Madame Bovary (1857), by Gustave Flaubert, PART I

© 2021, by M. Keith Booker

Gustave Flaubert and Honoré de Balzac are generally regarded as the two greatest French realist novelists of the nineteenth century. However, whereas Balzac’s greatness largely lies in the status of his work as the epitome of realism (with great emphasis on plot and character, but little on style), Flaubert is distinguished by the fact that, while his work is clearly identifiable as realist, it deviates from that of realist paragons such as Balzac in the attention that Flaubert pays to style and technique, especially in his innovative use of narrative voice. In this sense, Flaubert is a forerunner of literary modernism, and his work is known to have been a major influence on modernist writers such as James Joyce[1].

Madame Bovary begins as an unnamed narrator introduces one of the novel’s major characters, Charles Bovary. It includes a number of details that mark the narrative as realist, but it already deviates from realism in important ways that will eventually be made obvious, even if they are not so in the very beginning. For one thing, it quickly becomes clear that the narrator of the initial section of the novel is one of Charles’ schoolmates (and thus, in a sense, a minor character in the novel). In itself, this situation is not unprecedented, but it was unusual at the time. The classic narrator of a nineteenth-century realist novel is a distant, unidentified, omniscient observer, who knows everything about the events being described, but is not himself (the voice is almost always male in the nineteenth century) involved in the action. This narrator describes events in the third person and is generally expected to be reliable as an accurate conveyor of information. But this initial narrator of Madame Bovary tells the story in first person, because he is personally involved in the narrative as a student sitting in the classroom when young Charles is brought into the classroom as a new student. (Though, to make matters even more confusing, most of his narrative seems to be a third-person narration about Charles until one looks more closely.)

Another way in which Madame Bovary begins in an unconventional way is that the initial part of the novel focuses so clearly on Charles, which makes it seem as if he is going to be the central protagonist in the novel, raising the question of why the novel is named for a woman. (In French “Madame Bovary” refers to a married woman whose married surname, derived from her husband, is “Bovary.”) Eventually, the focus of the narrative will shift to Emma Bovary, but, in the meantime, even more confusion is introduced by the fact that not one, but three different characters named “Madame Bovary” are introduced in this first part of the novel (Charles’ mother, his first wife, and his second wife, Emma). In conventional nineteenth-century realist novels, there tends to be a single main protagonist, who occupies that position from beginning to end. The focus on a single protagonist is, in fact, one of the key elements that shows the individualist orientation of the realist novel.

Thus, the reader is warned early on that this novel is not going to be a conventional one. It also becomes clear very early on that the initial narrator is not objective, but in fact takes a rather dismissive and demeaning view of young Charles, who is viewed by the narrator (and, apparently, by the other students) as a clownish country bumpkin. The early description of Charles’ preposterous hat, for example, makes this attitude clear:

“It was one of those head-gears of composite order, in which we can find traces of the bearskin, shako, billycock hat, sealskin cap, and cotton night-cap; one of those poor things, in fine, whose dumb ugliness has depths of expression, like an imbecile’s face. Oval, stiffened with whalebone, it began with three round knobs; then came in succession lozenges of velvet and rabbit-skin separated by a red band; after that a sort of bag that ended in a cardboard polygon covered with complicated braiding, from which hung, at the end of a long thin cord, small twisted gold threads in the manner of a tassel. The cap was new; its peak shone.”

The narrator then proceeds to provide more details about the introduction of the hapless Charles into the school, and then even proceeds to give details about Charles’ family background, after which he surprisingly announces that “it would now be impossible for any of us to remember anything about him.” Then, after this strange declaration, the narrator launches forth into a string of additional details about Charles:

“He was a youth of even temperament, who played in playtime, worked in school-hours, was attentive in class, slept well in the dormitory, and ate well in the refectory. He had in loco parentis a wholesale ironmonger in the Rue Ganterie, who took him out once a month on Sundays after his shop was shut, sent him for a walk on the quay to look at the boats, and then brought him back to college at seven o’clock before supper. Every Thursday evening he wrote a long letter to his mother with red ink and three wafers; then he went over his history note-books, or read an old volume of “Anarchasis” that was knocking about the study. When he went for walks he talked to the servant, who, like himself, came from the country.”

