) as a seminal work in the history of the modern novel. The narrative chronicles the life and death of Emma Bovary, a discontented wife and mother whose extramarital affairs ultimately lead to her undoing. An in-depth examination of thwarted desire, the novel paints a tragic portrait of a woman whose ideal of happiness becomes gradually suffocated, both by the weakness of her own character and by the repressive moral standards of her age. At the same time, the book levels a scathing attack on nineteenth-century bourgeois values, exposing what Flaubert perceived to be the self-righteousness and crassness of middle-class society. The work shocked contemporary readers, both in the ferocity of its satire and in its rigorously objective, unornamented prose style. The novel also earned unwelcome notoriety for Flaubert, who found himself on trial for obscenity shortly after the book's publication. He was eventually acquitted. In spite of its inauspicious beginnings, Madame Bovary soon garnered recognition from serious critics and authors as a major novel; today it is widely acknowledged as a foundational work of modern literature. The book's profound exploration of human psychology was revolutionary for its time, and Flaubert's highly exact, meticulous style greatly influenced the prose of later writers Guy de Maupassant, Joseph Conrad, and Emile Zola, among numerous others.

Plot and Major Characters

Madame Bovary opens in the city of Rouen on the day that Charles Bovary, a shy, clumsy boy of fifteen, appears for his first day in a new school. The anonymous narrator, who is one of the students, describes the new boy's arrival in a detached, matter-of-fact tone, remarking only that Charles comes from a small town in the country, and that his ill-fitting clothes and uncouth manner suggest that he has limited means. As the book delves deeper into Bovary's background, it describes his parents' loveless marriage, his mother's uncompromising ambition for her son, and his own personal struggles to overcome his awkwardness and gain acceptance among his peers. Although an unremarkable student, Bovary works diligently, eventually passing his medical examinations and becoming a doctor in the small town of Tostes. Through his mother's scheming he enters into an undesirable marriage with a wealthy widow several years older than he. His wife's frail health and bitter attitude quickly drain Bovary's strength, and he becomes miserable.

Bovary's outlook changes dramatically when he meets Emma Rouault, the young daughter of a wealthy patient. Infatuated with Emma's beauty and innocence, Bovarybegins to devise pretexts for visiting her house as often as possible, eventually arousing his wife's jealousy. When his wife suddenly falls ill and dies, Bovary begins making more frequent social calls to the Rouault house, engaging the young Emma in conversation. Although hesitant at first, she gradually divulges more and more about her life: she attended a convent school as a girl, and she is an avid reader of romance novels, which have largely shaped her unrealistic notions of love and marriage. The love-struck Charles soon proposes to Emma, and the two are married in a lavish ceremony.

Once the couple settles into their married routine, however, Flaubert begins to probe the deep discontent within Emma's character. Bored with the slow pace and uneventfulness of country life, Emma reads constantly, once again seeking escape in romantic novels. Her dissatisfaction reaches its peak after she attends a gala ball at a wealthy neighbor's estate. The contrast between the elegance of the party and the banality of her everyday life wounds Emma's pride, and she begins to act out against her husband. The ball proves pivotal in the evolution of Emma's character, as she now finds it impossible to tolerate what she perceives as the stasis and mediocrity of her life with Charles. Emma's growing unhappiness also exacts a toll on her physical health, especially after she becomes pregnant. Alarmed by his wife's sudden deterioration, Charles decides that she needs a change of scenery, and they move to the town of Yonville-l'Abbaye.

In Yonville-l'Abbaye, Emma gives birth to a daughter, Berthe. Although Emma adores the little girl at first, she soon becomes discontented with motherhood, and she grows increasingly depressed. During this time Charles and Emma become acquainted with their neighbor, the self-absorbed and insufferable town pharmacist, Homais. The presence of Homais in their lives only makes Emma's frustration more acute; his long-winded, pompous speeches render her increasingly desperate for more stimulating company. She soon befriends Léon, a young law clerk. Emma and Léon have a great deal in common; they both feel stifled by the moral and cultural backwardness of provincial society, and they both seek distraction in literature. In spite of her powerful affection for Léon, however, Emma is ill-prepared to act on her feelings; after Léon declares his love for her, Emma abruptly withdraws with a mixture of shame, confusion, and guilt. Suddenly resolved to become a dutiful, respectable wife, she throws herself into her household duties, while the disconsolate Léon leaves for Paris.

