We first meet Charles Bovary as a new student in class who, under scrutiny from his peers, is struggling to make his way. Charles is the son of a former army surgeon, and his family lives on a small farm. We next follow Charles into adulthood. Charles's father is a poor money manager and is often caught having relations with many of the "village harlots." Madame Bovary (Charles's mother, not his later wife) has lost all respect for her husband and focuses only on her rather plain son, spoiling him and planning every aspect of his future. She determines that medical school is the best path for the boy to take, so she sends him along to pursue his studies. Unfortunately, instead of performing as a dutiful student, Charles regularly misses classes, and his laziness causes him to fail the medical exam. This fact is hidden from his father for many years. Charles sits for the exam again, passes this time, and becomes a doctor. His mother arranges for Charles to practice in Tostes, a nearby village, and urges him to marry Heloise Dubuc, an older, wealthy widow. The marriage is not particularly happy.
At four in the morning, Charles is asked to set a simple fracture at a farm outside of town. While working on Rouault's fracture, Charles finds himself drawn to his daughter, Emma. Smitten by her, he makes an excessive number of followup visits to the farm. Heloise notices her husband's change in behavior and asks some townspeople about Rouault's daughter. Jealous of Emma, Heloise makes Charles promise he will never visit her again. Reluctantly, Charles agrees but then learns that Heloise's lawyer has stolen most of her money. Moreover, he learns that she lied about her wealth before they were married. One week later, shocked and humiliated, Heloise suddenly dies.
After Heloise dies, Charles again befriends Rouault and visits him often. During these visits, he begins to spend increasing amounts of time with Emma, either watching her work or chatting idly. Soon Charles falls in love with Emma and asks Rouault for her hand in marriage. After consulting with his daughter, Rouault lets Charles know of her favorable decision through the pre-arranged signal of opening a window shutter. Although the marriage is agreed upon, Emma and Charles must wait for Charles's official mourning period to pass. While waiting, they plan for the wedding. Emma desires a romantic midnight wedding but settles for a more traditional ceremony, followed by a celebration that lasts well into the night.
When Charles's official mourning period for his first wife ends, he and Emma get married. The wedding is a very large event all over Emma's father's farm, and guests dress in their best clothes to honor the celebration. After the wedding, they all return to the farm in a long, festive procession and then feast throughout the night. The next day, after the wedding night, Charles is elated, but Emma is very calm and collected, considering that she has lost her virginity and begun her married life. After the couple departs for Charles's home in Tostes, Rouault remembers how happy he was during his own wedding.
Once in Tostes, Emma inspects their new home and begins to establish her presence in the house. Most notably, she forces Charles to remove his dead wife's dried bridal bouquet from the bedroom. Emma then begins to plan small improvements to the house while Charles, deeply in love, focuses purely on his beautiful new wife. Charles feels that his life has reached a degree of perfection, while Emma feels somewhat dissatisfied. A romantic by nature, Emma expected her marriage to lead to bliss, passion, and perfection, but real life has already fallen short.
Emma remembers her convent life. At first, Emma delved into religion, treating it with the passion she read about in romantic novels. When Emma's mother passed away, she acted the part of the grief-stricken daughter, just as she believed she should, giving the role all the passion and pain she could muster. However, Emma soon grew tired of mourning and eventually left the convent, abandoning her romantic notions of religion and death. Emma returned to her father's farm, where she began to enjoy the simple life, but soon found herself bored. Unsure of how to create a life of excitement and satisfaction, Emma latched on to Charles, believing he could offer her the romantic idealism she had always longed for.
The opening chapters of Madame Bovary set up the basic scenery of the novel. Flaubert's story takes place in the provincial French countryside, and within these first few chapters, he introduces his main characters, Emma and Charles. As we begin to understand Charles's character, we recognize that he is not particularly bright, nor is he dedicated to professional success. Specifically, Charles skips many classes, fails his medical exam, and, in his interactions with Emma, does not understand much of her side of the conversation when she discusses novels and romantic ideas about life. Moreover, his intent concentration on the minor details of Emma's dress and appearance demonstrates that he is more interested in her as an object than as a person. Meanwhile, observing Emma, we begin to understand the fantasies through which she approaches life. Most notably, Emma hopes for a novelistic, torchlit, midnight wedding, an ideal already clearly at odds with the realities of her life. This early conflict between fantasy and reality began still earlier in her performative mourning (described in Chapter VI), and this conflict will grow larger as the novel progresses.
Although the novel's title suggests that we should focus on Emma, we are not introduced to her immediately. The first chapter focuses purely on Charles, and we meet two other Madames Bovary before Emma. The first is Charles's overbearing mother, and the second is his domineering first wife, Heloise Dubac. As we consider these relationships, we conclude that Charles is fairly passive and prefers to be controlled by the women in his life. Later on, Emma will take advantage of this characteristic. The title, Madame Bovary, presents Emma in relationship to her husband--to the Bovary family--rather than as the independent, unfettered woman she wants to be.
When we meet Emma, we immediately see how different she is from both Charles's mother and his first wife. Emma longs for romanticism and grandeur, while the other two women are realistically simple in their desires. Charles finds Emma's imaginative nature slightly overwhelming, mysterious--and highly alluring.
In these three chapters, Flaubert presents the various perspectives of some of the central characters. Once Charles and Emma are married, the novel shifts our attention from Charles to Emma. At this point, Charles is entirely in love with and devoted to Emma, providing a foil for Emma's growing disillusionment with her marriage and married life. As Emma again feels a sense of incompleteness and wonders how her life might be improved, Flaubert has set the conditions for her downward spiral.
Thus the true tale of Madame Bovary begins. In this section, we see Emma's most fundamental character flaw, the way that her romanticism leads her to discontent. The flashback to her convent life provides clear evidence that Emma not only is the kind of person who becomes obsessed with romance, but also is the kind of person who easily becomes discontented and eager for something new. When she becomes bored with her life, Emma tries new things without thinking through the consequences or worrying about the commitments: the convent, then the farm, and now marriage. Later, she will stray again from affair to affair, hoping that the newness she encounters in these things will lead to the happiness and intense romance she has always desired.
This pattern helps us understand the wedding, which occupies the majority of Chapter IV. Flaubert describes the event in extreme detail. It used to be normal to narrate the events of a wedding by relating how the guests were dressed. The novel does this but goes farther, explaining, for instance, how the guests' early morning preparations resulted in shaving cuts on their faces. In these descriptions, Flaubert is not writing for the society pages; he is entirely honest, mentioning the flaws of each attendee. Thus he presents a true description of a country wedding. The people are dressed their best, but they are simple farmer families who live simple lives, and they can never truly look glamorous. Despite Emma's wedding preparations, she cannot but be disappointed by her own wedding. She is trapped in her bland circumstances. This tension in Emma's experience is, more broadly, an example of the overarching commentary on bourgeois life that Flaubert provides.