Madame Bovary

Flaubert, Gustave

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Moore, Pamela
  • Date of entry: Feb-22-2000


Charles Bovary is a country physician who, after an unhappy first marriage, marries the daughter of a patient. Emma is eager to leave her father's dirty farm but finds marriage to be less romantic and satisfying than she expected. Charles is not a prince, but a bumbling, aging man. Even when at work he performs more like a veterinarian than a skilled surgeon. Indeed, when he and the local chemist attempt a new procedure on a clubfoot, the patient gets gangrene and loses his leg.

Disgusted, Emma develops a relationship with Leon Dupuis, a young lawyer. She refuses to sleep with him but regrets it after he leaves town. She then meets Rodolphe Boulanger, a wealthy landowner who seduces Emma to pass the time. They have a brief if passionate affair.

When Boulanger abandons her, Emma returns to Leon, this time giving in to their mutual passion. Her affair has an air of desperation. She soon exhausts her limited funds on trips to visit her lover and love gifts. Knowing that her husband will discover her affair when their financial situation is revealed, Emma overdoses on arsenic and dies miserably.


Flaubert is associated with the naturalist school, artists who described events with medical precision. Indeed, Flaubert's father was a country surgeon and the writer trained briefly under him. In his letters, Flaubert described literature as "the dissection of a beautiful woman with her guts in her face, her leg skinned, and half a burned-out cigar lying on her foot."

This combination of medical detail and sexual violence summarizes Flaubert's style. He writes neither in the third person, nor the first, but in the odd voice the French call "style indirect libre." Events are recorded as if from the viewpoint of a particular character but not in that character's voice. Flaubert retains a distance that evokes objectivity but also seems disdainful. His characters all seem ridiculous. When Boulanger seduces Emma, for example, they are at a country fair and he whispers above the sound of a farm wife winning an award for her pig. Emma's ideals of love are no more exemplary than the woman's ideal of pig meat.


First published: 1857. Translated by Francis Steegmuller.


Viking Penguin

Place Published

New York