Soon after Léon departs from Yonville-l'Abbaye, Emma makes the acquaintance of a wealthy bachelor, Rodolphe. A notorious philanderer, Rodolphe resolves to conquer the bored young housewife; he declares his love for her and soon, during a horseback riding outing in the local forest, manages to seduce her, initiating a passionate affair. Although she wants to maintain the affair's secrecy, Emma becomes increasingly brazen in her behavior, arousing the suspicions of her neighbors. She also begins to act with greater hostility toward her husband, although he remains blind to her infidelities. The tension in their relationship becomes even more pronounced after Charles botches an operation on a club-footed man, resulting in the amputation of the patient's leg. Bovary's reputation as a doctor suffers irreparable damage, and Emma's disgust with his failings becomes acute. She plunges more deeply into her relationship with Rodolphe, borrowing money from the unscrupulous moneylender Lheureux in order to buy her lover expensive gifts. As her love for Rodolphe becomes more intense, she hatches a scheme to run away with him, to which he initially agrees. In truth, however, Rodolphe has become bored with Emma, and he decides against making the trip, effectively terminating the affair. The distraught Emma becomes gravely ill, and the cost of treating her plunges her husband even further into debt.

Soon after Emma's recovery, Charles takes her to the opera in Rouen in the hopes of raising her spirits. By chance, she encounters Léon at the opera. The romantic spark between them is quickly rekindled, and they embark on a love affair. Emma begins making frequent trips to the city, borrowing more and more money from Lheureux in order to pay for travel and fashionable clothes. In spite of the ardor with which they thrust themselves into the affair, Emma and Léon grow weary of each other before long and are unable to mask their mutual disgust. By this point, however, Emma's tragic course has become irreversible. As she becomes increasingly bored in her affair with Léon, she begins to spend more extravagantly, borrowing from Lheureux at increasingly exorbitant interest rates. When Lheureux threatens to begin confiscating Charles Bovary's property, Emma is in danger of being exposed. In a final, desperate attempt to escape financial ruin, she seeks financial help from Rodolphe, even offering to leave her husband. Rodolphe dismisses her proposition, however; in anguish, she swallows a large dose of arsenic and dies.

Although Charles idealizes his dead wife at first, he soon discovers love letters among her possessions, and her infidelities are exposed. Heartbroken, he dies a short time later. At the novel's conclusion, the orphaned Berthe becomes the charge of Bovary's elderly aunt, who sends the girl to work in a cotton mill.

Major Themes

At its core, many scholars have suggested, Madame Bovary is an indictment of the materialism and superficiality of the bourgeoisie. Flaubert's disdain for middle-class mediocrity, and for the stifling effects of this mediocrity on the individual, is felt throughout the novel: in his depictions of the crassness and ignorance of Emma's desires, in his portrait of Charles Bovary's slavish devotion to his unfaithful wife, and in the crude, selfish, and ultimately commonplace pursuits of the novel's minor characters. Flaubert's portrayal of Emma epitomizes the powerlessness of the individual within the framework of an oppressive social hierarchy. Although the author's assessment of her character is largely unsympathetic, he is not entirely merciless toward her. Roland Champagne describes Emma's inability to achieve contentment as "incompetence" while also arguing that her yearnings are thwarted by the "mismatch of bourgeois expectations and Charles Bovary." Throughout the narrative, external forces--rigid social customs, as well as the duplicity of scheming individuals--clearly exert a powerful influence on the actions of Flaubert's protagonist, rendering her virtually helpless to enact any of her life's goals, vague and uncertain as they may be. In the end, Emma emerges as much a victim of circumstance as she is the architect of her own downfall.

