Book Review: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

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Emma, the protagonist of the book, is a dreamer who fills her mind with romantic notions from reading popular French novels of the early 19th century. She struggles to accept the reality that does not match her idealistic expectations, leading her to try various ways to escape it. Eventually, Emma takes her own life.

The term “Bovaryism” is now used to describe the experience of those who dream of achieving happiness and fulfillment, only to be disappointed when their dreams do not come true.

If you are considering reading this book, this review will provide you with all the necessary information to help you decide if it is worth your time. So, let’s begin!

Plot Summary

The restless young wife of a mediocre country doctor commits suicide after her romantic notions of love and happiness bring only debt and despair.

Part 1

Chapters 1–4 (TOSTES) 

The young Charles Bovary enters school for the first time at age 15, a timid, awkward boy who works hard but remains a mediocre student. At age 18, he goes to medical school, and after passing the exam on the second attempt sets up practice in the village of Tostes in the province of Normandy, France. 

He marries the ugly, 45-year-old Madame Dubuc, and one day is called to set the broken leg of Old Roualt, a well-to-do farmer. Charles is attracted to the man’s charming daughter, Emma, and when Madame Dubuc dies, he asks Emma to marry him. 

Their wedding feast lasts more than 16 hours and is highlighted by a cake featuring gilt paper stars, a dungeon, and a figure of Cupid balancing on a chocolate swing.

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Chapters 5–9 

When Emma moves into Charles’s house, she discovers a decorative plaster figure of a priest in the garden and Madame Dubuc’s wedding bouquet. From the beginning, she finds marriage dull and is disappointed that there is none of the romance that she has read about in the novels at the convent where she was educated. 

Emma resents Charles’s common manners and careless appearance and wonders what life would be like with a different husband. One day, the Bovarys are invited to a dinner and fancy ball at the château of the Marquis d’Andervilliers at Vaubyessard. 

Emma is intoxicated with the high life, and when a Viscount asks her to waltz, she feels everything swirl around her. When the ball is over, she stays awake all night to prolong the romantic experience.

Emma becomes increasingly bored with Charles. On one of her walks in the garden, she discovers that frost has caused the plaster priest to begin peeling. She spends much of her time languishing in her room and her health begins to suffer. With the idea that something in Tostes may be the cause of her problems, Charles decides that they will move to the market town of Yonville L’Abbaye.

While preparing for the move, Emma pricks her finger on the wire of her yellowed wedding bouquet and tosses the memento into the fire.

Part 2

Chapters 1–5 (YONVILLE) 

Emma and Charles arrive in Yonville and dine at the Golden Lion (“Lion d’Or”), a local inn where they meet the self-promoting pharmacist, Homais, and the dashing young Leén Dupuis, a notary’s clerk. While Homais and Charles discuss the weather, Emma and Léon speak of sunsets and love stories. 

Lacking patients, Charles begins to worry about their financial situation. Most of Emma’s dowry was spent in Tostes, and many household items were damaged during the move—including the plaster priest which fell out of the carriage and broke into a thousand pieces.

Furthermore, Emma is pregnant and soon gives birth to a daughter, Berthe, whom she entrusts to Madame Rollet for nursing.

One day, Emma meets Léon in the street and invites him to accompany her to the Rollet house—a gesture that the townswomen consider compromising. Léon, bored with the locals, is attracted to Emma but hesitates to declare his feelings. 

Emma suspects that he loves her, and reacts by feigning devotion to her husband. The result is that Léon loses all hope, leaving Emma consumed by desire and frustration. She receives a visit one day from Monsieur Lheureux, a fawning but shrewd businessman, who brings a selection of merchandise from his general store to show her. He tells her that he can arrange to lend her money if it should ever prove necessary.

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Chapters 6–10 

Emma visits the local priest, Abbé Bournisien, to seek help with her problems. It proves useless, however, since he fails to perceive her seriousness and talks instead about the heat. Léon, tired of loving the inaccessible Emma, moves to Paris to study law, and Emma regrets not having pursued him when it was possible. 

She decides to reward her virtuous behaviour by making extravagant purchases to satisfy her whims.

One day, the Bovarys are visited by Monsieur Rodolphe Boulanger de la Huchette, a wealthy country gentleman whose servant requires medical attention. Rodolphe is intrigued by Emma and decides she would be an easy conquest. 

On the day of the district agricultural fair, he accompanies her and later suggests that they go into the deserted town hall and watch the proceedings “more comfortably” by pulling chairs up to a window. 

As local officials speak of the utility of agriculture and award prizes for the best manure, Rodolphe speaks to Emma of fate’s role in determining that certain individuals are meant to be together. Emma’s former desires are rekindled, and when Rodolphe takes her hand she does not recoil.