Eventually, in fact, as the narration proceeds, we begin to get access to Charles’ inner thoughts and feelings, even after he leaves the original school and begins to study medicine: “He understood nothing of it all; it was all very well to listen—he did not follow. Still he worked; he had bound note-books, he attended all the courses, never missed a single lecture. He did his little daily task like a mill-horse, who goes round and round with his eyes bandaged, not knowing what work he is doing.”[2] These are details to which the original narrator would not have access, so that, by this time, it is obvious that we have actually switched (perhaps at the moment of the declaration of the impossibility of remembering details about Charles) to a different, more conventional and objective, third-person narrator.

The narration then proceeds to an account of Charles’ first marriage, to an older (and apparently very unattractive) widow, chosen for him by his domineering mother. His new wife turns out to be equally domineering (but perhaps more demanding), leaving Charles at the end of the first chapter in a miserable state indeed, made more palatable only by the fact that his new wife at least has a considerable fortune. Meanwhile, having begun his career as a medical doctor (though apparently not a terribly competent one) in the town of Tostes, Charles is called away to the countryside to the farm of old Monsieur Roualt, who has broken his leg. Luckily, it is a simple fracture that even Charles is able to treat successfully. Meanwhile, he encounters Rouault’s daughter (who will turn out to be Emma), and is clearly a bit taken with her.

A careful reader can discern Charles’ early interest in Emma in the description of her that is given as he looks at her after setting her father’s leg:

“Her neck stood out from a white turned-down collar. Her hair, whose two black folds seemed each of a single piece, so smooth were they, was parted in the middle by a delicate line that curved slightly with the curve of the head; and, just showing the tip of the ear, it was joined behind in a thick chignon, with a wavy movement at the temples that the country doctor saw now for the first time in his life. The upper part of her cheek was rose-coloured. She had, like a man, thrust in between two buttons of her bodice a tortoise-shell eyeglass.”

In fact, this description so clearly shows Charles’ perception of Emma that it is clear here that the narrative voice has again changed. Now, though we still ostensibly have a third-person narrative voice, it is clear that this voice has adopted the position of Charles rather than remaining objective. This type of narration, in which the voice of the third-person narration is modified to reflect the point of view of a character, is referred as “indirect free style.” It is, in fact, now a common narrative trick, though it was not common at the time of Madame Bovary. Indeed, Flaubert is regarded as the most important pioneers of the technique and the one who exerted the greatest influence on its later use by others, such as Joyce, one of its greatest masters.

Meanwhile, the last sentence of the description of Emma (in which the glasses mentioned tip us off that she is an avid reader) quoted above seems out of character with the rest, signaling a shift back to the objective narrative voice. Such shifts are typical of Flaubert’s use of the technique of indirect free style in this novel: after the narrative voice shifts into an exaggerated or romantic style to indicate a character’s subjective opinion, it tends to shift rather suddenly back to a distant, objective style, creating a contrast that has the effect of making the character’s attitude appear unrealistic and excessively romantic. Going forward, these moments are applied primarily to Emma, who will very quickly emerge as the central protagonist and “point-of-view” character. That is, we see most of the action essentially from her perspective.

By the end of the second chapter, the plot has taken an important turn. In a sudden outbreak of misfortune, a notary makes off with most of the fortune owned by Charles’ wife. Financial problems will, in fact, be central to the plot of this novel, suggesting the precarity of life under France’s new capitalist system, in which anyone might suddenly encounter a disastrous loss that leads to their ruin. Then, in a sudden outbreak of “fortune,” this particular Madame Bovary (whom the text continues to call the “widow Dubuc,” indicating her lack of any real connection with her new husband) falls ill and dies. A week after a nasty encounter with Charles’ parents over the loss of her money, “as she was hanging up some washing in her yard, she was seized with a spitting of blood, and the next day, while Charles had his back turned to her drawing the window-curtain, she said, ‘O God!’ gave a sigh and fainted. She was dead! What a surprise!”

