The story is simple. Charles Bovary is a plodding, dull country doctor, practicing medicine in the environs of Rouen in Normandy (coincidentally, the city where Jeanne d'Arc was held captive and burned at the stake in 1431). He marries a farmer's daughter, the beautiful and very young Emma, who has been brought up in a convent and has received all her knowledge of the world from romantic tales.
But Charles is no prince on a white horse but a simple and practical man and after the birth of a little daughter, out of necessity Emma settles down to a life of boredom. Flaubert makes us acutely feel the meaninglessness and emptiness of her existence. Madame Bovary is in fact the greatest study in alienation and boredom in world literature. It is often thought of as an immoral novel about adultery like Lady Chatterley's Lover, but nothing could be farther from the truth. There was a process after the magazine publication, but Flaubert won and the novel has never been forbidden in its country of origin.
The bourgeois types that surround Emma Bovary in the village are not encouraging. They are all selfish and self-serving. Flaubert demonstrates how hypocritical moral standards are, concocted to support the status quo. The merchant and moneylender Lheureux purposefully lends Emma so much money and allows her to buy so many luxury goods on credit, that in the end he can claim Dr. Bovary's assets. Homais, the pompous apothecary, thinks he is a great scientist and pushes Dr. Bovary to operate on the clubfoot of the servant of a local inn, with disastrous results. And the notary tries to take sexual advantage of Emma's problems.
But Emma keeps dreaming and seeking a life of ecstasy, ignoring her adoring husband who leaves her unsatisfied. She becomes attached to a young clerk, Leon, who shares her romantic ideals, but Leon leaves the village before their relationship can develop. Then she meets Rodolphe, a wealthy bachelor who owns a nearby estate. He is a cynical womanizer, and Emma falls in his traps - they go horseback riding and make love in the forest. After that, they have frequent trysts, often in the garden of the Bovary house while the dear husband is already asleep. Emma even dreams of running away with Rodolphe - but by now, he has enough of her and sends her a cold note that the affair is over.
Emma almost dies from the shock, but she recovers and then boredom sets in again. She has bought expensive presents for Rodolphe and now is heavily in debt, a matter which she keeps hidden from her husband. Shopping, after all, is a way to find relief from boredom, consumption is an outlet for anxiety. Emma has fallen in the clutches of the merchant Lheureux, who cynically destroys the finances of the Bovary family.
By chance, she meets Leon again, in Rouen. She is now ready for him and the first consummation of their love takes place in a hired, closed carriage - they ask the coachman to they keep driving aimlessly through the city for hours one end. This is the erotic climax of the novel, but it is presented as a hiatus, for we are not allowed to see inside the carriage. After that, the pair has frequent trysts in a hotel in Rouen - Emma tells her husband the lie that she has to go into town once a week for a music lesson.
But in the end also Leon tires of his mistress - he has to think of his career - and just when their relation is breaking down, Emma is served with a bill for 8,000 francs from Lheureux, to be paid immediately. She panics, nobody will help her, she pleads in vain with both Rodolphe and Leon, and finally, at her wit's end, she eats a fistful of arsenic, stolen from Homais.
She dies a terrible death, described with clinical precision by Flaubert, whose father had been a medical doctor in Rouen. It is only after her death that Charles finds her love letters and learns about her adultery. He looses all interest in life and dies of a broken heart. The affairs of Homais, in the meantime, are flourishing, he even manages to keep out a new doctor and claim the whole medical business in the area for himself.
Emma Bovary is of course a rather vain and silly woman, she is caught in the web of her own actions without the possibility of being saved. Still, we do care for her, because she is the only character in the novel who dreams of higher things and tries to flee from the sordidness around her. Emma is not an immoral woman - what her case demonstrates is that the culture around her itself has no values.
Texts: original French (Gutenberg); English (Gutenberg - the first English translation made by Eleanor Marx Aveling in 1898).
Madame Bovary has been filmed many times over. I am particularly fond of the 1991 version by Claude Chabrol, with Isabelle Huppert as Emma Bovary. Chabrol faithfully follows the novel, accelerating and braking where necessary. Huppert gives an excellent performance, with suitable detachment. That stance has been criticized in some reviews as "cold," but this is not a romantic tale a la Hollywood and I felt the film truthfully reflected the realistic (and therefore also detached) stance of the novel itself. The period atmosphere is also excellent.