Author: Gustave Flaubert, a 19th-century French novelist.
Flaubert’s debut novel and masterpiece, this mid-nineteenth century French fiction is a scandalous account of a provincial doctor’s wife engaging in adulterous affairs.
Charles Bovary, a mediocre student forced to study medicine by his mother, attains the qualification on his second attempt through diligent hard work. His parents find him a suitable wife, – an older widow with a fortune and without personal charm. He starts a small practice in Tostes.
One night Charles is called eighteen miles away to set the affluent farmer Rouault’s fracture. Charles frequently visits Rouault thereafter and his wife realizes why on hearing about Rouault’s pretty young daughter Emma. Charles’ parents harangue his wife learning she deceived them about her fortune. She dies soon after, and Charles eventually marries Emma in a lavish wedding.
Educated in a convent, Emma was attracted by the flowers, music, and romance of religion, and formed impractical notions of love and life reading novels. Though relieved to escape from the farm, life with Charles is not what she expects.
Charles dotes on her, but Emma wants a dashing and witty husband like the heroes of the novels. They are invited to dinner and dance by a Marquis whom Charles treated, and Emma waltzes with a Viscount. The manners and fashion of high society and their rumored scandalous escapades fire Emma’s imagination.
Emma complains about Tostes. Soon they move to the market town of Yonville. Their neighbors are Leon, a young law clerk who paints and sings, and Homais, the loquacious chemist, pontificating on all subjects.
Emma’s dowry is already spent by the time she conceives. Emma wants a son, free to travel and love, but has a daughter Berthe instead. Leon inappropriately accompanies Emma across the town to the wet nurse. He lodges with Homais, and while Charles and Homais talk, Leon and Emma grow intimate. Emma acquires items of luxury and gives Leon expensive gifts making the neighbors speculate that they are lovers, though Charles is oblivious and trusting.
Emma torments herself by denying her desires for Leon. Lheureux, the merchant, and moneylender, fails to tempt her with his wares and promises of credit. Berthe is brought home from the nurse and Emma embraces domesticity. However, it chafes against her nature and she goes to the priest to find solace, but Emma’s unarticulated misery is quite beyond him.
Tired of waiting for Emma’s attention and bored with Yonville, Leon moves to Paris. Emma becomes obsessed with Leon’s memory, regretting her sterile virtue. She feels her great forbearance entitles her to indulgences, buying luxuries. Emma’s behavior and failing health worries Charles.
The brutally intelligent Rodolphe, a rich bachelor of a nearby estate, meeting the pretty Emma calculates that she must be tired of her unrefined husband. At the agricultural fair, Rodolphe takes Emma to an empty first-floor room of the town hall to watch, making advances on her.
Rodolphe declares his love for Emma after purposely staying away for weeks. He offers his horse to Charles for Emma to ride for her health, and riding with Emma seduces her. Emma blossoms feeling like the heroines of her romances with a lover. They exchange letters and Emma visits Rodolphe secretly. Conquest over, Rodolphe becomes indifferent to Emma.
On Homais and Emma’s urging, Charles operates on the club-foot of a stableman by a new technique, hoping for fame. Unfortunately, gangrene sets in, and another physician amputates the foot. Charles’ incompetence drives Emma to defiantly be seen with Rodolphe. Emma plans with Rodolphe to run away taking Berthe.
Conjuring up a magnificent future, a radiant Emma makes discreet preparations, buying from Lheureux. Rodolphe sends a carefully composed letter stating Rodolphe cannot ruin Emma’s reputation making her live in ignominy since he loves her. Emma faints when at dinner she observes Rodolphe’s coach passing her house and spends months in bed convalescing.
Lheureux presents Emma’s inflated bill to Charles, who borrows from him. On recovery, Emma finds refuge in religion, but this phase is short-lived. Homais suggests Charles take her to the theatre at Rouen, where Emma experiences excitement again. They meet Leon who lives in Rouen. Emma stays on for another performance while Charles returns. Leon manipulates Emma’s emotions and though Emma composes a letter of rejection, she goes to their rendezvous, ultimately surrendering.
Charles’ father dies and on the pretext of consulting Leon about his estate, Emma spends three days in Rouen. Leon visits Yonville and meets Emma secretly at night. Pretending to get piano lessons in Rouen, Emma meets Leon once a week in a hotel with Emma paying for the extravagance.
Lheureux offers money to both Charles and Emma without the other’s knowledge, delaying old payments while advancing new loans. He volunteers to dispose of family property for Emma. Emma now has lost all fear of being ‘compromised’, even spending one night at Rouen, but soon Emma loses the thrill from her trysts.
Bills of credit become due repeatedly. Emma manages by writing to Charles’ patients, selling off household items, and borrowing from neighbors and servants. One day a legal notice is served to pay an enormous sum to Lheureux, who refuses to reconsider. Emma first approaches Leon, who apparently tries to borrow and fails. She goes to the notary, who, unknown to her, is in collusion with Lheureux. He would help only in exchange for sexual favors. Her last resort is Rodolphe, who truthfully admits not having money. Exploited but rebuffed, Emma then runs to the chemist, where she procures the keys to Homais’ laboratory from his young assistant and swallows arsenic.
Emma’s death is as dramatic as her life, with two renowned doctors and prolonged agony. Charles is distraught, and borrows anew, made to pay her various inflated or fabricated bills. He finds Emma’s love letters in a secret drawer, dying soon after of unknown causes. All his possessions are sold off. Berthe goes with Charles’ mother, who dies within a year. Rouault being paralyzed, Berthe is taken by an aunt who sends her to work in a cotton mill.
Author: Gustave Flaubert, a 19th-century French novelist.