 The objective narrator of Madame Bovary has a tendency to announce major events very suddenly and with a complete lack of emotion, providing even more contrast with the moments of indirect free style in the text. As in this case, that approach often leads to a sort of dark comedy. Here, in fact, the suggestion is that Charles is secretly relieved at the death of his now penniless wife. Perhaps feeling guilty about this fact, though, Charles then experiences a moment of sentimentality, and a shift back to his point of view via indirect free style shows his state of mind, which suggests that he believes that his wife died because she was heartbroken at the sad state of her relationship with him: “When all was over at the cemetery Charles went home. He found no one downstairs; he went up to the first floor to their room; saw her dress still hanging at the foot of the alcove; then, leaning against the writing-table, he stayed until the evening, buried in a sorrowful reverie. She had loved him after all!”

Charles, of course, recovers quickly, the way having now been cleared for his courtship of Emma (of whom his wife had been fiercely jealous), which proceeds apace in the next chapter. By the end of this brief chapter, in fact, Charles has already asked for Emma’s hand in marriage, and her father has agreed to the match (though he has also rejected some of Emma’s more romantic visions for the wedding ceremony). We will soon learn that Emma is an uncritical reader of romantic fictions, but (unlike those fictions) this novel is relatively uninterested in the details of the courtship, moving through it very hastily. Similarly, in the next chapter, the wedding is a rather unromantic affair, and Emma is particularly appalled by the uncouth peasants who attend the ceremony, so different from the dashing figures she has read about in books.

After the wedding, Emma will move into Charles’ home in Tostes. It is clear that she views Charles as a sort of sophisticated, cosmopolitan figure who will give her an exciting life that is very different from life on the farm where she grew up. But the earlier chapters have prepared us to understand how misguided Emma’s expectations really are. Charles might be a doctor and he might live in a town, but we already know that he is not very bright, not very well educated, and not very romantic. Tostes, meanwhile, is a small town (little more than a village, really)[3] that will clearly never live up to Emma’s fantasies of urban life, which has developed from reading stories set in metropolitan centers such as Paris and London.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Emma is quickly disappointed by married life, even though Charles seems quite pleased with it. By the end of the fifth chapter, this dichotomy is made clear by the juxtaposition of two passages related in indirect free style, the first reflecting Charles feelings, the second filtered through the feelings of Emma:

“He could not keep from constantly touching her comb, her ring, her fichu; sometimes he gave her great sounding kisses with all his mouth on her cheeks, or else little kisses in a row all along her bare arm from the tip of her fingers up to her shoulder, and she put him away half-smiling, half-vexed, as you do a child who hangs about you.

Before marriage she thought herself in love; but the happiness that should have followed this love not having come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words felicity, passion, rapture, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.”

That Emma has developed her expectations of life from reading books is crucial here. And this background will become clear in Chapter Six, which is essentially a flashback to Emma’s time in convent school, where she acquired her unrealistic tendency to expect her real life to be like the lives of the characters she has read about in books. This motif is, in fact, the central conceit of the entire novel and is the aspect of the novel that is most widely remembered today. Indeed, Emma’s habit of viewing and interpreting the world through expectations derived from reading fiction has been given a name that has been widely applied in discussions of other literary characters and even of real people. This phenomenon, referring to Emma’s married surname is called, in French, bovarysme, a designation that has been applied to a number of characters since Madame Bovary, such as Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus.

A closer look at Chapter Six of Part I of Madame Bovary gives us a look at how Emma developed this tendency. At the beginning of the chapter, we learn how reading the novel Paul and Virginia (a 1788 novel by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre) fired Emma’s romantic imagination, causing her to dream of its exotic settings. Yet this novel is not a sentimental or romantic work. It is, in fact, a condemnation of false sentimentality, a fact of which most of Flaubert’s contemporary readers would have been very much aware. Emma seems to have missed the point. Meanwhile, sent away from home to live at a convent school at age thirteen, Emma responds to her religious lessons as if they are romantic love stories. Stirred by stories of the suffering of Christ, she views Him as a sort of romantic hero: “The comparisons of betrothed, husband, celestial lover, and eternal marriage, that recur in sermons, stirred within her soul depths of unexpected sweetness.” Such responses show that Emma is clearly unhappy with the real world around her, causing her to retreat into the world of books. Later, Emma is inspired by the romantic love stories told by an old maid at the convent:

“They were all love, lovers, sweethearts, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely pavilions, postilions killed at every stage, horses ridden to death on every page, sombre forests, heartaches, vows, sobs, tears and kisses, little skiffs by moonlight, nightingales in shady groves, ‘gentlemen’ brave as lions, gentle as lambs, virtuous as no one ever was, always well dressed, and weeping like fountains.”