After the fair, Rodolphe stays away for six weeks, feeling that his absence will increase Emma’s desire. He appears suddenly one day, claiming to be unable to resist her beauty. When Charles arrives home, they discuss Emma’s health;

Rodolphe suggests that horseback riding might prove beneficial and offers to lend her a horse and accompany her. One day after riding into the country, they dismount and Rodolphe leads her to a clearing, where they make love. Upon returning home, Emma is overjoyed that she has a lover. 

But one day, she is seen by Captain Binet, the tax collector, as she returns from Rodolphe’s house. She invents a lame story about visiting the wet nurse who lives in the opposite direction and who has not had Berthe for more than a year.

Chapters 11–15 

Homais, a great believer in the ability of science to bring about “progress,” reads an article on a new method for curing clubfoot and convinces Charles that he should try it on Hippolyte, the clubfooted stable boy at the Golden Lion. 

Five days after the operation, gangrene sets in and Hippolyte’s foot must be amputated. Emma is humiliated, fearing that her reputation will be damaged because of her association with the inept doctor. Nonetheless, she and Charles buy a wooden leg for Hippolyte. She begins to shower Rodolphe with expensive gifts, and convinces him that they should run off together. 

The day before they are to leave, Rodolphe backs out and sends Emma a letter of explanation. Emma reads the letter in solitude and begins to feel confused and dizzy. At dinner, Charles announces he has heard that Rodolphe is about to leave on a journey. Moments later, Emma faints at the sight of Rodolphe’s carriage passing in front of her window.

She becomes delirious and is ill for months. During her convalescence, Emma turns to religion, but finds no comfort in it. Charles takes her to a romantic opera in Rouen, and the enchanting music reminds her of the novels of her youth.

During intermission they meet Leon, now a law clerk in Rouen, and Charles suggests that Emma stay in Rouen a few extra days to take advantage of another opera performance.

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Part 3

Chapters 1–5 (ROUEN) 

Emma and Léon meet the following day and discuss their unhappiness. Léon claims to love her still and asks if they could start over again; she agrees to meet him the next morning at the cathedral.

When she arrives, she hands him a note and goes into the chapel to pray. They exit, and Léon secures a carriage, convincing Emma to join him for a tour of Rouen. At one point, from behind the vehicle’s closed blinds, Emma’s hand emerges and tosses out some scraps of paper which scatter in the wind like butterflies.

Emma returns to Yonville that evening and receives an urgent message to go to the pharmacist’s shop. She arrives just as Homais is berating his apprentice, Justin, for having fetched a pan from “the Capharnaum”—the pharmacist’s special storeroom where dangerous potions such as arsenic are kept. 

She learns that her father-in-law has died, and Lheureux convinces her to get a power of attorney from Charles to handle the inheritance. Charles is skeptical about the competence of the local notary, so Emma offers to go to Rouen to consult Léon.

She spends three honeymoon-like days with the young law clerk in a Rouen hotel, and later convinces Charles that she should go to Rouen once a week for piano lessons. During her frequent trips, Emma’s carriage passes a blind beggar with an idiotic laugh who always sings the same song (“Often the warmth of a summer day / Makes a young girl dream her heart away”); the beggar’s voice and song haunt Emma.

One day, after Lheureux sees Emma in Rouen on Léon’s arm, he demands to be paid a debt of 2,000 francs. She is forced to sell a piece of property from Charles’s inheritance, and Lheureux suggests that instead of paying the bill, she simply sign four 1,000 franc bills that will come due in six monthly payments. She agrees. But the fourth bill comes due when she is in Rouen, and since Charles is unable to pay, he is forced to sign two new notes with Lheureux.

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Chapters 6–11 

A man arrives at Emma’s door one day with a bill payable to Monsieur Vinçart of Rouen (Lheureux has sold the loan to Vinçart). She is unable to pay and the next day receives a summons to appear before Maître Hareng, the bailiff. 

She rushes to see Lheureux, who explains that her property will be seized if she cannot pay the bill; but he agrees to lend her 1,000 francs.

Emma begins selling off clothes and knickknacks, but is then notified that she has 24 hours to pay or face a seizure. She appeals to Léon, but he refuses to lend her money for fear of being compromised by an association with her. 

On her way back to Yonville, she passes the blind beggar and tosses her last coin to him. When she arrives home, a notice has been posted on the door indicating that the furnishings are for sale. She seeks help from Monsieur Guillaumin, the notary, but he expects sexual favors in return. She then approaches Binet and Rodolphe, but neither will help.

