Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary Study Guide

Madame Bovary, written by Gustave Flaubert, was published in 1857 in French. Flaubert wrote the novel in Croisset, France, between 1851 and 1857 and set the action in the same period of time, the mid-1800s, in the French towns of Tostes, Yonville, and Rouen. Flaubert's protagonist is Emma Bovary, a young, beautiful girl who wishes deeply for romantic love, wealth, and social status, which are out of her reach due to her marriage to Charles Bovary, a middle-class doctor. Emma's dissatisfaction leads to extra-marital affairs, extreme selfishness, and illnesses following ended romances. The climax occurs when Emma's creditor, Lheureux, obtains a court order to seize her property because she has not paid her debts. Emma cannot find financial help anywhere, so she eats a handful of arsenic to escape the situation she has created. After Emma's death, Charles becomes very poor, discovers Emma's infidelities, and dies. Their daughter Berthe, now orphaned, is sent to work in a cotton mill.

Flaubert took five years to complete Madame Bovary. A perfectionist, Flaubert often worked seven hours a day for days at a time to perfect a single page of text. In truth, Flaubert despised the bourgeois, and on urging from his close friend Louis Bouilhet, chose to compose a novel inspired by bourgeois life. Bouilhet reminded Flaubert of the Delamare family in particular. Eugene Delamare had been a fairly poor medical student studying under Flaubert's father, a well respected doctor. Unable to pass his exams, Eugene became an officer de sante and worked in a country town near Rouen. Like Charles Bovary, Eugene married an older widow who died within a few years and then married a young, pretty daughter of a nearby farmer. Madame Delamare was educated in a convent and had a penchant for romantic novels. At first excited to escape her family farm, Madame Delamare soon grew bored and frustrated with her husband and her life. Like Emma Bovary, Madame Delamare was extravagant with money and had many extra-marital affairs. She soon developed great debt and then committed suicide by poisoning herself. Eugene had been deeply in love with the selfish woman and, unable to live without her, committed suicide himself. Eugene's mother raised the couple's only daughter in poverty.

Direct experiences of the author also were reworked into the novel. For instance, in creating Emma Bovary, the novel's protagonist, Flaubert was inspired by his mistress Louise Colet, who gave him the insight to consider Emma's discontented childhood. Moreover, Doctor Lariviere was based on Flaubert's father, and the maid Felicite was based on Flaubert's nurse, Julie. Flaubert also used medical terminology with the help of his brother Achille and his friend Bouilhet.

Initially the novel was considered highly controversial due to its depiction of adulterous affairs, and it was the subject of a trial in 1857. Flaubert delves into the sexual relations between Emma and her lovers and, more importantly, appears to glorify adultery and disgrace marriage. Since it was considered inappropriate for the public, precautions were taken to prohibit access to the book.