Seeking more such stories, fifteen-year-old Emma turns more and more to the world of books. Importantly, she reads these books in ways that emphasize their more unrealistic and romantic elements:

“Through Walter Scott, later on, she fell in love with historical events, dreamed of old chests, guard-rooms and minstrels. She would have liked to live in some old manor-house, like those long-waisted chatelaines who, in the shade of pointed arches, spent their days leaning on the stone, chin in hand, watching a cavalier with white plume galloping on his black horse from the distant fields. At this time she had a cult for Mary Stuart and enthusiastic veneration for illustrious or unhappy women. Joan of Arc, Heloise, Agnes Sorel, the beautiful Ferroniere, and Clemence Isaure stood out to her like comets in the dark immensity of heaven, where also were seen, lost in shadow, and all unconnected, St. Louis with his oak, the dying Bayard, some cruelties of Louis XI, a little of St. Bartholomew’s Day, the plume of the Bearnais, and always the remembrance of the plates painted in honour of Louis XIV.”

Importantly, Walter Scott is an important and respected novelist who has been singled out by the imminent scholar Georg Lukács as one of the crucial inventors of the genre of the historical novel, as one of the writers whose work best captures the historical process of capitalist modernization that, by the time Scott was writing in the early nineteenth century, had transformed European society. Emma, though, ignores the fact that many of the romantic elements she finds in Scott are aspects of a world that has been swept away by history (and that was never, in reality, all that romantic to begin with). We also learn later that Emma read such esteemed French authors as Eugene Sue, George Sand, and (the greatest of them all) Balzac. In short, from Paul and Virginia to Balzac, Emma’s problem is not that she reads bad literature but that she reads literature badly, failing to learn its real lessons.

When Emma’s mother dies, it is clear that her emotional reaction is entirely inauthentic. Instead, she tries to imitate the heroines of whom she has read in books and is happy to find that she feels able to experience sorrow in the way that they might, romanticizing the entire event: “Emma was secretly pleased that she had reached at a first attempt the rare ideal of pale lives, never attained by mediocre hearts. She let herself glide along with Lamartine[4] meanderings, listened to harps on lakes, to all the songs of dying swans, to the falling of the leaves, the pure virgins ascending to heaven, and the voice of the Eternal discoursing down the valleys. She wearied of it, would not confess it, continued from habit, and at last was surprised to feel herself soothed, and with no more sadness at heart than wrinkles on her brow.”

Note here again how the narrative voice becomes infected by Emma’s musings, in another example of indirect free style, followed by an abrupt shift back to an objective  reporting of her quick recovery from grief, emphasizing the inauthentic nature of her reaction to her mother’s death. Meanwhile, if Emma misreads books, she also misreads Charles, thinking that he will be like the romantic lovers she has uncritically read of in novels. It comes as no surprise, then, that Emma is displeased with her life in Tostes, a situation that is made worse by the fact that Charles is completely oblivious to Emma’s unhappiness, clearly believing that their marriage should be primarily a matter of meeting his needs and desires. Indeed, it is important to recognize, when reading through the story of Emma’s various mistakes and misadventures, that her unrealistic approach to life is not merely a matter of her own immature and unrealistic expectations. It is also the product of a society in which Emma, as a woman, has very few outlets for her own aspirations but is instead simply expected to provide support for her husband. Many of the things she dreams of doing in the course of the book (such as moving to Paris) would be perfectly possible for her to do were she a man, but are absolutely unthinkable given her status as a bourgeois wife (and as one who resides in the relatively low ranks of the bourgeoisie).