Emma goes to the pharmacy and convinces Justin to let her in the Capharnaum, where she grabs some arsenic and swallows it. At home, she writes a letter to Charles, then is overcome with sickness from the poison. 

When Charles begs to know what Emma has eaten, she points to the letter she has written. He frantically sends for Doctor Canivet and Doctor Larivière, but it is too late. Just before Emma dies, she hears the blind beggar singing in the street beneath her window and pictures his hideous face looming out of eternal darkness.

Charles, overcome with grief, has Emma buried in her wedding clothes. After the funeral, he refuses to sell anything that had belonged to her. As if to please Emma, he adopts her extravagant tastes and ideas (e.g., he dresses lavishly).

When he learns that Léon has married, Charles—who never truly understood his wife—thinks this news would have made Emma happy.

Homais attempts to cure the blind beggar and, when he fails, he has the beggar incarcerated as a menace. Charles finds Emma’s love letters from Léon and Rodolphe, but when he encounters Rodolphe at the market, he does not blame him for what happened, since “fate willed it this way.” Charles dies the next day and Berthe goes to live with a poor aunt, who sends her to work in a cotton mill.

After Charles’s death, Yonville goes through a series of doctors who cannot compete with the increasingly popular Homais, who has been dispensing medical advice illegally for years and who finally receives the Legion of Honor medal.

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Key Characters

Emma Bovary: Emma Bovary is the wife of a mediocre country doctor. She was 18 years old when she got married and probably 29 years old when she died. Emma is dissatisfied with her life and dreams about being rich and experiencing passionate romance like the ones she reads about in novels. She tries to act out her romantic fantasies by having lovers and buying fashionable clothes and jewels. However, she is out of touch with reality, and her attempts to escape lead her to commit suicide.

Charles Bovary: Charles Bovary is Emma’s husband and a country doctor. He is well-meaning but uninspired, dull, plodding, and limited. He is not ambitious and is easily satisfied. Charles wants to make Emma happy, but he does not understand her. He is easily influenced against his will, and after Emma’s death, he adopts many of her manners. Charles dies shortly afterward.

Homais: Homais is a pharmacist in Yonville who fervently believes that science can bring about social progress, an important idea of the time. He enjoys using scientific lingo and dispenses medical advice, even though he is not a doctor. Homais was reprimanded once for doing so, and he curries favor with Charles to ensure that he won’t be reported. After years of waiting, Homais fulfills his obsessive ambition to receive the Legion of Honor medal for being a “prominent” citizen.

Léon Dupuis: Léon Dupuis is a notary’s clerk who is timid and weak-willed but more stylish and handsome than Charles. He shares romantic ideals and conversations with Emma and becomes her lover while he is a law clerk in Rouen. However, he fears that he will be compromised by her. Léon marries after Emma’s death.

Rodolphe Boulanger de la Huchette: Rodolphe Boulanger de la Huchette is a handsome and wealthy country gentleman who exploits women. He is shrewd, self-centered, and not sentimental. Rodolphe seduces Emma and becomes her lover. He makes plans to elope with her but declines at the last minute. Rodolphe claims that he cannot help Emma during her final financial crisis.

Lheureux: Lheureux is a smart and conniving owner of Yonville’s general store. He senses Emma’s penchant for luxury and makes a fortune selling things to her on credit. He also lends her money when she cannot make payments. Lheureux engineers the financial ruin that precipitates Emma’s death.

Themes and Idea

1. Conflict between Fantasy and Reality

Emma has a hard time accepting reality because she is influenced by the romantic novels she reads. Her unrealistic dreams lead her to despair, and she ultimately takes her own life. The term “Bovaryism” describes the situation where people have unrealistic expectations that cannot be met in real life.

2. Destruction

Emma hates the harsh realities of life that contradict her romantic ideals. She experiences health problems, and objects around her disintegrate. Even her financial situation worsens. Ultimately, she commits suicide due to the harshness of reality.

3. Criticism of the Bourgeoisie

Emma dislikes the middle class because they value practicality and conventionality. Homais, a symbol of the bourgeoisie, helps to destroy Emma. Flaubert criticizes both the bourgeoisie and Emma’s excessive self-indulgence.

4. Lack of Communication

Language is used to manipulate and deceive, not to communicate. Flaubert shows that people have difficulty understanding each other, especially through literature.

5. Fate

Emma wonders if fate decreed her unhappy life, and she waits for “an act of fortune” to change her situation. In the end, she commits suicide as an escape. The novel’s ironic tone casts doubt on the role of fate in human life.

6. Positivism vs. Religion

Positivism is a 19th-century philosophical system that values positive facts and progress. Homais represents this belief. Flaubert satirizes both positivism and traditional religion through the discussions between Homais and Abbé Bournisien.

