Charles Bovary, an ordinary man from a middle-class family, struggled to become a doctor and set up his practice in a rural village. He is a pretty dull man, without any ambition and already married at the instance of his mother to a rich widow, who is older than him. One day, in response to a call, Charles had to visit a local farm, as the owner of the farm accidentally broke one of his legs. There, in the farm, he met Emma Rouault, the daintily dressed, convent educated, beautiful daughter of the farm owner. Charles immediately became infatuated by her beauty and starts to visit the patient regularly, till his wife smelled something wrong and puts a stop to it. However, within a few days, Charles became free, as his wife Heloise died unexpectedly. He waits a decent interval before proposing to Emma in earnest. Emma readily agreed, as her head was full of romantic fantasies and was willing to do anything to get out of her father’s farm.
After their marriage the couple moved to a tiny town called Tostes, where Charles sets up his medical practice. However, the marriage did not live up to Emma’s romantic expectations and soon she became disillusioned by it. Since her days in the convent, she dreamed of love and marriage as a solution to all her problems. But in reality, she finds that her married life is a bore and she becomes sick of Charles. In fact, despite being a very good man, generous and unselfish, Charles was actually, a bore. He means well but is plodding and clumsy.
During this time Emma had the opportunity to attend an extravagant ball at the home of a wealthy nobleman, which made her deeply frustrated. Everything, even herself, seemed to be unbearable to her. She wished to have wings and fly like a bird, fly somewhere else, far away to the regions of love and purity and there grow younger again. As she constantly compares her fantasies to the humdrum reality of the village life, she becomes more and more listless, which eventually makes her ill. In the meantime, she becomes pregnant and Charles decides to move to a different town, the larger market town of Yonville, in an attempt to make her feel better and revive her health.
In the new town of Yonville, Emma gives birth to her daughter Berthe, but motherhood disappoints her, as she had desired a son. In the meantime, she meets Leon, an apprentice notary, much younger than her. Like Emma, he is also bored with the rural life and loves to escape through romantic novels. Leon shares her appreciation for literature and music and returns her esteem. Soon romantic feelings blossom between Emma and Leon. However, as Emma realizes that Leon loves her, she feels guilty. Concerned with maintaining her self-image as a devoted wife and a responsible mother, she does not acknowledge her passion for Leon. Leon grows tired and impatient of waiting and feels that he can never have Emma. With broken heart, he departs to study law in Paris and Emma, left alone falls back into a slump.
During those unhappy days, Emma once accidentally meets another handsome bachelor, a womanizer, Rodolphe Boulanger. Rodolphe, the seasoned Casanova, has already had many, and includes Emma Bovary among his conquests. As he proposes to teach Emma to ride a horse for the betterment of her health, Charles, the worried and unsuspecting husband, readily agreed to it. Within a short time the couple becomes intimate and intensely passionate. Emma quickly succumbs to the temptations of adultery. Completely mesmerized and enveloped by her romantic fantasy, she risks compromising herself with indiscreet letters and visits to her lover. She borrows money to buy him gifts and quickly slides into a big debt. But, she doesn’t care. She suggests Rodolphe to run off together and take her little Berthe with them. However, Rodolphe does not share her dream life and enthusiasm, as he has already grown bored of Emma’s demanding affections. Instead of elope with her, he decides to leave her and on the eve of their planned departure, he ends the relationship with an apologetic letter placed at the bottom of a basket of apricots he has arranged to be delivered to Emma.
As her romantic dream of a new life is shattered, Emma becomes completely devastated. She goes into shock and her delicate health declines rapidly. Charles becomes at a loss as he does not know really what to do. He is forced to take out additional loans for her treatment and temporarily quits the job to stand by her. As Emma slowly starts to recover, Charles takes her to an opera show in Rouen, in an attempt to give her a treat. However, contrary to his wildest imagination, it turns to be a fateful trip. At the opera, the couple encounters Leon, who, after completing studies now works in Rouen. The encounter rekindles the old romantic flame between Emma and Leon and the two embark on a passionate affair. While Charles is under the impression that Emma is taking piano lessons, Emma travels to the city each week to meet Leon, always in the same room of the same hotel and spend time in wild sexual ecstasy.
Apart from her husband’s money, Emma also incurred loans for her weekly trips to the city to see Leon and to satisfy her other whims. She even managed to obtain a Power of Attorney, so that she would have full control over the financial affairs of the family. Within a short span of time, she grows deeper and deeper in debt to the moneylender Lheureux, who lends her more and more money at extremely high interest rates. She also grows increasingly careless in conducting her affair and on several occasions, her acquaintances nearly discover her infidelity.
However, after a while, Leon grows bored with Emma's emotional excesses, and Emma grows doubtful about Leon. Soon, Emma’s financial troubles get worse and worse, as does her relationship with Leon. One day she discovers that she owes an incredibly huge sum of money, which she can never possibly pay back. On the other hand, Lheureux, the money lender, obtained a court order against her and the sheriff's officers arrived to confiscate the family property. Emma frantically tries to raise the money that she needs, appealing to Leon and to all the town’s businessmen. But, nobody agrees to help her. As she finds no other way, she even attempts to prostitute herself by offering to get back together with Rodolphe, if he agrees to give her the money she needs. He also refuses, and out of shame, humiliation and despair, Emma commits suicide by consuming arsenic.
After the agonizing death of Emma, Charles preserves her room as a shrine and idealizes the memory of his wife. But, when he finds the love letters of Rodolphe and Leon, written to his wife, he breaks down for good. One day, he dies alone in his garden, leaving their daughter to a life of poverty, who is later sent off to work in a cotton mill.
‘Madame Bovary’, published in 1856, is the debut novel by French writer Gustave Flaubert. Working mostly at night, he took five years to complete it. It is basically the story of its central character, Emma Bovary, who lives beyond her means in order to escape the dull, stale and stereotype emptiness of the provincial life. It is the story of a struggle between romanticism and reality. It is the story of a bird, who hated to be encaged. In the pursuit of her romantic dream of life, Emma became entangled with numbers of extramarital affairs unhesitatingly, which is beyond the norms of the society.
Before its publication as a book, Madame Bovary was serialized in ‘La Revue de Paris’ between 1st October 1856 and 15th December 1856. During that time, it was prosecuted for alleged obscenity. The ensuing moral outrage in 1857 caused Flaubert to be prosecuted on moral grounds. However, after his acquittal on 7 February 1857, Madame Bovary was published in two volumes and it became a bestseller in April 1857. A pioneer work of literary realism, the novel is now considered as Flaubert's masterpiece, and one of the most influential works in the history of literature. The tragedy of the young and uncompromising Emma was not only a sexual scandal of her era, but it remains a very topical affair.