Meanwhile, Emma’s situation in Tostes is made all the more untenable to her after she and Charles are invited to a gala at Vaubyessard the nearby estate of the Marquis d’Andervilliers. Emma is thrilled by the invitation and thrilled by the event itself, though it is almost certainly the case that neither the gala nor the estate itself is, in reality, quite as glorious as Emma seems to think. For one thing, though both the family and the estate of the marquis have a long history, it should be recalled that this history was interrupted by the French Revolution and that proudly proclaiming one’s aristocratic lineage in postrevolutionary France would not be entirely unproblematic and would be seen as pretentious, or even vulgar, by many. Emma, of course, is not one of these, and her enthusiasm for everything she encounters at Vaubyessard is undiluted.

Among other things, Emma meets and dances with a viscount at this affair, seeing him as the very embodiment of the aristocratic fantasies she has entertained for years. Then, as Emma and Charles are on their way home, they find a cigar case that Emma concludes must belong to the viscount. She then stashes the case away as a keepsake, while she continues to fantasize about the viscount and the romantic life she imagines he must lead in Paris, where he resides. The glimpse of aristocratic life provided by the trip to Vaubyessard has only made her life in Tostes seem worse by comparison, while providing a suggestion that the fantasy world in which so many of her thoughts resides is, in fact, attainable in reality. She becomes fascinated by Paris, studies maps of the city, reads novels that are set there. It becomes the focal point of many of her fantasies.

Emma becomes increasingly unhappy with her life in Tostes and with Charles, whom she sees as lacking in imagination and sophistication of the kind she associates with the viscount. She feels trapped, unable (as a woman) to do anything about her condition. Thus, instead of fantasizing about doing something, she dreams of something instead happening to her, like a ship appearing over the horizon to save a shipwrecked sailor: “At the bottom of her heart, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know what this chance would be, what wind would bring it her, towards what shore it would drive her, if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, laden with anguish or full of bliss to the portholes.”[5]

Emma’s behavior becomes erratic, and she eventually grows so unhappy that she literally falls ill. Her doctor husband attempts to treat her, but he is clueless about the real source of her illness. He eventually concludes that there must be something in the environment of Tostes that is making her ill, though he assumes it has to do with climate or something physical, whereas her malady is entirely psychological. In any case, he eventually decides to relocate. Meanwhile, in one crucial moment at the end of Part I, Emma discovers her now-desiccated bridal bouquet tucked away in a drawer. It pricks her finger, reminding her of the disappointments of her marriage. Then, seeing the bouquet as a symbol of her failed marriage and unhappy condition, she flings it into the fire and watches it burn.

In a particularly overt instance of indirect free style, the description of the burning bouquet shifts into poetic language of the kind that would be typical of Emma’s own thoughts: “The little pasteboard berries burst, the wire twisted, the gold lace melted; and the shriveled paper corollas, fluttering like black butterflies at the back of the stove, at last flew up the chimney.” The objective narrator, as usual, has the last word, though. Immediately after this vision of the floating ashes as fluttering butterflies, the language shifts back to that of the objective narrator, deflating Emma’s romantic vision with another bit of sudden news: “When they left Tostes at the month of March, Madame Bovary was pregnant.”


Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel. Trans. Hannah Mitchell and Stanley Mitchell, University of Nebraska Press, 1983.


[1] The discussion of Madame Bovary on this site refers to the 1886 English translation by Eleanor Marx Aveling, the daughter of Karl Marx. This version was the first English translation and is historically important as the translation that has probably been most widely read over the years. It also has the advantage of having been written in nineteenth-century language that well captures he period feel of the original.

[2] Keep this moment in mind when we get to the story of the “Never-to-be-forgotten Johnny” in Joyce’s “The Dead.”

[3] It has been established by extensive research that “Tostes” in the novel is actually based on the real-world village of Tôtes (not on the real Tostes), a confusion that has occurred because the nineteenth century was rather relaxed about proper spellings of place names (and other things). Even today, Tôtes has a population of only about 1500 people; it would have been much less in the nineteenth century.

[4] The reference here is to Alphonse de Lamartine (1790–1869), widely regarded as the first French Romantic poet, made famous by his masterpiece, Les Méditations Poétiques (1820).

[5] Compare the situation of the title character of “Eveline” in Joyce’s Dubliners.