Flaubert offers a different perspective on bourgeois vulgarity in his depiction of Emma's husband, Charles. Charles has no discernible personal ambitions; he is a doctor almost by accident. The entire focus of his energy revolves around his wife's happiness, although he remains ignorant of her desires until after her death. By concentrating on the banal aspects of Charles's character, scholars argue, Flaubert transforms him into a representative figure within nineteenth-century bourgeois society: he is the complacent, ineffectual professional. In various ways, the other residents of Yonville-l'Abbaye also exhibit this general sense of debased, weakened individuality. Homais, in spite of his self-aggrandizing rhetoric, demonstrates little competence as a man of medicine; the remorseless Rodolphe seeks only to satisfy his own vanity, willfully unaware of the deep anguish that ultimately drives his former lover to suicide. Even Léon, in spite of his thoughtful, passionate nature, ultimately reveals himself as weak, failing twice to act decisively on his love for Emma. These are the types of people Flaubert chose as the prime representatives of French society in the mid-nineteenth century.

Critical Reception

Although Madame Bovary caused a minor scandal when it first appeared in 1857, with a number of readers expressing outrage over the novel's alleged immorality, it also elicited high praise from serious literary reviewers. Early critics, notably Charles Baudelaire, expressed admiration for the novel's emotional and psychological depth, as well as for its innovative prose technique. Henry James, in his influential studyFrench Poets and Novelists (1888), described the novel as a landmark of literary realism, even as he identified what he perceived as the work's imaginative failings. Over the years, a number of other critics and scholars have explored the question of realism with respect to Flaubert. Writing in the Bookman in 1895, Harry Thurston Peck outlined the distinction between Flaubert's brand of realism, which he described as primarily rooted in metaphor, and the more directly descriptive naturalism of such authors as Emile Zola. In the mid-twentieth century, scholars began to pay closer attention to the link between Flaubert's technique and the novel's symbolic framework and central themes. In The Perpetual Orgy, Mario Vargas Llosa uses the term "protoplasmic narrator" to describe the breadth of Flaubert's narrative point of view, arguing that this approach lends the work its psychological depth. Over the years, the relationship between language and meaning in Madame Bovary has been analyzed by numerous scholars, among them William A. Johnsen, who examined the modern elements in Flaubert's prose style; Mary Donaldson-Evans, who discussed the metaphorical significance of medical terminology in the novel; and Naomi Schor, who evaluated Flaubert's narrative strategies within the context of the linguistic theories of Jacques Derrida, Giles Deleuze, and Roland Barthes. Since the 1990s, a number of influential feminist readings of the novel have emerged. Patricia McEachern has suggested that Emma's character exhibits signs of an eating disorder, while George Smith has critiqued what he views as Flaubert's misogynistic depiction of his protagonist. In a 2002 essay Roland Champagne evaluated the relationship between Emma's mistreatment of her own body and her perverse conception of womanhood.

Footnotes:*Comprised of the stories "Un Coeur simple," "La Légende de Saint Julien l'Hospitalier," and "Hérodias."



  • Bart, B. F. Madame Bovary and the Critics, edited by B. F. Bart. New York: New York University Press, 1966, 197 p.

Offers a range of critical interpretations of the novel.

  • Bell, Sheila. "'Un pauvre diable': The Blind Beggar in Madame Bovary." In Studies in French Fiction in Honour of Vivienne Milne, edited by Robert Gibson, pp. 25-42. London: Grant & Cutler, 1988.

Examines Flaubert's use of irony in depicting the character of the blind beggar.

  • Brombert, Victor. "Madame Bovary: The Tragedy of Dreams." In The Novels of Flaubert: A Study of Themes and Techniques, pp. 37-91. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966.

Analyzes the relationship between comedy, irony, and tragedy in the novel.

