Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary
Gustave Flaubert


You may have already read this classic French novel from 1857, which caused a big stir when it was first published. Labeled as obscene and immoral, many readers were scandalized by Emma Bovary’s adulterous behavior in the book. When the storm cleared, however, readers and critics agreed that Flaubert had written a fantastic story about a young, unhappy middle class woman who does everything she can to ruin her life and the lives of those who love her. With this book, Flaubert also branded a new writing style called literary realism.

I first read Madame Bovary in college. When I picked it up again, I realized that most of what I had remembered was about Emma and her unhappiness and, of course, her secret affairs. Reading it a second time, years later, I saw more and I saw Emma in a different light.

If you haven’t read the book, here’s a quick summary:

Emma Roualt is a young woman living with her father in a French provincial town. She was raised in a convent, thinking she would become a nun, but her heart wasn’t in it, and when her mother died, she returned to live with her father, with a head full of romance novels and unformed ideas about love and happiness. In comes Dr. Charles Bovary, who tends to her father’s broken leg. They’re taken with each other, but Bovary is married, so nothing happens until his wife suddenly dies. It hadn’t been a happy marriage, so before long, Emma Roualt becomes Emma Bovary.

It isn’t until Emma settles into her new married life that she regrets marrying the first man who came along. And that’s where the trouble begins, first with Leon Dupuis, a young clerk in town. They resist temptation for now, but just wait until later. Emma gives in to unbridled passion when she meets Rodolphe Boulanger, however, a womanizing landowner. During their affair, she alternates between depression and mania and when it’s over, Emma crashes. Poor Charles, who adores Emma, is left clueless.

Second reads always teach you something new. This time, I became frustrated with Emma. I was struck with how poorly she regarded Charles. Even though I knew she wouldn’t open her eyes, I wanted her to appreciate him. I also became more aware of important secondary characters and their motives. Homais the chemist and Lheureux the draper are part of a terrific side story that drives the plot in the second half of the book and I admit I enjoyed seeing Emma lose control of her folly.

For those who have not read this classic, I’ll leave out the spoilers. And I will leave the scholarly reviews to the experts. I’ll simply say that the characters, descriptions and plot in Madame Bovary place the book at the top of my list. Take a look at a great review by Kathryn Harrison of the New York Times here. Or if you prefer your drama to be onscreen, check out the 2014 film here.

And for more information about Gustave Flaubert, visit Who’s That Author? Gustave Flaubert.

I read Madame Bovary as part of my Build a Better World Summer Reading Challenge to read a book I had read before.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

20 thoughts on “Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

  1. I always felt quite connected to her, it’s a book that really moved me both times I read it and I think it’s actually quite underrated.

  2. From other books I have read of the period and about the behind the scenes shenanigans of the middle and upper classes it must have been both a shock but also I would imagine quite titillating. I expect brown paper covered books were passed around in certain circles. Thank you for a very interesting post and have included in my Blogger Daily this evening.. thanks for following my blog.. Sally

  3. I forgot to say that last week I purchased a used copy of The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison who you referenced as the reviewer of Madam Bovary in the New York Times (2010)

    1. Oh that’s cool! I thought her review was excellent – you can tell she’s a good writer. Thanks for reading my blog and happy reading!

  4. I’m so pleased to read such a positive review. I’ve always fancied reading this and I’m hoping to start having more of a split of my own/review books so hopefully I might fit this in soon.
    Lynn 😀

    1. Thanks Lynn! I appreciated the story much more than I did when I was younger. I especially liked seeing how the subplots simmered until they took over Emma. Happy reading!

  5. I had to read this for my English Lit course, in my realism module, and I found the language so interesting that I chose it for my final essay. Emma is continuously objectified and described with grotesque imagery, and I couldn’t resist writing about that. The book has some really slow parts, and it’s not my favourite, but I appreciate it for what it does!

    1. Hi and thanks for stopping by. I didn’t want to over-analyze Madame Bovary in my review because so much has been written about this classic. I first read it in college and was very surprised to have a different opinion of Emma the second time around. I think it’s because I’m a lot older now and see things differently. Happy reading to you!

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