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1. Blind Beggar

symbolizes the ugliness of reality, the inevitability of death, and the disintegration of life. Emma is blinded by her illusions, which is suggested by the beggar’s blindness. The beggar’s begging also foreshadows Emma’s financial ruin. His song about a young girl who dreams her heart away is similar to Emma’s own story.

2. Wedding Bouquet

Symbolizes disillusionment, disintegration, and death. When Emma moves into Charles’s house in Tostes, she finds the bouquet of her predecessor and wonders what will happen to her own bouquet when she dies. When she prepares to move to Yonville, she finds her own bouquet in the process of disintegrating, symbolizing the disintegration of her marriage and sense of well-being. She burns it, which symbolizes the destruction of her marriage.


1. The Complex and Engaging Characters

One of the most striking aspects of Madame Bovary is the depth and complexity of its characters. Flaubert masterfully crafts each character, making them feel real and relatable. From the bumbling, adoring Charles Bovary to the morally questionable money-lender Lheureux, each character adds a unique flavor to the story.

Emma’s emotional turmoil and her struggle to reconcile her fantasies with reality make her a fascinating protagonist. The psychological depth and intricate details of each character create a multi-layered narrative that is both engaging and thought-provoking.

2. A Masterclass in Social Satire and Beautiful Descriptions

Flaubert’s novel is not just a tragic tale of a woman’s downfall; it is also a brilliant social satire that provides an insightful glimpse into 19th-century French society. The author effortlessly weaves together the sordid tale of Emma’s affairs with humorous depictions of the petty politics and social maneuverings of provincial life.

Flaubert’s skillful prose captures the essence of various scenes, from bustling village markets to the grandeur of a provincial opera performance. This blend of tragedy, comedy, and vivid description makes Madame Bovary a rich and captivating read.

3. A Tale of Love, Passion, and Consequences

Madame Bovary is a compelling exploration of the human condition, delving into themes of love, passion, and the consequences of our actions. Emma’s pursuit of passion and fulfillment outside her marriage provides a cautionary tale about the dangers of succumbing to desire without considering the impact on those we love.

The novel also raises important questions about societal expectations and the roles of women as wives and mothers. Through the tragic ending of Emma’s story, Flaubert invites the reader to reflect on the importance of balancing passion with responsibility and the enduring nature of human desires.


1. Excessive Detail and Pacing Issues

One of the criticisms leveled against Flaubert’s writing in Madame Bovary is his tendency to provide excessive detail, which some readers have dubbed “Tolkien syndrome.” This refers to the author’s penchant for going into minute detail when describing settings, which can sometimes derail the narrative and create a sense of information overload. While these descriptions are often beautifully crafted, they may be perceived as unnecessary or even distracting, affecting the pacing of the story.

2. Translation and Proofreading Concerns

Another issue some readers have encountered with Madame Bovary is the quality of certain translations and proofreading. As with any translated work, the quality can vary greatly depending on the edition and the translator.

Some readers have found specific editions to have poor translations or numerous proofreading errors, which can be frustrating and detract from the overall reading experience. In such cases, it may be beneficial to seek out a different edition or translation of the novel.

3. Difficulty Relating to the Characters and Story

While Madame Bovary is a classic work of literature, not all readers are fans of the romantic period piece genre or the character of Emma Bovary. Some may find it difficult to sympathize with her or to engage with the story’s themes of infidelity and personal downfall.

Others might feel that the novel does not quite reach the heights of other works in the genre, such as Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Jane Austen’s novels. Moreover, the tragic nature of the story can be off-putting for some readers, who may prefer more uplifting or relatable tales.


Madame Bovary remains a significant work in the literary canon and is worth exploring for its historical and cultural significance. Readers who are interested in the novel should approach it with an open mind and consider seeking out different editions or translations to ensure the best possible reading experience.

While not everyone will enjoy or appreciate Madame Bovary, its status as a classic ensures that it will continue to provoke discussion and analysis for generations to come.

About The Author

Gustave Flaubert (1821–80) was born in Rouen, France. He is one of the greatest French novelists of the 19th century, along with Balzac, Stendhal, and Zola. His grandfather, father, and brother were doctors, and he claimed to have a medical perspective on life. 

Flaubert studied law at his family’s urging, but without much success. He developed a “nervous illness” and retired to his property at Croisset and lived like a hermit, dedicated to art. 

Flaubert wrote painstakingly, with many revisions, and read his work aloud to avoid repetitions and achieve harmonious sounds. Works include Salammbo (1862), The Sentimental Education (1869), The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), and Three Tales (1877).

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