  • Brooks, Marilyn, and Nicola Watson. "Madame Bovary: A Novel about Nothing." In The Nineteenth-Century Novel: Identities, edited by Dennis Walder, pp. 9-28. London: Routledge, 2001.

Discusses Flaubert's explorations of adultery, suicide, and ennui in the novel.

  • Busi, Frederick. "Flaubert's Use of Saints' Names in Madame Bovary.Nineteenth-Century French Studies 19, no. 1 (fall 1990): 95-109.

Explores the influence of religion and mysticism on Flaubert's conception of the novel's central themes.

  • Gans, Eric. Madame Bovary: The End of Romance. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989, 138 p.

Examines the underlying sense of disillusionment that characterizes the novel.

Investigates the historical and cultural context surrounding the novel's composition while evaluating the work's structure, narrative technique, and major themes.

  • Ippolito, Christophe. "Flaubert's Pearl Necklace: Weaving a Garland of Images in the Reader's Memory." Symposium 54, no. 3 (fall 2000): 168-87.

Discusses the metaphorical relationship between women and flowers in Madame Bovary.

  • Lambros, Anna V. Culture and the Literary Text: The Case of Flaubert's Madame Bovary. New York: Peter Lang, 1996, 85 p.

Studies the novel's cultural, social, and historical contexts.

  • Maraini, Dacia. Searching for Emma: Gustave Flaubert and Madame Bovary, translated by Vincent J. Bertolini. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, 156 p.

Analyzes the contradictory, ambivalent relationship between Flaubert and his heroine, combining an in-depth reading of the novel with a close examination of the author's correspondence.

  • Meyer, Priscilla. "Anna Karenina: Tolstoy's Polemic with Madame Bovary.Russian Review 54, no. 2 (spring 1995): 243-59.

Compares the two authors' attitudes toward their fictional heroines and toward the moral implications of adultery.

  • Orr, Mary. Madame Bovary: Representations of the Masculine. Bern: Peter Lang, 1999, 228 p.

Examines questions of gender, sexuality, and manhood in Madame Bovary through an analysis of the novel's male characters.

  • Paskow, Jacqueline Merriam. "Rethinking Madame Bovary's Motives for Committing Suicide."Modern Language Review 100, no. 2 (spring 2005): 323-39.

Analyzes Flaubert's depiction of suicide in the novel.

  • Petruso, Thomas S. "Madame Bovary in the Consumer Society." Qui Parle: Literature, Philosophy, Visual Arts, History 1, no. 1 (fall 1985): 46-59.

Explores the relationship between self-deception, alienation, and consumerism in MadameBovary through an analysis of the writings of Georges Perec and Jean Baudrillard.

  • Porter, Dennis. "Madame Bovary and the Question of Pleasure." In Flaubert and Postmodernism,edited by Naomi Schor and Henry F. Majewski, pp. 116-38. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Analyzes the novel's language and themes as they relate to the reader's experience of engaging with the text.

  • Porter, Lawrence M., and Eugene F. Gray, eds. Approaches to Teaching Madame Bovary. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1995, 167 p.

Includes essays devoted to exploring diverse critical approaches to the work.

  • Raitt, Alan. The Originality of Madame Bovary. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2002, 150 p.

Assesses the novel's innovative qualities, paying particular attention to Flaubert's unique approach to structure, point of view, and language.

  • Rothfield, Lawrence. "From Semiotic to Discursive Intertextuality: The Case of Madame Bovary."Novel: A Forum on Fiction 19, no. 1 (fall 1985): 57-81.

Offers a semiotic interpretation of the novel, focusing on Flaubert's depiction of adultery.

  • Tipper, Paul Andrew. "Emma's Feet on Clay: The Ironies of Romanticized Location in MadameBovary.Modern Language Review 94, no. 2 (spring 1999): 366-76.

Discusses Flaubert's ironic use of place names in the novel.

Source Citation   (MLA 7th Edition)

"Madame Bovary." Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Russel Whitaker and Kathy D. Darrow. Vol. 185. Detroit: Gale, 2007. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Aug. 2014.

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